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Ulrike Plath (Under and Tuglas Literature Centre / Tallinn University), Linda Kaljundi (Tallinn University): Serfdom as Entanglement: Narratives of a Social Phenomenon in Literature and History Writing

The early stages of Estonian national history written at the turn of the twentieth century were demarcated by representations of serfdom-related violence, with both historiographical and fictive and folklore texts abounding with stories and metaphors about the bloody repression of the Estonian peasantry, and of the no less bloody revenge and revolts the peasants staged against their Baltic German lords.

Although this victimising discourse capitalizes on the historical guilt of the Baltic German elites by following the Enlightenment critique of conquest, slavery and nobility, the representations by Estonian nationalists of colonial humiliation and violence nevertheless link very closely with the more conservative strands of Baltic German history writing.

In our paper, we argue that the representation of serfdom and violence offers a fine and significant example of how the Baltic German and the Estonian histories are tightly entangled with one another, not only through the social realities of the past, but also by the close entanglement of the two, seemingly very antagonistic, historiographical traditions.

Concentrating on Baltic German and Estonian history writing, both professional and non-professional, and also on fiction, we analyse the conceptualisation of serfdom and violence in the Baltics, and the relations between the two national versions of the region’s history. In this way we try to answer the following questions:

What are the variances and similarities between the Baltic German and Estonian discourse of serfdom and violence (their story-worlds, terminologies, understanding of agency, justice, etc.)? How were these stories and metaphors of serfdom and violence used to construct modern narratives and identities in these two traditions? Which factors made the question of violence and serfdom so prominent in these texts: to what extent was it based on the socio-cultural context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; how much was it shaped by the earlier representations of violence to be found in the Baltic cultural memory; how did these two traditions mediate the global discourse on slavery; in what ways did the discourses of slavery and violence reflect the relations between the Baltic German nationalism, the young Estonian national movement, and the growing Russian nationalism and imperialism? And, lastly, how many examples can we find from the history writing of the period or other media of cultural memory of efforts to construct the Baltic history without bloodshed, violence or cruelty?

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