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Photography exposition remembers 1905

Feb 15, 2006
By Paul Morton

TALLINN - Very little is known about N. Konigsfest, a photographer, who in the years before World War I, traveled Harju County and Laanemaa to document the burnt-out vestiges of manors destroyed in the 1905 revolution. No one knows Konigsfest's motives. Considering his background, he may have had some sympathy for the wealthy Baltic-German nobility whose homes were destroyed.

1905 was a complicated year, and it means different things to different people. For some, it is the prelude to the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing horrors of communism.

But many Estonians remember it as the birth of their independence movement, of a dream that took 13 years to realize, only to be lost agin in WWII. As the peasants took over the streets of St. Petersburg, and as certain bourgeois tried to figure out which side they were on, some Estonians used the opportunity to burn the manors of the Baltic-German nobility in its own backyard.

For the revolution's centennial, the Maarjamae Palace in Tallinn, part of the Estonian History Museum, has taken Konigsfest's works, much of which had been languishing in the museum's predecessor, the Provincial Museum, for an exhibit, "Manors are Burning!: The 1905 Revolution in Estonia."

The exhibit juxtaposes Konigsfest's black-and-white depictions of the revolution's after-effects alongside color photographs taken last year that show what has become of the manors in the years since. Some have been restored. Some have been left to decay. Some have disappeared.

1905 "had very deep social and political, cultural prophecies. Of course somebody lost," says Aivar Poldvee, one of the exhibit's curators. "We don't glorify this burning of manors. We want to describe a destruction."

Poldvee, though he celebrates the idea of Estonian nationhood and independence embodied in remembering 1905, believes the photographs present a "neutral" eye.

Konigsfest's photographs can be desolate and plain. The outer shells of manors, often a dark, splotched gray in the old pictures, are contrasted with the white snowy landscape and overcast skies.

Descendents of some of the families whose homes were destroyed have visited the exhibit from Germany. (Many of these families left Estonia for good at the beginning of World War II). "Of course, it is very sad for them to see all these pictures," says Poldvee.

In some ways it is also sad for Estonians. The German 's and to a lesser extent, Italian and Russian - architecture that flourished in the Baltics some 100 years ago is in some ways part of Estonian culture. These ruined manors, in some ironic ways, represent a loss of Estonian heritage.

The exhibit has been accompanied by an ongoing music program of old protest songs. Some rock and punk bands have been drafted to perform their own version of the "Marseillaise," which the 1905 Estonian protesters sung remembering their roots in 1789 France. The music represents the Estonians' own enigmatic relationship to the period.

"The program shows that these ideas can say something for young people nowadays," says Poldvee. "We also want to give some examples so that young people think about this revolution 100 years ago. For young people it is very old, it's forgotten history."

The exhibit in short has artistic, political and cultural resonance. It's history. "We don't justify [what happened]," says Poldvee. "We want to think about it. It didn't happen without a reason."

Manors are Burning!

The 1905 Revolution in Estonia

Maarjimae Palace

Runs until March 19

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