Great is the word - sort of

  • 2004-05-27
  • By Steve Roman
TALLINN - Anna Raudkats was a teacher who revived Estonian folk dance. Julius Aamisepp revolutionized Estonian farming with his new variety of potato. In the 1960s, television journalist Valdo Pant's broadcasts helped the nation come to terms with World War II.

They're not household names, at least not in 2004, and especially not among the foreign community. All the same, their impact on 20th-century Estonian history and culture has earned them a place, along with more recognizable figures, in the very dapper, large-format compilation "A Hundred Great Estonians of the 20th Century" by Tiit Kandler (Estonian Encyclopaedia Publishers, 2002).
The title may seem a little ostentatious - after all, who decides who's in and who's out, who's "great" and who isn't? But this work was the result of a fairly democratic process.
In 1999, Estonian Encyclopaedia Publishers, the Eesti Paevaleht newspaper, the National Library, TV3 and Kuku Radio undertook a year-long public election process to determine the final list. It wasn't a free-for-all - some direction by experts was used to draw up an initial list of candidates (to which the public added hundreds more options). Before the vote, this list was divided among various fields to give representation to writers and linguists, scientists, artists and musicians who wouldn't be as well-known as the politicians and sports heroes of their day.
The result is this highly presentable tome, printed in black, white and a pinkish sepia, and peppered with historic photos. A two-page spread is dedicated to each personage, with basic biographical data across the top, an inspirational introduction to the man or woman (and they're not all ethnic Estonians), and a brief article on their life and contributions.
Kandler's text (it's hard to believe it's a translation) makes the book a pleasure to read, but this isn't the kind of work that you can go through from cover to cover. Perusing a few names at a time, opening to a random page, or simply using the work for reference are more reasonable ways to make the most of the hardback.
An additional aspect of the book that can't be overstated is the feel it gives for its historical context. As fascinating as it is to read about Jaan Einasto, the physicist who discovered dark matter, or to find out that current Estonian President Arnold Ruutel was a livestock expert, the overall picture that readers get from the individual biographies is of a very turbulent century where it took an extraordinary amount of courage and determination to succeed, to say nothing of being "great."