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Looking at life through the Pobeda window

  • 2009-07-29
  • Interview by Ella Karapetyan

Virkko Lepassalu has been working as a journalist for more than 15 years with both Estonian and Russian newspapers.  Additionally, he is author of 3 books. Lepassalu spoke at the presentation evening for his third book, "Kallas's Affaire," on  July 27 in Hotel Barons in Tallinn. The author sat down with The Baltic Times to discuss the book and to share his ideas and working experience with the readers.

Where do you get most of your ideas from?
Sometimes in very strange ways. For example, one story was about the murder of a man, the well-known parson Harald Meri and his housekeeper. Journalists wrote many articles about this strange crime. I first wrote about this crime when I was a young student, in 1993; it was about the misfortune of investigation in this case, despite the work of the best investigators of our land. The article was published in one weekly newspaper. But the important thing is, since this time I started to occasionally meet people, who where directly or indirectly linked with the murder. Not because of my article, just occasional meetings.

For example, someone who had connections with this murdered man and wife started to talk about it when I did interviews about other topics. I got letters from prison, when one convicted prisoner alleged he was a former KGB agent who had the task ordered from officers of the KGB to murder this couple. This was almost a fantasy, with some little elements of truth.

But this case started to haunt me more and more, for more than 10 years. At last there appeared one old woman who gave me testimony in written form, which helped me to understand what had happened in 1990, in parson Harald Meri's house. So I thought, I must write a book about all this, and perhaps it helped to free me from the story. It was published in 2007. From this time the ghosts disappeared from my life.

What kind of useful tips or advice would you give to young writers?
It's hard to give any kind of universal advice. I'm writing documentaries, with some elements of literature. I sometimes use a literary style when describing events or heroes, not only the so-called journalist language and constructions. Everyone should find his own way. Don't think about earning money when you are writing. If you need money, don't write, find another job.

What is the most important thing about writing a book?
To understand, or try to understand, how different people live. Juhan Smuul said or wrote once quite a good idea: our writers are watching life only through their Pobeda's window. Pobeda was in Stalin times a very noble car, which was used by high-ranking people. Smuul of course is not amongst my favorite writers, he wrote a lot of Soviet propaganda. I look at how our writers or poets live, like the common middle-class, worried about their houses and car leasing payments, and thinking about paying bills. I understand everyone wants to live, but sometimes it's sad. Most of them move only in their own circle: family, friends, offices.

They are trying to make their creation like handicraft, because this helps to obtain a stipendium, support from Kultuurkapital (state foundation supporting culture). Such methods help politicians to control poets and writers, and actors. My friend, poet and writer Jaan Isotamm, describes in one short poem a no-name genial poet, very drunk coming home late in the evening from the whorehouse; in his pocket is a napkin with a short poem, that he wrote, when he was a little bit more sober. I don't want to advise the writers to drink or visit whorehouses, but... there is something to think about.

So, I think one of Estonia's best writers is not a writer, but a soldier, Colonel Leo Kunnas; for example, his memoires about serving in Iraq are quite impressive. I think it would be useful if our writers or poets would work for a time as, for example, taxi drivers, guesthouse servants, etc., or to go on long hikes. Not by car, but just walking, like Toomas Nipernaadi, from one Estonian classical novel.

How many books have you written so far? And how do you choose the topic to write about?
I have just finished the third one, it's called "Kallas's Affaire," about the well known bank affair, a pyramid scheme, it was all a fraud. This case involved 10 million dollars, and the key figure is the well known Siim Kallas, now vice president at the European Commission.
My first book, Suumepiinadeta (Without remorse, 2005), is about the work of the Soviet secret services in Estonia's first independence (1920-1940) and later, in the Soviet times, in which the book was built up from documents and interviews. It is described through the personality of the father of the first Estonian president Georg-Peeter Meri (1900-1983) at the time of Soviet occupation in Estonia.

In the first period of Estonia's independence (1919-1940), Georg Meri was one of the Republic's prominent diplomats. From 1934-1938 he worked in the Estonian embassy in Berlin. Later, after the beginning of the occupation, Georg Meri was used as an agent of Soviet intelligence. The book describes the very difficult choices in Soviet times for both men, Georg Meri and his son Lennart, later Estonian president, and how the Soviet occupation and secret services influenced their personalities, private lives and careers.

I think my mission is to offer people alternative views on some pages of history, the history of the recent times. Every state has its own official history, what teachers and lecturers tell and teach at schools and universities. Nowadays so-called "official history" is a part of national identity and state policy; for example, as is very clear in Russia, history becomes more and more used as a weapon in info-wars, as part of foreign policy. Different views on history may sometimes cause serious troubles.
I mention Russia only because our recent history has many links with Russia, and it still influences us very much.

Of course, I also keep subjective views in my books. I think every researcher keeps more or less their own personal views in his or her works. But I think that if people have different versions about history, it helps them a little more to orientate themselves in today's world. Comparing different points of view helps people to understand current politics or society. It helps better to understand why something happens, why politicians make particular decisions that are hard to understand, the hidden factors behind their steps.

I think that to make the right decisions for our world, you should learn different viewpoints from different sources, and this concerns also history. Sometimes my work also remembers the work of a medical doctor, because the roots of our social illnesses, for example low ethical values, are also sometimes hidden in mental traumas from the Soviet era.
How I choose my topics is difficult to answer, because it is sometimes through playing a role. I'm also writing when I feel it's necessary to remind people of some things. I like the words of former KGB officer Oleg Gordijevsky, who escaped to the West, when he said that to name things with their own names is necessary for the hygiene of every society.

In what languages would the book be translated in?
I think my books are interesting for people from different nationalities, not only for Estonians. But I have not published them yet in Russian or in English. My latest book, "Kallas's Affaire," is soon to be published in English.

Why have you decided to take this topic for writing? What inspired you?
I was inspired very much from the support of my closest people, and also the publisher, who was thinking my work makes sense. I was thinking for many years on the 10 million dollar story, since 2002, when I found a journalist with the bulky files of the criminal case.
I know most people like criminal novels, but it's probably more knowledgeable to read novels about our lives, about our politicians. "Kallas's Affaire" is not a novel, but a true story, based on documents and interviews. I must say I tried to serve it in an easy reading format, because sometimes people are thinking that bank affairs are difficult and boring and they don't want to hear about them. It's not true, behind curtains there are passions, great hopes and, sometimes, troubles, suicides and disappointments.

Bankers are sometimes very passionate people. But if they are losing control of themselves and making money, it starts to look like a casino; it can be dangerous for taxpayers or customers at the bank. And then the bank office's velvet curtains will transform themselves into the iron curtains of the jail.

The irony of history is, from the windows in the former central prison, Patarei, you can see a most luxurious view to the sea, Finland's gulf. Patarei is a former sea castle. I remember it, because during our economic boom a lot of businessmen made suspicious deals to buy property "with million dollar views". But destiny is sometimes devious and many of them got this view later, but without the freedom, in Patarei. And many young men who wanted to be great businessmen were killed and buried in the old sand of Manniku, near Tallinn. Everything you do to others will come back to you.

What is the main idea you want to tell your readers?
Probably it's that everyone has his time. Some heroes of my books made their careers through membership in the nomenclature in Soviet times. And in all times, in every political regime people had the possibility to keep their humanity. It's very popular now to say that the times were difficult, so I had to betray, or make any kind of affairs, etc.
Theft in Soviet times was not theft, because there was occupation. Or, betrayal was not betrayal, because there was occupation. But I think that's not true.

How long did it take you to finish the book?
It's quite hard work with different kind of sources, so it takes sometimes several years, because I write the books if I will find time from my work as journalist. It's like building a card house, if there is need to reconstruct some events, you will build up several theories and lose a lot of time, and everything will sometimes be in ruins again. And then you should start again, losing lots of time and energy.

I think the collecting of material is harder work than writing. In books you will find only a small part of the material that is researched, the larger parts are always the worthless material, the rubbish, but during the work you can not always separate or understand what is right and what is wrong. For example, my second book, Valusalt Valge (Painful Light or Painful White, 2007, both versions are correct in translation), tells about the murder of a very well known Estonian and his domestic housekeeper, in 1990, and the burning down of their house in the small town of Turi, about 80 km from Tallinn. But the KGB, who worked at this time in Estonia in the last year before liquidation, and police investigators could not find the murderers.

Linked with this crime were many different and fantastic rumors and theories, because at this time were several attacks against priests in different places of the former Soviet union. So, if I wanted to write a book, I had to check all this mass amount of information, almost all of which was rubbish, but I think I at least reconstructed the situation. Some older people, former forest brothers and KGB agents, were afraid that this person would betray them. But of course my book is not juridical evidence, and several participants were too old to give testimony.

How do you think people will react, after reading the book?
Reactions are different. My heroes are well known people, not only in Estonia, but also abroad. So, for someone saying it's rubbish, for them that's true. But if my text is causing emotions or reactions, it means readers will remember it. They are thinking about it, and it's positive. If there are no reactions, it means I worked without result. But if I work with one topic, many months, sometimes years, I have a moral right to make my own conclusions.

Are you planning to write any other books? And which topics will you choose?
Now I'm working on a book about the former high ranking official of the Estonian Defense Ministry, Herman Simm, who was accused in spying for Russia.