In organizing and describing materials in archives such as ours, with collections from all over the globe, the exotic can sometimes seem routine. One gets used to working with documents in any number of languages and photographs that depict unusual scenes in distant places. Sometimes, however, one experiences what might be called the shock of the familiar: something one recognizes but in a radically different context.
I had such a sensation recently while working on the Wayne Holder papers, which largely deal with Estonia, especially during the period when Estonians were struggling for renewed independence (from the late 1980s until it was achieved in 1991). Knowing the history of the Baltic states, I found the photographs of the Estonian independence movement in the Holder collection extremely interesting but not startling. I already had a frame of reference with which to interpret them; they resembled other photographs depicting similar events occurring in Latvia and Lithuania at the same time, as all three Baltic countries sought to escape the Soviet Union and to become sovereign nations again.
What did astonish me were the photographs below of young people in Tallinn, Estonia, in the late 1980s. Members of a subculture defining itself through punk music, they looked as though they had stepped off the streets of London or San Francisco in the late 1970s. But the unusual clothes and hairstyles were a good deal more than a fashion statement; even in the late Soviet period, those who dressed this way in Estonia were taking rather more risks than their Western counterparts. In the 1960s, hippies in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe had been subject to persecution by the state, and one can imagine that punks would have also encountered hostility from the authorities.
The role of Western countercultural trends in undermining the orthodoxy of Soviet society was significant. I have talked to people in Latvia who spoke rapturously of the first time they heard the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan and how such music had played a role in the emergence of a youth culture in Eastern Europe seeking to be free of the party line imposed by the communist state. I wondered if the punk movement, admittedly a much smaller phenomenon than the ’60s counterculture, had played a part in the changing attitudes in Estonia in the 1980s.
In the album where I discovered these photographs, the young woman with the cap is identified as Merle (“Merca”) Jääger, about whom there were other materials in the Holder papers. In the 1980s, as a poet associated with the punk scene in Estonia, she had been invited to perform her poetry before Estonian émigré audiences in Toronto and New York. Wayne Holder had published some of her poems in English in a short-lived literary journal (Cake) in San Francisco in 1988. Additional material established a connection between the Estonian punk movement and protests against the Soviet system, themes present in Jääger’s poetry.
Jääger was one of a number of Estonian literary figures that Holder met and corresponded with in Estonia. Many were far more conventional than she was, but all were in some way involved in the cultural and political awakening in Estonia in the 1980s. My experience with the photographs has given me a greater appreciation for Holder himself and for the extent of his contacts in a place he visited as an outsider during a time of great change.