Helsingin yliopisto


Helsingin yliopiston verkkojulkaisut

University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006

Cultural Trauma and Life Stories

Aili Aarelaid-Tart

Doctoral dissertation, December 2006.
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Social Policy and Tallinn University, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Estonia.

The purpose of this work is to use the concepts of human time and cultural trauma in a biographical study of the turning points in the recent history of Estonia. This research is primarily based on 148 in-depth biographical interviews conducted in Estonia and Sweden in 1995-2005, supplemented by excerpts from 5 collections and 10 individually published autobiographies. The main body of the thesis consists of six published and of two forthcoming separate refereed articles, summarised in the theoretical introduction, and Appendix of the full texts of three particular life stories.

The topic of the first article is the generational composition and the collective action frames of anti-Soviet social mobilisation in Estonia in 1940-1990. The second article details the differentiation of the rites of passage and the calendar traditions as a strategy to adapt to the rapidly changed political realities, comparatively in Soviet Estonia and among the boat-refugees in Sweden. The third article investigates the life stories of the double-minded strategic generation of the Estonian-inclined Communists, who attempted to work within the Soviet system while professing to uphold the ideals of pre-war Estonia. The fourth article is concentrated on the problems of double mental standards as a coping strategy in a contradictory social reality. The fifth article implements the theory of cultural trauma for the social practice of singing nationalism in Estonia. The sixth article bridges the ideas of Russian theoreticians concerning cultural dialogue and the Western paradigm of cultural trauma, with examples from Estonian Russian life stories. The seventh article takes a biographical look at the logic of the unraveling of cultural trauma through four Soviet decades. The eighth article explores the re-shaping of citizen activities as a strategy of coping with the loss of the independent nation state, comparatively in Soviet Estonia and among Swedish Estonians.

Cultural trauma is interpreted as the re-ordering of the society's value-normative constellation due to sharp, violent, usually political events. The first one under consideration was caused by the occupations of the Republic of Estonia by the Soviet army in 1940-45. After half a century of suppression the memories of these events resurfaced as different stories describing the long-term, often inter-generational strategies of coping with the value collapse. The second cultural trauma is revealed together with the collapse of the Soviet power and ideology in Estonia in 1991. According to empirical data, the following three trauma discourses have been reconstructed:

- the forced adaptation to Soviet order of the homeland Estonians;

- the difficulty of preserving Estonian identity in exile (Sweden);

- the identity crisis of the Russian population of Estonia.

Comparative analyses of these discourses have shown that opposing experiences and worldviews cause conflicting interpretations of the past. Different social and ethnic groups consider coping with cultural trauma as a matter of self-defence and create appropriate usable pasts to identify with.

Keywords: human time, cultural trauma, frame analysis, discourse, life stories

The title page of the publication

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Last updated 16.11.2006

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