Fact and Fiction

February 28, 2021

I am a researcher and therefore well familiar with the joys and tribulations of archival research. When at the end of the day I feel I have gained a tiny piece of something new, I feel elated, however small the gain. By contrast, if I have not gained anything after perusing a stack of files for days, I am irritable, unhappy, deep in the doldrums. Perhaps you have experienced something like that yourself?

My interest has been in pre-WWII Estonian diplomacy. I have read a great many official reports the diplomats sent to Tallinn, also private letters they sent to each other. It all started with August Torma, the Estonian ambassador to Britain from 1934-1971, whom I studied for my PhD. He was a very reserved man and I was hoping to discover a few personal details from his correspondence and at least establish his circle of friends from casting the net wider. This is how I discovered Johan Leppik, a friend of Torma’s, who was at one time the Estonian ambassador to Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Italy and Hungary. Torma and Leppik were roughly the same age and both, to my delight, had highly legible handwriting. However, few of their letters to each other have survived.

Most diplomats’ personal letters have proved less interesting than I had expected. The men were far from home, lonely, self-centred, wanted to let off steam about working hard while being short-staffed, felt neglected by Tallinn. This is why Johan Leppik’s letters stood out. Even his official reports to the Foreign Ministry in Tallinn contained an occasional personal comment, a hint at humanity. Torma’s official reports by contrast were lifeless, bone dry. In private letters Leppik was even more revealing: he readily admitted that he was an emotional man – something of a surprise.

In 1959 he wrote to Torma: „Your letter moved me deeply. For me, you are of the same block as [Lithuanian ambassador to Italy Stasys] Lozoraitis, both in work and make-up. Your feelings are under lock and key, as if you had no human weaknesses, made no mistakes and never erred. One can just about guess with you, the best one can do. That’s how it is. What has happened to you that you could write about Alice this way?“ Torma’s original letter to Leppik has unfortunately gone missing, so it is not known how exactly he had described his wife’s illness but in his reply Leppik was very direct: he knew Alice, was concerned about her health and told Torma off for his lack of compassion.

Leppik was in correspondence with another colleague: Kaarel Pusta, and 94 of his letter to Pusta have survived. There are unexplained gaps in the letters; a few of Pusta’s replies are available. In a way this is even pleasing: Pusta’s handwriting is ever so hard to read although it seems very regular. The two men corresponded over several decades. Leppik regarded Pusta as a leading light, was grateful to him for having brought him to diplomacy and taught him the ropes.

By that time I had already published a biography of August Torma and felt that Leppik would deserve similar treatment. However, there was not enough archival material for a full-length biography, not enough was known about his life. So what was I to do? In 2018 I had already published a novel about Konstantin Päts who was at the helm of the first Republic of Estonia for more than a decade, so I decided to write another novel, about Leppik. Its title is „Otseütleja“ (Straight talker). I aimed to stick to the facts and archival sources as much as possible, but the novel format allowed me to fill in the gaps where information was scarce.

I am not the only Estonian who thinks that Leppik was an interesting and remarkable man. Quite a few people have remembered him in their memoirs, unlike August Torma who hardly features in expatriate writing. In half a dozen memoirs Leppik has secured a full chapter that describes his hobbies and personal idiosyncrasies, but one can also read admiration into these pages. The pianist Käbi Laretei, who is, unfortunately, better known for having married the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman than for piano playing, had a teenage crush on Leppik, who incidentally also played the piano. Leppik and Laretei corresponded for decades and she has said in one of her books that she kept all his letters, hundreds of them, sorted by date. However, she died in 2014 and the letters have since gone missing. This is why one can marvel at the treasures of the Estonian national archives: despite political upheavals, so many diplomats’ personal letters have survived.

My novel „Otseütleja“ is a kind of biography of Leppik, one individual, while actually summing up what happened to all Estonian diplomats after 1940 when the Soviets occupied the country. They were told to return to Estonia but chose to stay put, labelled traitors by the Soviet authorities. They lost their income, diplomatic status and place in life, were forced to adjust to the new circumstances. All kept longing for their homeland, knowing they would never see it again.

There must be other remarkable men, perhaps also women, of that long-gone era that you know of. If there is not enough archival material for a full-length biography, why not consider writing a novel? It is not too late to resurrect their names, recapture their era. History matters.

Tina Tamman