When I was visiting Estonia earlier this spring, I picked up a copy of one of the most famous Estonian writers, Jaan Kross. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times and received numerous awards. He passed away in 2007.
“The Czar’s Madman” is work of historical fiction and it is set in 1800’s Estonia. It is the story of a Livonian noble, Timo Von Bock, who suffers from a slight mental illness. The Livonians are Germans who ruled over the peasant Estonians. At this time, Estonia was ruled by Russia and the Czar is friends with the aristocratic Von Bock. Von Bock writes a letter criticizing the Czar and ends up in prison for nine years. He married an Estonian peasant girl and the book is set in a journal format of the girl’s brother. The book follows the family into the next generation and was an exciting read.
The book helped me understand the plight of the Estonians and small ethnic groups in as a whole. The Estonians have been subjugated by larger groups for most of their existence and were treated as second class citizens. I am amazed that the language and identity survived. I wonder what effect that has on today’s Estonians. Is that why they are so quiet? The book was published in 1978 and it is a metaphor also, of the domination of Soviets. Kross really did his research and the book mirrors actual events with Kross, fleshing out the details and plot twists for us. Not only is it a good story, but it has insights on human nature and the brittle nature of life changes.