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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Far Away but Never Powerless: Oral Histories of Estonian American Activists

Updated: Apr 8

Leah Johnson


“We all grew up with the history of Estonia, the injustice of that history… what the Soviets did. And as I was growing up, there was a constant need to explain to people, what’s Estonia? Where is Estonia? It’s not on a map! And so, growing up, explaining that was ingrained.” – Maria Pedak Kari, former Board Member at the Estonian American National Council August 2023.

 

Many Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians fled the advance of the Red Army towards the end of WWII and settled in displaced persons (DP) camps organized by the Allied powers. Instead of returning to their Soviet-occupied homelands after the conclusion of the war, many opted to settle in the US, UK, Canada, and Sweden. As Peter Gatrell argues, the experience of the DP camps resulted in identity consolidation, where national publications, societies, and song and dance troupes emerged to preserve cultural heritage and language in exile.[i] The social memory of the DP camps were a resource for later generations,[ii] who sought to institutionalize cultural preservation in exile through organizations such as the Estonian American National Council (EANC). Founded in 1952, it claimed to be a nationally representative body dedicated to preserving Estonian language and culture in exile, educating Americans about Estonia, and advocating for Estonian freedom to the US government.[iii] The organization engaged in cultural activities, which included language, history, and heritage preservation as well as political activities. The political activism of the EANC and its partner organization the Joint Baltic American National Council (JBANC) during the Cold War included testifying before Congress, organizing demonstrations, meeting with representatives on Capitol Hill, and conducting letter writing campaigns.[iv]


Figure 1. Chicago Estonian House Cultural Center Sign. Author's photograph, 2023.

The EANC and the JBANC dedicated 39 years from 1952–1991 to working towards the eventual goal of Baltic independence by advocating for the maintenance of the US non-recognition policy (by which the US did not recognize the illegal annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by the USSR) and for greater Congressional support for Baltic issues. This makes the 1990s a fascinating time of change for the EANC, which saw the completion of their political objectives and new opportunities for cultural exchanges with independent Estonia itself. This pivotal period in Estonian-American history is understudied, particularly from the perspective of what independence meant for the activists who composed the EANC.

 

My Master’s thesis takes this issue as its point of departure, and in the summer of 2023, I conducted seven interviews with current and former EANC members. These interviews complemented the archival information found in the annual reports, meeting minutes, and publications produced by the EANC. I asked my interviewees about how they experienced Estonian heritage growing up, why they became politically active, how they understood the significance of their work, and finally, what Estonian independence meant for them. These insights are sorely lacking from the archival material produced by the EANC and help to explain what inspired the people who made up the institution.


Figure 2. ESTO ’76 Poster from the collection of M. Pedak Kari. Author's photograph, 2023.

For the purpose of this blog post, I will focus on the stories of two interviewees. Gilda Karu is the longest serving board member and a lifelong civil servant for the US government and Maria Pedak Kari is one of the first women on the board of the EANC and a professional librarian. What emerged from my conversations with them was that their American upbringing was essential for making them effective activists. They understood the US political system and media landscape while also being able to translate between Estonian and American cultures, which helped them to explain the importance of the Estonian independence movement to Americans.

 

Tölöyan argues that diasporas create their own public spheres, and evidence for this can be found in the Estonian-American experience during the Cold War.[v] The EANC supported newspapers, media, societies, language schools, and local chapters of Estonian Houses across the United States. These aspects of the diaspora public sphere were brought together at the ESTO festivals, during which people with Estonian heritage from around the world gathered to celebrate and share Estonian culture with their host society. An illustrative example is the 1976 ESTO Festival held in Baltimore, for which US President Gerald Ford served as honorary patron and issued a statement reassuring Baltic Americans that he would uphold the US non-recognition policy.[vi] Both Gilda and Maria grew up with no personal memories of Estonia, but participating in the events organized by the EANC and local Estonian House chapters was a pivotal part of their childhood.

 

Attending university was a transformative time for Gilda and Maria, and both identified it as the period of their lives when they felt called to be more active on behalf of Estonia. Gilda explained that she learned much from the Vietnam War protests occurring on her college campus in the early 1970s and remarked that, “I picked up on tactics that were being used in protests of the war and was able to adapt them to use in demonstrations for freedom for Estonia.” She reminisced on how she would always try to make eye-catching signs and work camera angles out to make sure that the Estonian flag could get on the news. For Gilda, the Estonian flag on American TV, even for a few seconds, represented the hope that one day the country would be free from Soviet domination.

 

Around the same time, Maria received a scholarship to study abroad in Finland in 1969 and decided to visit Estonia. When talking to me about this experience, she said it was a crucial turning point in her life where she realized that “there was no way we were going to have peaceful coexistence [between the USSR and the US] – that was over. That was a myth that the Soviet media had created.” After meeting her relatives for the first time and seeing the conditions of the Soviet system Maria told me that she left the country without a single doubt in her mind that Estonia would achieve its independence in her lifetime. The trip convinced her that the system could not last, not when she saw her relatives’ everyday resistance to Sovietization and Russification. Not only did this trip instill in Maria a feeling of responsibility to advocate on behalf of her family, but it also gave her a greater authority to speak about Estonia back in the US.

 

Gilda and Maria joined the EANC as young adults, and while they could not recall the exact year, they remembered that they were among the first women to join the organization’s board. Maria explained, “I was on the board, Gilda was on the board, Mari was on the board. Three token females, all of the younger generation… with the [old] crowd… who really don’t believe women can do much of anything.” She told me about her frustration at having her ideas voted down or being sent to committee to be effectively ignored. Political work was considered a “meeste asi” or “men’s thing.” However, the three women drew upon their strengths as Americans, such as knowledge of the political system, institutional networks, and immersion within activist cultures to improve the EANC’s communication of the Estonian cause to the American public. The project Maria is most proud of is a black pamphlet designed by her, Gilda, and Mari, that contained essential information about Estonia designed to be distributed to political leaders on Capitol Hill or any other Americans interested in learning more. Maria explained that the pamphlet the EANC was using did not speak to Americans, so they designed a replacement leveraging their experience as Estonian-Americans to help bridge that informational and cultural gap.


Figure 3. Pamphlet about Estonia designed by M. Pedak Kari and G. Karu. Author's photograph, 2023.

Maria and Gilda’s days of political activism are hardly behind them. Gilda still serves on the board of the EANC as its longest serving member and saw the organization through Estonia’s restoration of independence in 1991. When asked about the turbulent time, Gilda reminisced about the energy and the opportunities that came with Estonian freedom, but also about the importance of maintaining American support. She hosted Baltic politicians in her home as they traveled around the US and connected them to her network of people and resources that could help with Estonia’s transition. Gilda’s anecdotal experiences reflect a broader literature emphasizing the importance of the internationalization of the Baltic question, in which Baltic leaders traveled to the West and made their case for independence before the world.[vii]

 

Similarly, Maria told me that while she may not serve on the board of the EANC, she still dutifully writes and calls her senators and congressional representatives about Baltic or Estonian issues. Maria agreed that Estonian independence brought about new opportunities for expertise and cultural exchanges between Estonian-Americans and Estonians that would bring the two groups closer together. She received a fellowship in 1992 from the United States Information Agency to spend four months in Estonia assisting with training librarians in best practices, improving operations to match US librarianship, and translating American library legal codes into Estonian. In a speech to the American Library Association, she identified “modeling American group process techniques and work attitude and in breaking down the terrible sense of helplessness and isolation that surrounds Estonian librarians after 50 years of Soviet tyranny” as the most important part of her work there.[viii] The restoration of Estonian independence did not mean Maria’s work was over, but that the ways of staying connected with Estonia had expanded.

 

For Gilda and Maria, advocacy was a source of personal pride, a responsibility, and a tangible way to keep their connection to Estonia alive while in the US. Irrespective of any measurable impact that it may have had on US foreign policy, Maria said her work gave her the chance to put “my American expertise together with my Estonian identity.”

 

The use of oral history as the research method for this project was essential for uncovering the personal motivations for these women to volunteer their time and skills to advocate for a country that they did not grow up in. More than any document could, the interviews conveyed the passion behind their advocacy. All interviewees drew direct connections between their personal, academic, and professional experiences and how they were able to leverage this expertise to shape their advocacy work. For Maria and Gilda, occupied Estonia was their call to action, but they were guided by the norms and traditions of American activists.

 

Acknowledgements

 

This project was partly funded by the Estonian National Archive grant for supporting the “Preservation of Foreign Estonian Cultural Heritage” (Rahvusarhiiv: Väliseesti kultuuripärandi säilitamise toetamine). I would like to thank the EANC and everyone who shared their time with me to tell stories about such an important time in Estonian American history.

 

Leah Johnson is a second-year master’s student pursuing a joint master’s in Central and Eastern European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow and the University of Tartu. She received her BA in History and Economics at Carleton College. Leah’s research interests include diaspora, migration, and nation building in the Baltic Sea Region. She is currently completing her master’s thesis on the oral histories of Estonian American activists after Estonian independence in 1991.

 

[i] Peter Gatrell, “Population Displacement in the Baltic Region in the Twentieth Century: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to Refugee History.” Journal of Baltic Studies 38, no. 1 (2007): 53.

[ii] Vytis Ciubrinskas, "Diaspora as a Resource of Homeland Nationalism forged Overseas and Contested Back Home." Diasporas as a Resource. Comparative Studies in Strategies, Networks and Urban Space, Wien: LIT Verlag (2013): 109.

[iii] Estonian American National Council, “Our History.” Estonian American National Council. Available at: https://www.estosite.org/about-us/history/ (Accessed: 22 January 2022).

[iv] Jonathan H. L'Hommedieu, "Exiles and constituents: Baltic refugees and American Cold War politics, 1948-1960." PhD diss., University of Turku (2011); Jonathan H. L'Hommedieu, “Baltic Exiles and the U.S. Congress: Investigations and Legacies of the House Select Committee, 1953-1955.” Journal of American Ethnic History 31, no. 3 (2012): 41-67; Jonathan H. L’Hommedieu, “Baltic Language Broadcasting: Émigré politics and American Cold War Radios.” Journal of the Institute of Latvian History, 91 (2014): 94-119; Pauli Heikkilä, “Sailing in an Occupied Country: Protests by Estonian Emigrants Against the 1980 Tallinn Olympic Regatta.” The International Journal of History of Sport, 32, 11-12 (2015): 1472-1490; Sarah B. Snyder, “Through the Looking Glass: The Helsinki Final Act and the 1976 Election for President.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 21. no. 1 (2010): 87-106.

[v] Khachig Tölölyan, “The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, vol 27, no 3 (2007): 654.

[vi] Senator Beall, reading the Estonian Salute to the American Bicentennial, 94th Cong., 2nd sess., Congressional Record 130 (May 4th, 1976): S 12466.

[vii] Una Bergmane The Politics of Uncertainty: The United States, the Baltic Question and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Oxford University Press, 2023): 7.

[viii] Maria Pedak Kari, “Estonia – Going Home Again: Returning to the Roots.” Speech at American Library Association Annual Conference, Miami, 27 June 1994.

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jergueta
Mar 28

Interesting. I wonder how their work would have been affected if they had been subjected to the vulnerability and pressures of social media today. And what measures could be used today to create a safer space for this kind of activity in the future.

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