Vol. X, No. X, Month 2008, 1-3
Lahemaa: the paradox of the USSR’s first national park
Robert W. Smurr
[A] place belongs forever to whoever claims it the hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.
- Joan Didion
The residents of Lahemaa have evolved into Lahemaa folk, who look upon the park with the eyes of a caretaker, who preserve and protect it...[they] have developed a keen interest in looking after their home and environment.
- Ilmar Epner, 1986
In an empire as highly centralized as was the Soviet Union, it is a curious historical footnote that the far-flung super-state‟s first national park was established
during the stagnant and oppressive Brezhnev era not within the Russian Federation
1itself, but rather in Estonia, the smallest republic of the Union. Curious, too, that
impetus for the park‟s creation came not from the Soviet center, but from the Estonian periphery. And most curious of all is the apparent tolerance that Moscow-center showed to nascent Estonian nationalists in their sustained drive to create Lahemaa National Park. How many of the world‟s national parks, after all, can one find in a highly contested border region that is demarcated, in part, by searchlights, barbed wire,
2guard towers, and a training facility for tracking infiltrators and refugees?
This article suggests that by memorializing and affirming their particular “ownership” of the land through the creation of a national park, Estonians signaled yet
ISSN XXXX-XXXX print/ISN XXXX-XXXX online
? 2008 Taylor & Francis
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again that their tiny Baltic Republic was, in the long term, indigestible for the Soviet
3Union. Of course, the Estonian preservationists who spearheaded the campaign to found Lahemaa National Park did not express overtly nationalistic goals, nor, it seems, did Russia‟s more chauvinistic ministers view their goals as such. Nevertheless, this paper contends that Estonian park promoters did act as de facto nationalists in their quest to create the park. Yet the mere fact that the Estonian park promoters may have desired to elevate their national culture by creating a national park is in itself neither inherently anti-Marxist nor anti-Soviet, for Marx, Engels, and their Soviet legatees all presumed that national forms and cultures would persist even after states themselves had withered away. Indeed, Lenin himself signed a decree in 1921 that designated national parks as suitable types of protected areas for the USSR. What did set Lahemaa apart from the Soviet Marxist vision, however, was the fact that its Estonian founders strove to have the park project a national culture that was nearly devoid of socialist content. Whereas Moscow appeared willing to tolerate a park that was
natural in form so long as it was socialist in content, Estonians ultimately succeeded in creating a park that was both natural in form and national in content. Concerns for the
Estonian nation, its folk (rahvas), its history, and its native environment superseded
what had historically been more paramount Soviet concerns with promethean “modernization” projects and a hypothetical theoretical construct that envisioned the
45“drawing together and merging of nations” (sblizhenie i sliianie narodov).
It is in this context that the USSR‟s first national park presents us with an intriguing paradox: Lahemaa appealed to the anti-modern nationalist sentiments of its intended (primarily, Estonian) audience, but it did so in an era, and under the observant eye, of a more “modern” and “international” promethean-minded overlord.
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Yet because nationalism is in many respects both a consequence of, and a reaction to
6modernization, its proponents often seek ways to present the old within the new. For
decades Moscow-center dictated its version of the new to the entire Soviet empire, whereas Estonian preservationists elevated the place of the old in one small corner of it. Unlike Moscow officials, Estonians saw little need to sweep aside the past in a rush to exploit the land in the name of “progress” and “the scientific and technical revolution.” Rather, they were eager to make what gains they could under Leonid Brezhnev‟s regime, characterized as it was by a collective leadership that tried its best
7to co-opt rather than flatly suppress the USSR‟s many preservationist organizations.
The problem, of course, is that just as “internationalism” and nationalism are
incompatible ideologies, so too are prometheanism and preservation. As such, any
accord between the two was bound to be both tenuous and artificial. In the longue
durée, the ideas espoused by Estonia‟s preservationists proved to have greater appeal than did those emanating from Moscow.
Given the stagnant socialism that characterized the Soviet economy in the 1960s - 70s under Leonid Brezhnev, however, skeptics might justifiably question just how relevant questions of Marxism or socialism were – in any form – when planners
were debating the merits of the park. Indeed, with continued demands for economic and industrial growth prevailing throughout the USSR, concerns about the proposed park‟s natural resources could have likely figured far more prominently in Moscow and Tallinn bureaucracies than questions about Marxist theory. The Estonian naturalist Edgar Kask, for example, notes that much resistance to the park came from
8those who were most interested in capitalizing on its natural resources. Because the
proposed park territory was surrounded on all sides by extensive, and extensively
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destructive, oil shale and phosphorite mining activities, many Estonian preservationists felt added pressure to prevent further encroachment on the economically underdeveloped region, some of which was mineral and resource rich. Ultimately, the creation of the park enabled Estonians to reintroduce the human element into a discourse that had been dominated in the Soviet era by more strictly utilitarian aspects of nature conservation. And, as the chemist Mare Taagepera noted, the park also managed to “save northern Estonia from ecological catastrophe,” precariously wedged as it was between the Virumaa oil shale mines to the east and the
9Maardu phosphorite mining operations to the west.
The road to Lahemaa‟s founding as a National Park was itself long and circuitous. For even before Estonia gained independence from tsarist Russia, some preservationists, such as the Russian botanist Ivan Borodin, considered the prospect of establishing a national park in the Baltic provinces, however briefly. Inspired by the Americans, who “have been the driving force behind the movement” to found national parks, Borodin nonetheless concluded that beyond the national parks already established in Switzerland and Sweden, European prospects (in which he included the Baltic provinces) would be slim. In his view “regional population density “ and the
lack of “colossal lands unspoiled by cultural encroachment” made the idea of any new
10European national parks “hard to imagine.”
The Russian Borodin had no problems in thinking of Estonia as fully within the European realm, for he well knew that as one of the westernmost regions of the Russian Empire, Estonia (Estland and the northern half of Livland) and its inhabitants
endured nearly 700 years of governance under Baltic German landholders. Borodin and a great number of the other members of Russia‟s Academy of Sciences – most of
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whom were ethnically and linguistically German – focused primarily on the
advantages to be gained by maintaining close ties to the European, and particularly, German scientific and intellectual elite. Just as the German Kulturträger and reformer
Johann Gottfried Herder's ideas ultimately gave birth to nationalist movements in Estonia and Latvia, and just as German choral orchestrations gave rise to world famous Baltic singing traditions, so too did German ideals of imagining landscape transfer well to an increasingly empowered and nationalistic Estonian folk in the late
Herder‟s great influence gave rise to what one might call “Estophile activity” (“estofilne tegevus”) amongst many Baltic German elite, yet because until the latter half of the nineteenth century access to education was denied, ipso jure, to the ethnic
majority that would benefit most, Baltic German culture necessarily became the first
12to respond to wider European movements. It was Germans – ethnically, culturally,
and linguistically defined – who introduced the modern concept of nature preservation to the Russian Empire‟s Baltic gubernii (Estland, Livland, and Kurland), and
eventually, to the physical territory of Russia itself. Specialists and “outsiders” the Germans may have been, but they nevertheless brought new ways of seeing to the Estonian landscape. Were it not for them, ideals such as Landschaftspflege,
Heimatschutz, Volkskunde, and the preservation (or creation) of rustic landscapes that first flowered in Germany and Prussia would not have quickly found an enthusiastically receptive Baltic audience.
The radical transformation in perceptions of landscape and Volk studies that
arose in Germany was squarely based in nationalistic ideology. Finding it difficult to substantiate sufficient claims to national and cultural superiority based upon works of
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art or architecture, conservative German intellectuals began to praise what they perceived to be their nation‟s particularly close and harmonious ancestral relationship
to nature, a rationalization that would later work even more effectively for the long-subordinated Estonian rahvas. Germans thus began to praise natural design as “truly „Teutonic‟” while simultaneously maligning formal design “as being on a lower cultural level and characteristic of so-called „south Alpine races.‟” In essence,
German intellectuals managed so effectively to elevate the place of the natural world
13that their “cultural history was idealized to natural history.” They, their landscape,
and especially their nation were perceived as entirely organic, that is, natural. As such, supposed ancient landscapes and pre-industrial symbols came to represent the German
14nation and helped to “affirm its immutability.”
Estonians may have considered Germans as little more than privileged “outsiders” in the Russian Empire‟s western borderland, yet the Germans themselves had such a long and established history in the Baltic region that they looked upon it as their homeland, their Heimat. Indeed, so entrenched was Baltic German culture that
Friedrich Robert Faehlmann and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, the “Germanified” Estonian compilers of Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), the great Estonian epic, both
believed that assimilation into German culture was inevitable. Yet because folkloric explanations for atypical features of the native landscape were among the oldest and most prominent aspects of the epic, and because Kalevipoeg became so central to an
Estonian national identity, the place of the landscape was elevated in nationalist rhetoric. Along with the increasing fame of the epic came an even greater awareness of the natural features described in it, much as it seems Kreutzwald intended. Witness his preface to the 1857 edition of Kalevipoeg: “When the last devoted echoes of the
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folk fall silent, the very stones, hills, rivers and lakes of the homeland will show the
15traces left by the deeds of the mighty hero.” Thus much of the impetus for the
codification of Estonian folklore and perceptions of landscape stemmed from German social and cultural institutions, yet for Estonians these processes assumed patriotic if not nationalistic lives of their own by the 1880s, and they provided the ideological foundations for a future national park.
A more sustained search for a suitable area in which to establish a national park itself was begun by Estonian scientists and enthusiasts during the early years of the interwar independent republic, a period when overt expressions of nationalism and patriotism were greatly pronounced. Yet there was a profound irony in their quest, for they (or more correctly, their successors) only succeeded in attaining this goal in 1971 when the republic was but one small part of the enormous Soviet empire, and when overt expressions of Estonian nationalism and patriotism were harshly suppressed. Arguably, those who promoted the park during the uncertain Soviet era might have deemed its founding more critical then than would have their more confident pre-war predecessors. In 1971, the Estonian nation felt insecure. It did not in 1923.
It comes as little surprise, then, that patriotic preservationists who came to the fore in inter-war independent Estonia disregarded Borodin‟s prewar skepticism. As early as February 1923, the Estonian Nature Protection Section of the Tartu Naturalists Society requested some twenty-five square kilometers of an ancient forest in northeast Estonia‟s Alutaguse region near Paasvere to be declared a national park. Gustav Vilbaste, an indefatigable educator and Estonia‟s first Inspector of Nature Protection,
shared in the goal to found a park, but he was non-committal about any specific site. “Wherever we decide upon a national park,” he wrote, “it should not be an area that is
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lacking in diversity.” Nevertheless, he was convinced that “we cannot let the issue of the founding of a national park remain stillborn, because the logging of our forests continues unabated and it threatens to wreck large areas of our homeland.” Despite the efforts of Vilbaste and the Naturalists Society, the issue was “unresolved” when
proposed, and it remained so throughout the entire period of pre-Soviet independence. Lack of adequate funding, increased industrial encroachments, and a greater interest in establishing and maintaining more strict nature preserves took precedence throughout
16the 1920s and 1930s.
WWII and Stalin‟s forced post-war Sovietization of the recently seized Baltic
States stifled interest in national parks for another generation. Estonian scientists and researchers did revive the idea of establishing a national park in the second half of the 1960s, however, partially because the new post-Khrushchev politburo indicated greater tolerance for those who desired to elevate the more decorative aspects of national folk culture. This period also witnessed broader, all-Soviet scientific debates concerning the best means to satisfy the post-war generation‟s growing demand for
more active recreational outdoor activities. As the USSR‟s increasingly urbanized population began to stream into its zapovedniki – inviolable nature reserves – in order
to experience “pristine” land first-hand, the empire‟s scientists took alarm. Fearing
the institutionalization of recreational geography and the negative impact that tourists might have on nature preserves, Andrei Grigor‟evich Bannikov, the USSR‟s “official regime spokesperson for nature protection,” began to lobby for the creation of a new series of nature parks as a means to reduce the human impact on zapovedniki. In his
view, zapovedniki should continue to remain off-limits to tourists, but alongside them should be created more accessible nature and national parks. Other Russian scientists,
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such as Nikolai Fedorovich Reimers and Feliks Robertovich Shtil‟mark, chose to view the Soviet tourist as a potential ally in the struggle to preserve threatened territory. They supported the concept of the national park as a further means to protect the USSR‟s natural diversity, but only when such parks were not established at the
17expense of, or through the conversion of, zapovedniki.
It is clear that although Russian conservationists were also discussing the merits of national parks, Estonian enthusiasts were the swiftest to turn thought into deed. Certainly, several renowned Estonian scientists did share some of Bannikov‟s
concerns about the possible negative consequences of national parks. The Estonian biologist Viktor Masing, for example, was also concerned that new national parks would detract from the greater need for natural parks and zapovedniki. Having long
been a great admirer and researcher of Estonia‟s oldest landscapes, i.e., its bogs and their unique ecosystems, Masing consistently held that seeking their protection was, in the words of one admirer, “a spiritual diversion” that was thrust upon society. He
believed, as did many of his conservationist forerunners, that a nation‟s cultural level is reliably indicated by its level of nature protection and conservation. Masing therefore tirelessly sought to employ the best scientific data to attain greater protection via natural, not national parks. Decades of intensive research enabled him to present his case for bog preservation so effectively that in 1981, ten years after Lahemaa National Park was created, thirty marshland areas were declared nature preserves in Estonia, an act that laid the foundation for mire protection in the entirety of the
18USSR. In hindsight, even though Masing‟s stricter approach toward nature protection led to a greater amount of Estonian land gaining state protection than that
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gained by the national park promoters, the small republic itself benefited by the dual approach to nature protection.
It should come as little surprise that the conception of Lahemaa National Park differed from that previously envisioned by Borodin or the Tartu Naturalists Society, especially when one considers that concern for nation even factored into Masing's more scientifically grounded arguments for nature parks. Estonia's Brezhnev era preservationists now proposed that Lahemaa (the land of bays) National Park should “represent features which are especially typical of our country and national culture
19[my emphasis].” Indeed, such a goal was even explicitly stated in the park‟s founding statute:
Lahemaa National Park‟s primary goals and tasks consist of the following:
(1) to protect and preserve nature in the national park, especially the larger
natural associations (forests, bog systems, and others), particularly 20noteworthy natural objects (alvars, stone fields, rare plants and animals,
etc.), cultural landscapes together with historical and cultural monuments,
as well as ethnographically and architecturally worthy buildings and
(2) to organize and conduct scientific research of ecosystems and regions of
cultural merit, by employing responsible scientific institutions for this
purpose, and to establish for them the necessary base for research;
(3) to acquaint the park‟s visitors with nature and noteworthy sites, with local
inhabitants and the historical development of their relationship with nature,
and with the actual issues of environmental protection;
(4) to help in the development of our youth by getting them acquainted with
the nature of their native home (kodupaik), with the people‟s revolutionary
past, and with issues of cultural values and environmental protection;
(5) to preserve specials regions within the park in conditions of pristine natural
conditions for the observance and research of natural processes;