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Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. Photo: Courtesy of Helsinki National Opera.
Volume 1

Sofi Oksannen’s Purge around the Baltic Sea

Since the beginning of the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the contacts around the Baltic Sea have been rapidly increasing. Earlier some prominent Baltic theatre directors had already become well-known names in Finland and in other Nordic countries, but their visits had been occasional and cooperation had required long formal procedures. One important example of the change was the annual Baltic Circle Festival, founded in 1996 and initiated by the small Theatre Q in Helsinki, uniting the fringe theatres around the Baltic Sea. Among all these countries, Finland and Estonia belong to the same linguistic group and the renewal of Estonian independence activated theatre connections between these countries. Sofi Oksanen’s (who is both Finnish and Estonian) Purge and its realizations as play, novel, opera, and film reveal something of the range of recent collaborations between these countries.

Purge was premiered at the Finnish National Theatre in 2007. After that Oksanen rewrote the story as a novel and it was then translated into numerous languages and won several European prizes. Subsequently, the play was produced in many countries including the United States. In Estonia, it was first performed in 2010 in Tarto. The comparison between the first Finnish interpretation and the Estonian one indicates how complicated the role of theatre can be when the play takes up important current political topics.

Purge focuses on the history of Estonia, which was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991. The events of the play are set in two time periods—the political turmoil following the Second World War and the 1990s, when the country reestablished its independence after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The title refers to historical events known as purges during which ideological enemies of the Soviet system were either killed immediately or deported to Siberia. Purge tells the story of an Estonian woman, Aliide Truu, who was born before the Second World War and lived through the Stalinist period until Estonia reclaimed independence. The starting point of the play is 1992, when a young woman, Zara, shows up on the yard of old Aliide’s house in the country. Her appearance brings back the memories and the shame Aliide has suppressed. Zara, who grew up in Siberia, ended up being abused, and fleeing from Tallinn, Estonia, she seeks refuge at her grandmother’s sister’s house. The flashbacks from around year 1950 show how Aliide’s family falls apart. Young Aliide, who was also raped, saved herself by sacrificing her sister and niece—Zara’s mother—during an aggressive interrogation. Aliide’s moral shame makes her fear for her family’s return from Siberia. At the end of the play, in the “present time,” Aliide helps Zara to flee. She writes a letter to her sister in Siberia and asks the family to return. Then she sets fire to the house she has lived in.

Oksanen's Purge. Photo: Simon Kane.

Oksanen’s Purge. Photo: Simon Kane.

The story was not new in Estonia. Since the 1980s, the purges as historical events have been discussed widely and it has been admitted that not only the occupiers were responsible for them. Viivi Luig wrote about the topic as early as 1985 in her novel Seitsemäs rauhan kevät (The Seventh Peacetime Summer) and returns to it briefly in her Varjoteatteri (Shadow Play) (2010/2011), where she comments that “the muddy boots of the transporters have left everlasting traces onto Estonian floors.” Sofi Oksanen and Imbi Paju write in their Kaiken takana oli pelko (Behind Everything was Fear, 2009), that Estonia lost 17.5 % of its population in these purges: e.g., in 1941 about 10,000 inhabitants and in 1949 about 20,000 inhabitants were transported to Siberia. About 1,500 men were killed and 10,000 arrested of those who were hiding in the forests. Ene Mihkelson in Ruttohauta (2007) writes about “fellow travelers” who “needed to do this if they wanted to live”. He condemns those who managed to escape with their parents to the West and after 1990 came back to take back their land and houses. They blame those who had to remain, as if they had not been robbed as well. In Finland, Estonian history was generally known, but it was often hidden in order to maintain a good relationship with Russia.

The world premiere of Purge in 2007, directed by Mika Myllyaho in Helsinki, did not highlight the historical aspects of the play. The few stage objects were stylized and did not seek to remind audiences of the historical context and the political debate in Estonia. The production emphasized the humanity of the characters and the frailty of human nature. The reviews linked this production with the director’s previous work, e.g., The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh and with a series of new plays staged in the small theatre space at the Finnish National Theatre, many of which included physical violence. The Finnish production highlighted the universal presence of violence in our world (only tangentially connecting it to the Estonian history) and the spectators did not react to the play emotionally, whereas when the Finnish National Theatre staged a visiting production in Estonia, the same performance created a strong emotional charge.

The production in Tarto, Estonia, in 2010 was directed by Liisa Smith, an Estonian director living in Great Britain. The interpretation was quite faithful to the stage directions. The performance tied the events to the Estonian locale. Estonian characters were depicted through psychological realism and deep understanding and the text was slightly adapted to add a stronger sense of relationship. The most violent scenes were related and, whenever violence was enacted on stage, the language was Russian. The performance showed who was the enemy in the historical story and gave psychological justification to the actions of the main character and especially her cathartic sacrifice in the end. The national slant was at the heart of the reception of the play, and the reviews stressed the authenticity of representation. Though different ideological and generational perspectives were reflected, the historical flashbacks touched many people on a personal level. This was a play about women, but instead of being metaphorical it reflected on the reality.  In the cathartic final scene many people in the auditorium to pulled out their handkerchiefs.

The ideological slant of the Estonian production resulted from their way of reading the play. The director said that Estonians feel that the original play text offers a black-and-white representation of events, because it’s written for Finnish people. What was seen on stage is a result of the director’s research into local history: “We mustn’t deny the events of the past,” he said, and I think it’s important to remember what was done [underlining added] to the State of Estonia and Estonian people.” Estonian commentators mentioned that the playwright was a foreigner, although they acknowledged that the writer had acquired an insight into the history of the country. Less attention was focused on the fact that Oksanen’s mother was Estonian-born and that Oksanen had mentioned that the experiences of her own family had influenced the writing of the play. On the other hand, the director himself had been living abroad and had not experienced the recent Estonian re-evaluation of the past.

We can say that the play portrays events that are ideologically invested, if we agree with Jonathan Charteris-Black that ideology is “a belief system through which a particular social group creates the meanings that justify its existence to itself.” An analysis of these productions seems to indicate that Estonian society is reluctant to view its national trauma critically on stage and that theatre makers and the audience share this stance. In fact, this was the director’s choice, following a popular myth; Estonian public discussion had been more varied, as well as was the original play and especially the novel. Resorting to such a myth justifies placing yourself within the group of victims. In Estonia, the production joined a general discussion outside the theatre on the “real” history, although the performance as such had few debatable features. On the other hand, the strong focus on the actual history and on the collective memory dispelled most aesthetic discussion and the evaluation of the performance as theatre.

The world premiere of the play in Finland was less ideological, which is supported by the fact that the production was associated with theatrical tradition. As a theatrical production, it had been distanced from the reality of the spectator, which made it possible to examine the events from a distance—and perhaps it was easier to take it in as a universal depiction of personal existential contradictions—in other words, as an object of identification. Locating the play explicitly in Estonia worked better due to the general knowledge of the historical facts and the Estonian poems included in the program rather than the performance itself. The fictional characters remained, indeed, fictional—they didn’t represent the whole of any certain nation.

Oksanen's Purge. Photo: Simon Kane.

Oksanen’s Purge. Photo: Simon Kane.

In these productions, the question of history is linked with the concept of genre. The printed version of Purge has been named a tragedy, but the writings on the play refer to the play as a melodrama more often than a tragedy. The play includes murder and rape, betrayal of and love for fellow humans as well as an ideological social order. Even though the play includes tragic elements, it cannot easily be interpreted as a tragedy. In melodrama, the fear of the enemy is at least as important as pity for the tragic main character. Those who are regarded as victims of injustice receive reconciliation in melodrama. In Tarto, the reviews didn’t take a position about what would have been “right” in history, but treated the events as a sort of a myth, arousing a collective emotion. One reviewer who analyzed the performance as a melodrama compared its workings with the way Hollywood films defuse social tension. The world premiere of Purge presented the play as inspiring a sense of pity for all human beings. Alienation through theatrical representation and conceptualization invites commiseration for suffering rather than condemnation of the enemy. Thus the question of collective guilt loses its weight, and the work begins to shift toward tragedy.

In fact, the interpretation of Purge in Estonia does not resemble the general recent portrayals of Estonian society. Many highly praised performances have been quite critical of this society and have employed new, often post-dramatic performance techniques. However, this indicates the difficulty of discussing nationally contested topics, and in this case removing the play from its original location allowing for more freedom in choosing one’s viewpoint. This can be seen, for example in the La MaMa production of Purge in New York in 2011, directed by Zishan Ugurlu. It stayed away from suggesting a specific national locale even though it showed the events concretely through theatrical means and directly under the eyes of the audience. There was no house in the space; the space was constructed through movement and dialogue. The director expressed her goal in these terms “I believe a woman’s body in this play is a metaphor for an occupied country which has been stuck by an asteroid, by the power of the male dominated political structures, ideology and secret violence. Under occupation, different generations of women are faced with the same challenges and they are left with impossible choices.” On stage, the dominant masculinity of the male characters erased the national features that would tone down the aggression, and the female perspective was also created in general terms. At the La MaMa Theatre, pathos was shown to the audience at a close range, but with stylized exaggeration. The story was stripped of explanations and detailed decorations, leaving only the essential on stage. The representation, however, had its shortcomings. In the context of American society, the social problems instigated by the turmoil in European countries do not carry the same meaning as in Europe, and even though the La MaMa production recognized the political metaphor, the female body in it ultimately became transparent and began to represent a “greater” metaphoric concept: turning from the incident of rape to the actions of nations and of war as a whole.

It was surprising to see how the operatic version of Purge managed to link together the national narrative and the aesthetic power of a stage production. The production at the National Opera in Helsinki in 2012 was a cooperation between the dramatist and a young Estonian composer, Jüri Reinvere, who was responsible for score, libretto and direction. He wanted to pay homage to classical opera, and he emphasized the open discussion seen in Estonia: “I claim that the past can only become the past,” he claimed, “when we have faced it eye to eye.” In the end, the pathos in opera made the tragedy more visible. The use of the chorus, for example, distanced the storyline and gave the national references wider dimensions. To a theatre researcher who is not an opera expert the music did not appear as typically operatic; instead, the challenging music for the soloists and chorus and common spectator especially was an extra distancing feature and made the message stronger: the fate appeared as unavoidable.

The Finnish film Puhdistus, directed by Antti Jokinen, also in 2012, was a Finnish-Estonian cooperation and cast with well-known Finnish actors. It did not raise any serious topical discussion, possibly because of the genre or because many others had already discussed the topics more critically and deeply. In a way Purge returned to where it began: as a representative of its art, in this case film instead of theatre.

Sofi Oksanen’s next novel was published in 2012 and will be staged as a play at the National Theatre of Finland in late 2013. It also discusses war-time Estonian history and the years after that. This time the play came after the novel, not the other way around. The new novel has not raised similar international interest to that of Purge, and Estonian history as a topic does not call for the sort of strong implicit physicality that was found in the former novel, written after the play. That physicality seems to have made Purge effective, even when the national history becomes more distant – by also making the history familiar. This situation also recalls Sofi Oksanen’s interview in the beginning, often forgotten later. She then said that she decided to write the play after having read about women during the Balkan war, and chose Estonia as topic because she knew its past and present.


Pirkko Koski, Professor emerita, was responsible for the Department of Theatre Research in the Institute of Art Research at the University of Helsinki, and was the director of the Institute of Art Research until the end of 2007. Her research concentrates on performance analysis, historiography, and Finnish theatre and its history. In addition to scholarly articles, she has published several books in these fields. She has also edited several anthologies about Finnish theatre, and volumes of scholarly articles translated into Finnish.


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