“An Estonian Childhood: A Memoir” by Tania Alexander


First I want to say two things:

1) I read the Estonian translation of the book, but the original was written (and published) in English: “An Estonian Childhood” by Tania Alexander.

2) what I have to say may not be all positive, but I did like the book and would recommend it to people who like to read about life stories.

The title of the book is, at least from my viewpoint, a bit of a misnomer. As not only does the big part of the story deal with life and loves of mother of Tania Alexander, Moura Budberg, even the part that does take part in Estonia has very little Estonia in it. And Estonians slip into the memoirs only in role of servants. I guess it could be compared to the Brits writing about their life in India or Africa.

Tania Alexander was citizen of Estonia, but she writes: “From early childhood we spoke Russian, German and English at home, and learned both to read and to write in those languages. At that time Estonian was still a developing language. We spoke it mostly with villagers and servants. We learned by ear to speak it fluently, but never to write it”

In 1919 she was right, Estonian WAS a kitchen language and even educated Estonians in among themselves switched to German or Russian when talking about intellectual or scientific topics between themselves. But Tania Alexander grew up in Estonia and when she left it was possible to get university degrees in Estonian. Just that family of Tania Alexander used the cultural freedom Estonian state allowed for to schooling their children in German and not even having Estonian lessons in these schools. Why should they learn language of the aborigines more than was needed for talking to the servants?

Still, as I love reading family stories, I enjoyed the story and found it thought provoking.

I also looked around to find out more about the murder of Tania’s father. Officially the murderer was never found. The local lore, though, had a suspect, who might have liked to consider the murder political, but it looks like it might have been a petty grudge, revenge for humiliation the German manor owner caused for an Estonian laborer, who made a mistake in manners.

May-be this is place to, if not take back, then at least soften my words on failure of the former Baltic German nobility to fit in in the independent Estonia. As there was resentment from the Estonian side and unwillingness to forget the 700 years of slavery under the Baltic German yoke. Tania Alexander considered herself a Russian and was quite critical toward the Baltic Germans in her memoirs. She does write, though, that leaving Estonia for the Nazi Germany in 1939 was choosing between two evils. Tania’s school time sympathy Heinrich von Neff, who was among the very few, who refused to leave Estonia, was murdered in 1940 (again, the reason seems to be petty jealousy … but the result was politically welcome to the Soviet occupants).

To summarize – the memoirs are more fascinating when one is familiar with the history of former Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire and with the Russian history, but it is also a thought provoking family history on its own merit, even if told in fractured way.


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