Lost Chances and Prosperous Present?
The Traumatic Past and Estonian
Psychoanalyst in Private Practice, Tallinn, Estonia
The author attempts to understand how traumatic experiences
during the past century in Estonia have changed the beliefs and
memories of Estonian people and how those changes might influence
quality of life in the present time. The historical background
of the traumatic past, the consequences of trauma, transgenerational
transmission of trauma, difficulties in communicating
about traumatic experiences, and recovery from trauma are discussed.
The author analyzes clinical material from psychoanalytical
work in the last 2 years, in which patients’ psychic problems
were connected with past traumatic experiences, and presents a
short vignette relevant to his position.
During the last century Estonian people have endured difficult times,
which are not mentioned intensively today but are still influencing life in
the country through representations of experiences in collective memory.
In clinical work, a psychoanalyst can detect and observe how roots of many
patients’ psychic problems might also be related to past traumatic events
‘‘when social order fails to provide a holding environment, which leaves
individuals and groups vulnerable to destructive and antisocial behaviours’’
(Layton, Hollander, & Gutwill, 2006, p. 6).
The occurrence of traumatic events in Estonia dates back to August 23,
1939, when Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Rippentrop
pact in Moscow. Soon Poland was divided; Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania lost
their independence; and the Soviet Union began war with Finland. After
(The author is thankful to his Dutch colleague, psychoanalyst Ans Van Blokland, for her
support and help in writing this article.
Address correspondence to Ants Parktal, C.R. Jacobsoni 3, Tallinn 10128, Estonia. E-mail:
Journal of Loss and Trauma, 17:350–357, 2012
Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1532-5024 print=1532-5032 online
occupation of the Estonian Republic on June 17, 1940, by the Soviet army,
arrests of people not loyal to the newly established Soviet Estonia began.
Finally, on June 14, 1941, many of the most influential people of the Estonian
Republic, including the president of Estonia, the commander of the Estonian
army, and members of parliament and their families, were deported to
Siberia. When the Second World War began, the actions of special destruction
battalions of the Soviet army,1 voluntary self-defense units,2 and the
Soviet and German armies brought about massive destruction of buildings,
bridges, factories, farms, and homes as well as death or harm to people.
Germany established concentration camps on Estonian soil, and many Estonian
people who were loyal to the Soviet Union, together with Jews and gypsies,
were brought there and killed. In turn, after the Soviet army once again
occupied Estonia, the Soviet Secret Service began repressive actions against
people who were defined as enemies of the Soviet Union. These actions,
which targeted members of the German army and self-defense units,
religious people, and those who belonged to the so-called Forest brothers,3
as well as the relatives of these individuals, had a tragic and traumatic impact
on victims and their relatives.
In March 1949 the next wave of deportation began, which included
mainly people from the countryside (over 20,000) who were taken to
Siberia to break down the resistance of the Forest brothers; these people
were forced to abandon their individual peasant lives and join collective
farms. After the war, a new social life began under the Soviet totalitarian
regime, dominated by the last decade of the great Stalin terror (Conquest,
CONSEQUENCES OF PAST TRAUMAS
From Frustration to Trauma
Frustration and painful situations are part of human development, including
learning the task of adapting wish fulfillment to the realms of reality and
creating suitable compromises for postponing needs, wishes, and desires
for achievement of moderate satisfaction. Death of a loved one might be a
trauma for a mature person, but as part of the life cycle, people usually
recover from such traumas over time without long-lasting consequences.
Traumatization can follow from extreme events (e.g., actual or threatened
death or serious injury; American Psychiatric Association, 1995) and can
evoke posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In cases of prolonged domestic,
sexual, or political victimization, when the victim is in a state of captivity,
unable to flee, and under the control of the perpetrator (e.g., prisons, concentration
camps, slave labor camps), extreme traumatization with long-term
consequences can take place.
A vignette froma male patient, Toomas (pseudonym), describes forgotten feelings
evoked indirectly by events seen in a documentary. Toomas, married and
60 years old, began twice-a-week psychoanalytic psychotherapy 2 years ago
because of intense anxiety resulting from adult children leaving the family.
Lately he has described his memories fromthe year 1994, when he watched,
together with friends, a video by Milos Forman based on the book by Milan
Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.4 When the part of the documentary
about the invasion of the Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague
appeared, Toomas had an intense emotional reaction of fear, helplessness,
and horror, and he felt frozen and overwhelmed.
I interpreted Toomas’s experience as discovering past traumatic memories of his
parents provoked by material in the movie. In spite of external freedom and a
stable social structure, the collective memory of Estonians about the collapse
of the Estonian Republic, not remembered by Toomas but talked about in a
closed family circle as an emotional experience, evoked anxiety in Toomas close
to that associated with danger of death. Toomas’s relationship with the external
world collapsed, and there was no potential space left between the internal and
external worlds to see the events in the documentary in another perspective.
What is the reason for such an unexpected overreaction to events that happened
a long time ago and do not directly touch Toomas? We can see here
long-term consequences of extreme traumatization. Experiencing the collapse
of the state and culture certainly evoked intense feelings in Toomas’s parents,
feelings that were not worked through and were transferred transgenerationally
to the internal world of Toomas. Traumatic feelings and individual memories
about an event are often dissociated. Bohleber (2007) elaborates Freud’s
thoughts about trauma theory: ‘‘that what appears to be reality is in fact a reflection
of a forgotten past.’’ Forgotten and repressed material is frequently
repeated in a form of repetition compulsion in psychotherapy, as in relationships
in general. The forgotten pastmaterial ‘‘forces the past psychic occurrence
into the present structure of events and thereby transforms its meaning. The past
experience is actively incorporated into the current life experience’’ (Bohleber,
2007). The Holocaust, ‘‘golodomor,’’5 war, deportation—these are traumatic
experiences that are beyond the individual’s capacity to integrate. In such
circumstances, reconstruction of experiences will be distracted. Toomas’s
experience shows how past traumas of previous generations can intrude into
a person’s mind who has not experienced the events.
Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma
Psychoanalytic object relation theory explains creation and maintenance of
transgenerational transmission of trauma in the following way. What the
traumatized generation has not digested will be deposited into subsequent
generations in the form of traumatic object relations. Those relations will
be recreated because the communication process in relationships with the
traumatized generation was distracted. Extreme trauma causes destruction
of the communicative dyad in the traumatized generation’s internal psychic
world. Relations between the internal self as object and the good internal
object6 will be distracted, and communication breakdown will lead to ‘‘absolute
internal isolation and the most intense desolation. The internal good
object falls silent as an emphatic mediator between self and environment’’
(Bohleber, 2007). Emphatic understandings between individuals from different
generations will be not possible because the good internal object is lost.
When relations with the good internal object are lost or destroyed,
opportunities for symbolization and creating narratives about trauma are also
lost, and finally the traumatic experience is almost incommunicable. The persecuting,
totalitarian object (Sˇebek, 1996) replaces the good internal object
and completely occupies the person’s internal world. Although Estonia as
a state has been independent for many years, the totalitarian Soviet state
and occupation might still exist through internal representations of bad
objects in many people’s minds. Changes in internal processes and the gradual
return of the good internal object will be based on people’s need to discuss
emotionally charged events that represent significant long-term changes
to their lives’’ and freedom of thought in society. Based on the holding
environment created by society, object relationships will form, be maintained
in collective memory, and find consensus in narratives (Pennebaker &
Banasik, 1997) about emotional events. Through the same process, people
will have also the chance for internal change and for cure from trauma.
TRAUMA AND DISTURBED COMMUNICATION
The New Social Situation Accompanying Past Trauma
During the Second World War, Estonia was at several points occupied by different
countries and lost approximately one-sixth of its population (Lucas,
2008). Nothing was usually told to children about the war or the victims of
the war. Instead, those memories were shared in close circle of war veterans
only. According to Bergquist and Weiss (1994), who interviewed people in
Estonia and Hungary after liberation:
(In many cases, the older men and women in both Estonia and Hungary
had remained mute about these experiences in order not to burden their
children and grandchildren in the youthful protests or arbitrary confinements.
Healing the collective psyche requires people to mourn their
history to find the forgiveness and love that follow. (p. 187)
After the war, there was the need for mourning of losses in Estonia, but
mourning was not possible at the societal level because of the totalitarian
Soviet regime. Thus, a phenomenon of a silent event in collective memory
was created.7 ‘‘A silent event is one where people actively avoid talking
about major shared upheaval. This failure to talk can be imposed by a
repressive government following a coup or [by an]other authoritarian institution
[such] as a religion’’ (Pennebaker & Banasik, 1997, p. 10). Needed
healing of trauma through commemoration rituals was missing because the
new frame of reference for reconstruction of memories was not acceptable
for the Estonian people in the Soviet occupation. Mourning was possible
only in the close family circle in restricted ways. Lost Estonia as a state and
culture was saved mainly in personal memories shared between families
and relatives who could be trusted. The Soviet state began to create a new
collective memory, picturing lost Estonia in novels, plays, and movies in disregarding
and hostile tones.
Instead of promoting mourning in the Soviet Union, a prolonged
victimization of Estonians took place. Herman (1992) describes methods of
political exploitation in the following way:
(The methods of establishing control over another person are based upon
the systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma. These methods
are designed to instill terror and helplessness, to destroy the victim’s
sense of self in relation to others, and to foster a pathologic attachment to
the perpetrator. (p. 383)
Those methods were used in Estonia after the war, brutally at the beginning
(deportations, arrests, torture, executions) and in more subtle ways
later. One of the subtle ways was an attempt to organize a new collective
memory by constructing a new history about the Estonian past with the purpose
of ultimately helping to legitimize the occupation and annexation of the
Estonian Republic, as occurred in Portugal with memories and histories of
the Spanish Civil War (I´n˜igues, Valencia, & Va´zques, 1997).
The Silent Internal World of Traumatized People
Freedom for mourning was lost not only on a social level but also a personal
level: People did not want to talk about the painful past because they had
lost trust in others’ world. Lost close and intimate relationships deprived
people from the pleasures of life. Left alone with their restricted understandings
about their fantasy world, people have difficulty understanding the
intentions and feelings of others in the real world. In this way, silence began
and continued for subsequent generations of Estonians as a fantasy world
with regard to collective memories about the past and present. Instead of
helping to distinguish fantasy from reality and reestablish psychological
contact with oneself and others, the Soviet state created a new unreal
narrative for the victims of the war.
The Soviet narrative offered solace and coping mechanisms for handling
painful memories, confirming to the victims that their suffering was serving
collective interests and achievements (Figers, 2007). Historian Catherine
Merridal, after interviewing war veterans of the Kursk battle, observed that
‘‘they did not speak about past experiences with bitterness and self-sorrow,
but they accepted stoically all the losses and in spite of living through the. . .
darkest scenes, they tend[ed] to use language of [the] former Soviet state, talking
about honour and pride, rightful revenge, homeland, Stalin, [and the]
absolute need for belief’’ (p. 681). By creating and confirming massive illusions
about the honorable mourning process for victims of the war, mourning
was disturbed and sometimes even stopped. Lack of social and religious
support will make the return of traumatized veterans to everyday life complicated
and, at times, not possible at all.
Through thoughts and free association derived from my clinical work as a
psychoanalyst, I find that traumatic events in the history in Estonia have
caused different adverse consequences for many people. Mourning of loss,
the environment needed for recovery from trauma, was disturbed because
of the totalitarian social system established before and built up after the
war in Estonia. Traumatic past experiences were passed from one generation
to another and continue to influence the quality of life of many people born
and living in the Republic of Estonia. One might suppose that, because of
unresolved trauma, many people in Estonia are still suffering from traumas
and have lost their chance to enjoy everyday life in an economically and politically
prosperous Estonian Republic. At the same time, the prosperous state
culture does not want to continue to relive past traumas; that is, cultures seek
‘‘to make themselves look good, honest and honorable’’ (Pennebaker, 1997,
Further research is needed to clarify the influence of extreme traumatic
experiences as well as experiences of everyday life in totalitarian societies,
especially between different generations. A clearer understanding likely will
support the importance of attention to issues related to trauma and wider use
of psychotherapy for people who need to recover from symptoms connected
with past traumas.
1. Destruction battalions were special units of the Soviet army created for destruction of all material
and human resources (prisoners, for example) before the Soviet army left and the German army took over.
Lost Chances and Prosperous Present? 355
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2. Voluntary self-defense units were organized during the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet army
and after its retreat for protection of material recourses and people and for restoring the Estonian Republic
after the occupation.
3. The Forest brothers were Estonian partisans, people with different aims, who hid in woods for
many reasons, mainly hiding from the Soviet terror or fighting actively against the Soviet order.
4. This book and the movie are both about people who went through hopeful spring in 1968 in
5. Golodomor refers to famine or=and starvation during 1932 and 1933 (as well as earlier and later)
that was created intentionally by the totalitarian Stalin regime in which millions of Ukrainian people died.
6. The good internal object is part of object (usually mother) internalized in childhood; a mental representation
which mediates and supports the relationship between self and environment.
7. This involves an ‘‘increasing rate of thinking and dreaming about events [and] changes in crime,
suicide, physical health, and even prosocial behavior change’’ (Pennebaker & Banasik, 1997, p. 17).
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Ants Parktal is a psychoanalyst in a private practice and guest lecturer at Tallinn
University and Tartu University. He graduated from Tartu University in 1982, and
received his master degree in clinical psychology from San Francisco Professional
School of Psychology in 1993. He was accepted as psychoanalyst and direct member
of IPA 2007. His research interests focus on psychoanalysis and politics, including
influence of past traumas on present psychic world and behavior.