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Sofi Oksanen: Puhdistus (Purge)

This novel has been translated into thirty-eight languages and, frankly, I cannot see why. It certainly is not a bad novel and it certainly exposes nasty things going on both in the Soviet Union and the former Soviet Union but that does make it a great novel. Oksanen certainly tells her story well and the plot may be somewhat complicated, keeping us guessing for much of the time but it is not a masterpiece.

The novel is set in Estonia – Oksanen is half-Estonian – both during the Soviet period and in the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. If we in the West thought it was all smoothness and light after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Oksanen makes it clear that this is not the case. The story jumps around between the present time (1992) and the Soviet period. We start in 1992. Aliide Truu, an old woman, lives alone in a remote village in Estonia. She looks out into her garden and sees an unfamiliar mound. On further investigation, she finds that it is a young woman who clearly is not in good shape. The young woman speaks Estonian but with a Russian accent. It is unusual to find a Russian speaking Estonian. She takes the young woman in and learns that her name is Zara and that she is running away from her husband. Aliide is suspicious. Is she a decoy for a robbery? We gradually learn (though Aliide does not for some time) who the young woman is. She is a Russian who had been forced into prostitution, where she had been beaten and abused and had managed to escape her pimps and it is her pimps, not her husband, that she is fleeing from. She had come here, we soon learn, because she is, in fact, Aliide’s great-niece.

Aliide’s story and the story of Zara and her grandparents is gradually told over the course of the book. Aliide and Ingel were sisters, growing up in the house Aliide now lives in. Ingel was the older one and also the prettier one. Aliide only really wanted one thing in life – Hans. But Hans loved Ingel and eventually married her and they had a child, Linda. Aliide is perpetually jealous and still wants to get Hans. The war comes and Hans, who is very anti-Communist, throws in his lot with the Germans. Initially, this is a good idea, particularly when the Germans occupy Estonia. But, as we know, the Russians push the Germans out and collaborators with the Germans are at risk. Ingel and Aliide are now on their own, their parents having died, and they build a concealed room in which Hans can hide, which he does. They even fabricate a story that he has been killed by bandits, which is generally believed, even by Linda. The pair are arrested and beaten up a couple of times but do not talk, even when Linda is brutalised. It is clearly time for Ingel and Linda to leave and they are able to do so, leaving Hans behind. Meanwhile, Aliide meets Martin, a devoted communist but a seemingly good man, and marries him. He moves into the house and Hans remains there, coming out when Martin is at work. Aliide still dreams of him.

Martin and Aliide have a child, Talvi, also a good communist, and Aliide has a job making sure that people meet their quotas, while Martin remains a devoted communist. Hans meanwhile remains hidden, wondering about Ingel and wondering when the English and the Americans are going to come and rescue him. Meanwhile, we have been following Zara’s story, how she got into prostitution and her brutal treatment at the hands of Pasha and Lavrents. Aliide remains unaware of her kinship with Zara. The ending is relatively predictable, though we have been wondering not only what happens to Zara and Aliide and but also to Hans, Ingel and Martin. All is explained. It is a well-told story and does give us a glimpse of a period whose full details most of us are probably very ignorant of but I do not think that is the classic some have made it out to be.

Publishing history

First published in 2008 by Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö
First published in English in 2010 by Black Cat
Translated by Lola Rogers