Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a
Collective Farm in Estonia by Sigrid Rausing
Grove Press, 2014; 246 pp
Review by Clinton Crockett Peters
Sigrid Rausing’s memoir Everything is Wonderful is a revisit to her twenty-year-old fieldwork in a converted Soviet community farm in West Estonia. For this year-long story, Rausing made a wise move to leave behind the anthropologist's empty gestures of unbiased reportage. She inserts herself into her narrative, and we experiment as she experimented, with observing the fallout of the Soviet disintegration.
Rausing is Swedish, and so her fieldwork was ostensibly a documentation of the revival of an Estonian-Swedish community all but wiped out by a double invasion. In the early 20th century, thousands of ethnic Swedes lived among the Estonians, but fled the lawnmower of the Nazi party and the gentrification by the Russians. Only a few assimilated Swedes stayed on, eking out a harsh life in this classically barren, icy moonscape, made more brutal by the cool, distended Communism emanating from Moscow.
Where Rausing’s work shines is with her equally cold, calculating, yet ultimately human sketching of the realities of the post-Soviet implosion.
And so we have the drunken husband of the host family who gradually (predictably) grows more leering and suggestive until Rising has to move out. We have the horrifically tortured old maid who’s grown into a staunch and almost insane zealot. We have the teachers who drink too much, the taciturn, at times cynical and coy farmers, and a town that opens itself up even as they gossip constantly behind Rausing’s back.
Thankfully Rausing downplays any sense of self-righteous superiority. She turns these stories into one of a people deprived of identity so long then told they are the only ones holding themselves behind.
She complicates her own feelings too. Rausing is a Swede, struggling with her identity (she's lived in Britain for some time), abroad in a country supposedly growing more Swedish yet still under the psychological yoke of a failed empire underneath which, maybe, is the tattered fabric of a national identity.
How this works out practically is that Rausing watches several mundane Western films with locals, interviews every resident on the farm, gets stuck dangerously in the tornadoing snow and gets pulled out with no expectation of pay. She quickly conflates her duties as an anthropologist, Swede, human being, and foreigner abroad. She makes plain the complex and inevitable anxieties, insecurities, and fantasies she has. When a burly, confident, and compassionate Estonian man asks her out and she accepts, she later ruminates on the life never to be led, on the Estonian home dreamed about but never sold.
Who of course would not think of the life unlived during an abroad experience? Who doesn't think such things during each of our routinely tense and strange encounters? Rausing’s forte is untangling those unvoiced subconscious percolations from the noise of her year's every day.