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Võru County, Estonia

NOOK Book. From to , Sigrid Rausing completed her anthropological fieldwork on the penninsula of Noarootsi, a former Soviet border protection zone in Estonia. Abandoned watchtowers dotted the coastline, and the huge fields of the Lenin collective farm were laying fallow, waiting for claims from former owners who had fled war and Soviet and Nazi occupation. Rausing's research focused on the loss of historical memory during the Soviet occupation, and the slow revival of an independent Estonian culture, including the recognition of the minority Swedes in Estonia.

She lived and worked amongst the villagers, witnessing their transition from repression to independence, and from Soviet neglect to post-Soviet austerity. She has won several awards for her work in philanthropy and human rights, serves on the advisory board of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and is an emeritus member of the international board of Human Rights Watch. In mid-August I was ready to start my year of fieldwork. I had bought an old Volvo in Sweden, ordinary and reliable, or at least I thought of it as ordinary.

On the collective farm, of course, it looked like an ambassadorial limousine amongst the few rusty old Ladas. I had everything I thought I could possibly need, most importantly my new Mac laptop and a camera. I didn't bring a mobile phone, and, of course, there was no Internet on the collective farm, though I did have an early email account in England. I brought, instead, a little travel printer, and many rolls of printer paper.

I had medical supplies, a down duvet, several pillows, books, clothes, pens, and notebooks. I travelled across on the ferry to Tallinn, Estonia's capital, from Stockholm, as I had done many times before. I drove straight down to the collective farm. It was a sunny day, with a strange clarity of light. I drove west from Tallinn, past the small settlements of Keila, then Rummu, and a ruined monastery.


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I remember birds singing, and crossing a stream of brown water. The light shimmered strangely — there were mirages over the pockmarked tarmac.

Everything is Wonderful by Sigrid Rausing, review - Telegraph

A rooster crowed in the silence between the few thundering lorries on the otherwise empty road. There was a hallucinatory quality to that drive. The loose flap of a lorry canvas in front of me seemed like an ominous message, the landscape drenched with meaning and expectation. I see now, so many years later, how alone I was, and how apprehensive. The land on both sides of the narrow road into the peninsula was marshy. You could see that this had once been an island, or even several islands.

I drove past some old grey houses with frayed thatched roofs and shoddy white brick additions, past the abandoned Soviet watchtower and barrier, now permanently propped open. I stopped at the church, built where the marsh ended. In the spring it had been locked up, in a state of disrepair. Now it was open, with newly painted grey benches, broad flagstones on the floor, spare and Lutheran. The guest book on the table by the door was almost full — there were sixty pages of names, most of them Swedish, the rest Finnish.

The day before I arrived the Uppsala University theological faculty had visited. Next to the guest book was a pile of contemporary Swedish church tracts, perhaps left by the theological students. It was a wide dirt road, and I drove on for miles. Outside each farm stood a wooden stand for the milk cans, though the dairy collections, I knew, had ceased for the time being, along with so much else.

At the end of the road, by the sea, was a single abandoned white brick building, perhaps a family house, in that Soviet state of dilapidation that could signify incompletion or abandonment, or perhaps both. An open door was banging in the wind, and you could hear the waves.

Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia

I wandered down to the beach. There were wheel tracks in the sand, but no one was there. Some round boulders in the grey sea were reminiscent of refugees, bedraggled families looking west across the water. I looked at them for a long time, only half aware of my reluctance to enter the village of my field site, meet my informants, and commit myself to my fieldwork, and to this year. Eventually I picked myself up and left, a subconscious mantra ringing in my ears: Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.

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It was running endlessly on a loop through my mind. I didn't know then how safe I would soon feel — at that point I was anxious, not only about meeting people, but also about finding my way in the new field of post-Soviet anthropology. Anthropological fieldwork is unlike any other occupation. You live and work alongside your informants in a process called "participant observation" — you participate, observe, record, compare, and analyse. As in psychoanalysis, research is often grounded in the seemingly inconsequential, in habitual references and jokes, revealing fragments of the worldview of the informants.

It is generally assumed that the underlying worldview is a coherent imaginary universe, with its own internal logic, though "fieldwork at home" or "near at home," with people who largely share our cosmology, usually addresses more specific issues, in my case the questions of history and memory.

I am sorry to say that I didn't have much of an idea of what fieldwork was before I started it. We had had a great deal of theoretical training from famous experts in the field; we read, wrote, and discussed voraciously, but we had almost no actual training in field technique — the unstated thinking was, I suspect, that making it on your own enhanced the experience and the process of understanding and analysing the culture.

I remember the traditional annual seminar for all the prospective PhD students in the presence of the whole department.

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We presented our fieldwork proposals, one by one. The Africanists were always particularly tough, and one student proposed to study diamond smuggling in Sierra Leone. This was before the term "blood diamonds" had been coined, but the extreme brutality associated with the diamond trade was well known. There was a thoughtful silence after he finished reading his lengthy and theoretically rich proposal, after which the chairman of the department asked, "And how do you propose to survive your fieldwork?

Now I think of that proposal, and that moment, as capturing the spirit of the department. We were on our own, deliberately so. I was lucky, however, in my supervisor, Daniel Miller, an already eminent, now-famous anthropologist, and an energetic and encouraging correspondent. At least that was my experience. The process of cultural analysis was not dissimilar from the process of my psychoanalysis the years before my fieldwork, only more intense.

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The road was much as it had been on my first visit in the spring. I passed the old shop on the right, and some white brick blocks of flats on the left, and arrived, finally, at the central square. I parked the car and cautiously stepped out. The square was empty. The glass in the door of the shoddy white brick culture hall was broken, and inside the bare concrete staircase was chipped and dusty.

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Review Posted Online: Dec.

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Description From to , Sigrid Rausing completed her anthropological fieldwork on the penninsula of Noarootsi, a former Soviet border protection zone in Estonia. Abandoned watchtowers dotted the coastline, and the huge fields of the Lenin collective farm were laying fallow, waiting for claims from former owners who had fled war and Soviet and Nazi occupation. Rausing's research focused on the loss of historical memory during the Soviet occupation, and the slow revival of an independent Estonian culture, including the recognition of the minority Swedes in Estonia.

She lived and worked amongst the villagers, witnessing their transition from repression to independence, and from Soviet neglect to post-Soviet austerity. About the Author Sigrid Rausing is a writer, philanthropist, anthropologist, and publisher. She has won several awards for her work in philanthropy and human rights, serves on the advisory board of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and is an emeritus member of the international board of Human Rights Watch.