The title of this bestseller from Sofi Oksanen alludes to the mass deportation to Stalin's gulags of those Estonians deemed to have collaborated during the 1941-44 German occupation. The purge is pivotal for the family at the centre of her story, but Oksanen also moves beyond the bitter dilemmas of collusion and resistance to deal with the more private horror of sexual violence during both peace and war.
The story spans 60 years, opening in 1992 after Estonia has regained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Aliide Truu, an elderly widow, lives by canning fruit on the outskirts of a forest in western Estonia. She pursues a land restitution case and is tormented by stone-throwers who revile her communist history. Her daughter has moved to Helsinki because "Estonia was full of people who kept saying that they should have left for Finland or Sweden during the war", a regret "passed on to the next generation with their lullabies". The buried past resurfaces when Aliide takes in Zara, a bruised and dishevelled "dishrag of a girl" from Vladivostok who has turned up in her yard.
As the two women circle one another, each suspicious by reflex, the novel moves back and forth in time. We learn that Zara, granddaughter of an Estonian woman exiled to Siberia during the purge, is on the run from Russian pimps after being trafficked via Berlin as a sex worker. Her gangster pursuers are closing in but, for the widow, "they might as well all come – Mafia thugs, soldiers – Reds and Whites – Russians, Germans, Estonians . . . Aliide would survive. She always had."
The price of that survival is one concern of the novel. Aliide's story takes us back to the Soviet reoccupation of 1944, when the German "liberators" fell to the Red Army that had invaded four years earlier, seizing her parents in the process. Her sister Ingel's fiancé, Hans Pekk – for whom Aliide holds a secret passion – is a peasant and nationalist, and they hide him when the Russians begin to round up the "bandits". Interrogated by the communist militia, the sisters endure sexual abuse in the basement of the town hall along with Ingel's seven-year-old daughter, who is left mute with shock. The ordeal crushes Aliide: "The only thing left alive was the shame."
A marriage to the Communist party organiser eventually follows, while Ingel and her daughter are sent to Siberia. As Aliide outwardly conforms, the story follows the Estonian century from the Russian migrant influx to Chernobyl, when the country's crops were requisitioned by Moscow and its people were forced to eat tainted Ukrainian food. With independence come recriminations. One communist claims: "We were all just following orders. We were good people. And now all of a sudden we're bad." But for Aliide, "too many people had dirty flour in their bags, and people with filthy fingers are hardly enthusiastic about digging up the past . . . those who poke around in the past will get a stick in the eye."
Sexual terror, on the other hand, appears circular. Aliide and Zara, 40 years apart, bathe and burn their clothes in a ritual "purge" following their experiences of abuse. When Tallinn acquires its first sex shop, the pimps are ex-KGB. For Aliide, "Everything was repeating itself. Even if the ruble had changed to the kroon . . . there would always be . . . a boot on your neck." Then suddenly, the novel hints at a break in the cycle with a redemptive act of atonement.
Shot through with sibling jealousy, the plot has a gothic power and implausibility, with people stifled in sealed chambers and corpses left under floorboards. Aliide's own warped cruelty enables a brutal honesty about the moral ambiguities of collaboration, with Oksanen, a young Finnish writer of Finnish-Estonian parentage, brave enough to depict earlier generations as clearly culpable. Regime change becomes a pretext for settling personal scores; people move into homes vacated by purged neighbours, conniving against their "rehabilitation" with each blast of glasnost. In a twist reminiscent of 2006 German film drama The Lives of Others, uncovered intelligence reports deepen the sense of betrayal.
Yet resistance also survives. The first and last words are given to Hans's diaries and the novel is dotted with lines from the poet Paul-Eerik Rummo, a protester against Russification. Aliide fears her daughter has been cut off from Estonian tradition and "couldn't tell a plantain from a dewdrop", but Zara's Estonian grandmother has doggedly kept her archaic mother tongue. Their secret language, writes Oksanen, "sprouted word by word and started to blossom mistily, yellowish, the way dead languages blossom, rustling sweetly like the needle of a gramophone".