Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia by Sigrid Rausing

The personal side of an anthropologist’s year in post-Soviet Estonia.


Sigrid Rausing spent a year on a collective farm on the west coast of Estonia in the mid-1990s, doing fieldwork for her Ph.D. in social anthropology. Her time there yielded an academic book, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia: The End of a Collective Farm. “Much as [that book] excluded the personal,” she writes, “this book excludes the academic.” Everything Is Wonderful contains Rausing’s remembrances, after nearly 20 years, of time spent in an unusual cultural landscape and the questions that remain with her.

The tone of this slim memoir is quiet and unobtrusive; engaging in participation observation is the anthropologist’s aim. Rausing contemplates the legacies of the Soviet Union in Estonia as a country and a culture, and in the village she lived in. As a parallel, she considers her own cultural identity as a Swede living in England who finds herself at home in a place where Estonian Swedes once made up a sizable and powerful minority, before the Nazis sent them to Sweden in a “perhaps overly collaborative” evacuation.

Rausing’s subjects include the everyday tedium and alcoholism of a small village in a deeply depressed region; they include dream interpretations, and loving descriptions of natural settings, despite the monochromatic winter that occupies most of the year. Interactions with her neighbors and friends are rendered with an eye for irony. Yet for all its bleak detail, Rausing’s work resonates with nostalgia as well. “I was tired, and often hungry,” she recalls, “but even now, twenty years later, I miss those long quiet walks in that melancholy and restful landscape.”

This review originally ran in the March 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 “cocktails.”

4 Responses

  1. Wow, so many intriguing elements you bring out in this one little book! Collaborative Swedes, dream interpretation, and of course the collective farm itself. Looks like a must-read for me! Thanks for posting about it.

    • Hi Sharon. Great, I’m glad we found a good one for you! There were a great many different things going on here; and the short format for the Shelf Awareness reviews really makes it an interesting challenge, to pack it all in. I’m happy that I was able to reach you through that short format. šŸ™‚

  2. I will read this book too; your review definitely strikes chords up & down the scale.

    I am intrigued by your phrase “participation observation” – yours, not hers? It sounds like “bearing witness” in the moment of time & place.

    And, did the word or concept of ascetic occur to you in her narrative? I seem to sense that as well…

    • “Participant observation” is a term in the field of anthropology; my layperson’s understanding (I took one undergraduate course) is that this means not only standing by and taking notes, but living within the community or culture one is studying. So the author, as an anthropologist, should be observing and participating; and I think she did.

      Google’s definition of ‘ascetic’ seems to specifically mean abstention or self-denial; I suppose that’s true of the author’s experience, but her Estonian neighbors couldn’t be seen as choosing their lifestyle, I don’t think, so I’m not sure that works. I certainly understand that word occurring to you, though.

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