Bild på ett anteckningsblock, Satakunnan museo

Liina Saarlo


The article is focused on fieldwork diaries, written during the first decades after World War II. During the Sovietization of Estonia, huge institutional, methodological and discourse changes took place in Estonian folkloristics, as in Estonian humanities and research politics in general. A new occurrence for the Estonian Folklore Archives was waves of multiple censorship in the collection work. During the post-war years, the collection of folkloric material had began in masse in accordance with new aims and strategies. A large number of philology students were drafted into collection work. They were to write fieldwork diaries as a part of their collection work reports. To a lesser extent, also professional folklorists composed journals.

Since no visual censure markings can be found in the fieldwork diaries of that time, I will try to find in them the signs of self-censorship by applying a method of “close reading”. By choosing to look at the most censorship sensitive topics in references to political and societal changes, I would like to find an answer to the question: should fieldwork diaries be considered as true documents mirroring their period or as fictitious writings?

Overturns of research politics

In the 1940s, Estonian folklorists witnessed several reversals of research politics. The Estonian Republic was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939). After the Nazi German occupation (1941–1944), Estonia was reoccupied by the Soviet Union and became a Soviet Republic, like the other Baltic States. In addition to political and socio-economic changes, Estonia was hit by the peak of the Stalinist terror. Repressions threatened all strata of society and arose from illogical and sycophantic accusations.1 Reforms, brought about by the application of the unifying model for republics of the Soviet Union, changed institutional and personal networks, as well as the standpoint of folkloristics and other Estonian studies. With the need to constantly oppose the previous socio-political order, previous research efforts were declared to be tendentious and even detrimental, thus discursively discontinuing the development of Estonian studies. (See e.g. Kulasalu 2017).

Estonian folklorists were brought into the fold of the Soviet paradigm during the union-wide conferences in Moscow or other centers of the former empire. During those summits, researchers were “given a helping hand” by the Soviet folklorists in the application of Soviet folkloristic methodology and were given instructions on research and fieldwork organisation. The focus was on contemporary Soviet folklore, which included workers’ lore about the struggle between the social classes, heritage connected to the Second World War and folklore of collective farms. (See e.g. Oinas 1986; Panchenko 2005).

Estonian folklorists managed rather successfully to adapt to Soviet regulations, finding opportunity to avoid unwanted topics (such as Soviet and Russian folklore) and turning to other topics that were favoured within Soviet humanities and were amenable to Soviet rhetoric, such as heroic epics and archaic runo-song tradition. They continued folkloristic fieldwork, carrying on fieldtrips in rural areas, recording mostly archaic folklore and not sacrificing archiving standards.

Folkloristic fieldwork diaries

The aim of the folklore collection fieldwork diaries is to contextualize and prove the authenticity of the collected material and folklore collections in general. The tradition to write fieldwork diaries in Estonia is as long as the history of Estonian folklore collection itself. In 1888, Jakob Hurt, the initiator of the nationwide folklore collection campaign, advised his stipendiaries to avoid anonymity by adding to collected folklore materials geographical and performers’ personal information and reports of their collection trips (Jaago 2005). Even more persistent in requiring travelogues from stipendiaries was Dr Oskar Kallas during the folk music collection campaign in the beginning of the 20th century (Kuutma 2005). After that, the diaries became a compulsory part for Estonian folkloristic fieldworks.

The diary written during fieldwork is a kind of warranty for authenticity of the folklore materials that it were indeed collected from definite people and not copied from literary sources or made up – which is a general and well-known problem in history of European folkloristics.

The content and structure of the fieldwork diaries has changed over time, at the same time they are individual writings exempt from standard form. Moreover, one can find funny (and sad) travelogues, detailed (and superficial) reports, extensional and theoretical discussions as well as everyday life descriptions in the archived folklore materials.

Fieldwork diaries can be placed on the border between public and private writings (cf. Annuk 2007). On the one hand, they were not diaries of personal thoughts and musings since they are preserved with the collected materials, basically, in a public archive. Because of their reporting content, the writer undoubtedly thought about the intended reader – internship overseer, archivists, future folklore researchers etc. On the other hand – the journals were never meant for publication, but primarily served the role of an information source, not as an independent literary text.

Diaries and censorship

This article is based on 160 fieldwork diaries from 1940–19602. 60 of those are written by students, who composed them as a task during their internship; other report-overviews were written by professional folklorists (although partly by the same students after graduation) to accompany materials collected during trips and joined expeditions. Despite the absence of diaries’ set characteristics as a genre, their general content basics had been determined: data about the performers and descriptions of the performance situations. That is why it is always interesting to read: what else was found necessary to discuss? And even more interesting is what was omitted.

I will not publicize the names of the diaries’ authors in the following discussion, except on occasions when identification is required for understanding the personal context. Writing about post-war folkloristics cannot be without in-depth discussion of the censorship of folklore collections. During 1940–1950 several waves of “control” of folklore collections took place, during which prohibited and “questionable” topics and personal names were removed: such as politics and tensions between ethnic groups (patriotic songs and tales, jests towards Russians and the Soviets; folklorists, who escaped to the west during the war, and coworkers, who were connected to patriotic organizations; also folklore of sexual content) (see Kulasalu 2013).

In addition to considering direct, external censorship, the diaries’ writers also had to use self-censorship. Fieldwork journals were archived and bound with the manuscripts of folklore material. Folklore collections were freely accessible to the researchers during the whole time the archive functioned (both during independent and Soviet Estonia), the circle of archive users was not limited to folklorists, but also included representatives from other disciplines, students and pupils, local history researchers, folklore practitioners etc. It was almost impossible to put any usage restrictions on the materials, the only way for it to be done – was not to archive at all. That was why the diaries were also freely accessible, and it is thus likely that some collectors wrote parallel diaries that remained in private archives.

Obviously, the accessibility of the archive materials during those times cannot be compared to the situation today – they were not just one click away for anybody with Internet, but required a physical visit to the archive, identifying oneself, and time and effort to find the needed materials.

The self-censorship during Soviet times was influenced by two opposite – and mutually dependent – phenomena. Soviet authors– fiction writers, researchers, publicists – had to consider the obligation to adopt a position in the eyes of the public. There was no possibility to remain neutral towards the change of governing regime, it was obligatory to glorify the new power, to become “reborn” and criticize previous, independent Estonian Republic and its academic achievements, to use soviet rhetoric and stylistic.

One of the most absurd and obtrusive problems of the Soviet society was that changes in preferred academic trends – and consequently personnel – triggered by political ideologies, could change drastically overnight. This entailed that if a researcher (writer, columnist, etc.) had written something according to the generally accepted trend, using the required style and praising the representatives of the said trend, when the winds, and thus the trends, changed direction, those writings could be used as a reason for persecuting the writer. The reason for such constantly changing research politics – and politics in general – was an active strife among the highest ranks of the political party and the paranoia that constricted the communication of the executives all the way down the hierarchy. The aim was to create insecurity among the subordinates that would make them submissive and unable to mount resistance (Olesk 2011).

In between a rock and a hard place writers found themselves full of paranoia – expressing no opinion was punishable, but punishment could befall later for the previous “correct” opinion.

The result was constant self-censorship mostly in written, but also in oral expression. Self-censorship was used in all types of written communication, also in private ones. Writers of folkloristic fieldwork diaries had to consider that they were read by archivists (censures), other researchers, tutors in case of students, and random users on a later date. Thus, in addition to the obligatory praise of the societal order and the scientific trends, they had to sound neutral enough not to be blamed for their words later. It was easier to evade complicated and uncertain topics and ignore the changes in the society. This was probably the genre and the time in which Estonian folklorists mastered the “writing – and reading – between the lines”.


The most vivid example of topic evading and self-censorship are the diaries from 1949. The whole Soviet history is full of repressions’ waves in Soviet Russia, Soviet Republics as well as in annexed Baltic States. Historians brought several reasons for repressions – political, economic and psychopathological. In March of 1949 in Baltic States, the so called March deportation3 took place, and its target was the rural population. Its aim was not only the liquidation of kulaks4 (i. e. annihilation of wealthy rural population), but also to scare private farmers into joining collective farms (kolkhozes). It was very effective – the majority of Estonian collective farms was established during 1949.

It is extremely interesting to close read the journals of July-August of 1949, written only months after the repressions. Those were life-changing times for the Estonian folkloristic fieldworks. In 1948, a so called collection conference was arranged in the Estonian Literary Museum, where new directives for the organization of fieldworks in Estonian studies (archeology, ethnography, folkloristics, dialectology) were presented. So called expeditions became the new established fieldwork form, where much larger number of participants from different institutions/disciplines conducted fieldwork in country regions (Saarlo 2017: 122–123).

In July of 1949, a group of students with docent Eduard Laugaste carried out fieldwork in Mustjala parish, Saaremaa Island. The aim of the fieldwork was to collect archaic wedding songs; the collection of Soviet folklore was not yet on the agenda. On multiple occasions, urgent farming work and large numbers of religious sectarians were mentioned as deterrents to the folklore collection. However, distrust from informants is mentioned only once:

Regarding collection of the materials, it was vastly complicated by the fact that fieldwork coincided with the haymaking period. Because everyone was so busy, it was hard to connect to people and if it happened, they often refused to be interviewed under the pretence of urgent work. The last argument was definitely rather well grounded. The second major obstacle for the fieldwork was a great number of religious people, especially sectarian ones in some villages. Those people answered usually that surely, they knew those kinds of songs and stories in their youth, but not anymore.5

Sometimes there were difficulties to get any personal data. People were somehow afraid of the word-for-word writings to which precise personal data about them were added.6

During the same summer, a joint expedition was organized to Setumaa in South-Eastern Estonia, in which folklorists, philologists and musicologists participated. Their purpose was to record archaic singing tradition with modern equipment – reel-to-reel tape recorder. They noticed and documented contemporary Soviet folklore only on rare occasions. The diaries from the expedition were written by professional and experienced folklorists. They also meet with only “usual resistance” from the country folk, the reason for which is urgent farming work, shyness etc.

There are only a few occasions when the repressions are mentioned, they appear only next year in the students’ journals-reports that were done during a kolkhoz folklore collection. Those nine journals are special, since the aim of the students – the collection of kolkhoz folklore – was unique in the history of Estonian folkloristics. In 1950, the philology students were sent into newly formed kolkhozes in Central Estonia to document the local cultural development and emerged traditions in accordance with directives sent directly from the Soviet Union. The students interviewed mainly kolkhoz’s officials and charted economic figures. Their collected material perfectly mirrors the vocabulary and slogans of that time. A couple of times the liquidation of kulaks and the introduction of the new labour force are mentioned:

Kolga Ants was a kulak. He was deported in Soviet times. We ask everybody where the Bible of his is now. People generally guess that probably Ants took it with him [to Siberia].7

A lot of proletarians with [high political] awareness are moved into emptied kulaks’ farms from the Leningrad oblast.8

During the second half of the 1950s, when the deported started to return from prison camps, the topic was avoided yet again. Even if there was a considerable thaw after Stalin’s death, CPSU 20th Congress9 etc, folklorists preferred to avoid such topics in their diaries. Empty and dilapidated farmhouses are mentioned only in passing. Another expressive example can be found in a journal from 1956, in which the repression is named with a euphemistic term “seven year absence”:

I found the housewife of the Surma farm in her home. It was hard to get contact with her. She had arrived just at the 1st of June after the seven years of absence – she was nervous and upset. Otherwise, she was hospitable and friendly, asked to visit her once more.10

Even more food for thought is entailed in the rare directness with which this same situation is described by another folklorist, Loreida Raudsep11:

There are many empty houses, from which inhabitants are exiled, but these are not for sale, because the inhabitants have been coming back lately. The buyer is not interested in such houses anyway.12

I find Rosalie Maasik thinning out carrots in her garden. Having heard I am coming from Tallinn, she becomes curious right away. Are people coming back from “this distant land” [e.g. Siberia] already? How many of them are coming back? etc. I hear that she is waiting for her son to return…13

Such directness becomes more understandable if we know that Raudsep was – differently from her colleagues – a member of the Communist Party and spent the war-time in the Soviet homefront. Being a member of the party she had less to fear and it was easier for her to call a spade a spade. At the same time, she shows a need to educate and illuminate people on events in the society:

Then Liisa Tukk takes out fresh papers in which is printed the decision of the Central Committee about Molotov, Kaganovich and others.14 We read it together and translate it for the old folks and explain the problem.15


Massive collectivization of Estonian farms took place after the March repressions during 1949. There is not much on topics connected to kolkhoz life in the fieldwork diaries of 1949, although collective farms were established just a couple of months ago. In the students’ diaries there is mentioning of informants’ profession as ‘collective farmer’. But in the diaries of the Setumaa fieldwork, the absence of kolkhozes and not understanding their need can be found a couple of times:

It is news for us that there is still existing large-scale private farming here and there are no collective farms at all – I haven’t seen or heard of any here.16

In the students’ diaries of 1950, when the kolkhoz folklore was to be collected, the topic of kolkhoz life is brought up throughout. Kolkhozes’ economical achievements are described in great detail, also trends of industrialization and urbanization of rural life are acclaimed. The dates the visited collective farms were established are revealing – the second half of 1949:

In Tõstamaa, all people joined the collective farms since last year,” a wayfarer told us. “Anyway, you can hardly find any single farms here nowadays.”17

And, of course, there are only positive opinions about kolkhozes with critique towards “retrogrades”, who work against the communal work organization:

He tells about all kind of difficulties he had to confront while establishing the collective farm. “Try to establish any kolkhoz if the commune works against it,” he says. He shows me documents about registration of assets, which are so incomplete that they conduce to embezzlement of assets.

It is interesting to hear that local collective farmers are so sure in their kolkhoz, they believe in their future.18

There is a lot on the merger of the collective farms. Originally kolkhozes were organized on the basis of village communes, later (forcefully) merged for economical reasons which quickened the country inhabitants’ estrangement from the previous private farming system:

This way we have a future,” explains the chairwoman of the collective farm. “For the time being, joining isn’t useful for us, because our kolkhoz is much more prosperous, but we have to think about the future. If we had a 2000 ha of land, we could manage our life much better. We could establish a day-care center, a school, a culture-club, and a cinema. We have to think worthy of communists!”19


In the post war years, the appearance of immigrants from USSR brought mistrust and discontent. In addition to war refugees (runaway children, Ingrian Finns and other repressed ethnic groups), the descendants of people who settled on the Russian territory in the time of Russian Empire returned. Even if they had suffered during the Stalin’s repressions in the 1930s and their resettlement was not always voluntary, they still represented Soviet nomenclature for the local Estonians. They were put to quarter in the empty dwellings previously owned by people who escaped to the West or victims of deportations, they replaced deported specialists (for example school masters). At the same time, they were conspicuous by a strong Russian accent in their Estonian language and the ignorance in local life (see Kulu 1997).

There are only some hints about the changes in the rural demographics in the fieldwork diaries. For example, in 1949 a student mentions native inhabitants and new ones, “who were born and grew up in Russia. To ESSR she came only three years ago”. The writer describes her language, as a “unique combination of Räpina dialect and literary language with Russian accent”20. There are more descriptions of the immigrants in the reports of kolkhoz folklore collection in 1950. Like in the citation above, in those reports formal vocabulary and clichés characteristic of the times are used, which makes those materials cringe worthy reading.

Long live the Soviets!

In addition to the restrictions and writing between the lines, the Soviet self-censorship also contains compulsory topics, slogans and phrases – Sovietisms – that fog up the writer’s real thoughts and opinions. Can we conclude anything about her political views, if a student writes: “I was lucky to get a handwritten songbook of the farmer’s older daughter. It is interesting to trace the triumphant progress of the Soviet songs through the years, based on its content. There are almost no Soviet songs written down in 1946 and 1947, but in 1948 and 1949 there was a whole lot of them…”21?

The quote belongs to a later acknowledged writer, Ellen Niit, who neither collaborated with Soviet nomenclature nor acted in political life. In her memoirs, she writes about the universal self-censorship (Undusk 2018). There is high probability that the sentence was a compulsory addition, the need to register practically nonexistent “Soviet folklore” that was superficial in parallel to the collection of old wedding song tradition.

In students’ fieldwork journals descriptions of kolkhoz life can be found that are relatively simple, free from heavy Sovietisms and mirror, with a certain level of naiveté, the absurdity of the reality of that time:

At 10 pm in the school hall, a general meeting of collective farmers takes place, who send a greeting-telegram to com. Stalin on occasion of the 10th anniversary of the ESSR.22

Professional folklorists, like, for example Richard Viidalepp had already absorbed Soviet style and slogans by 1949:

The fact that this expedition was the first time (maybe it was even for the first time in the Soviet Union) we had an opportunity to use such a modern apparatus as a reel-to-reel tape-recorder for folkloristic and dialectical research has to be pointed out as an extraordinary achievement. It demonstrates the special heed the Soviet government and Bolshevist Party give to rising the standards of academic work and conducing the academic research in our Republic. Henceforward, we have to take extra care of fully using opportunities and benefits given to us.23

The last example was written down in the diary for humanly understandable reasons. Viidalepp, who began his work in the Folklore Archives in 1929, was fulfilling the duties of the head of the archive and worked in the name of preservation of the archive and its collection in the most difficult period – years between the Nazi and the Soviet occupation. His friends and colleagues from the years of independent Estonia had escaped to the West or were imprisoned – both by the Nazis and by the Soviets – or deported. He was one of the minority, who was spared from repressions24 and tried to adjust to the new society and research politics. He witnessed from the sidelines, but also felt on his own skin the danger of Soviet censorship and thus tried to avoid the trap of ideological self-positioning. While reading such diaries we have to keep in mind that those are extrovert and self-protective writings; it is important to ignore the ideological ornaments and not draw any conclusions about the writer’s political views based on these writings.


In this article, I tried to find answer to the question of if and how self-censorship presents itself in folklore collection fieldwork diaries. Despite the absence of diaries’ set characteristics as a genre, their general content basics had been determined: data about the performers and descriptions of the performance situations. The way that base is build on, i.e. the meat on the bones, is unique with accordance to the writer’s personality and time period.

The fieldwork journals that were written during the post-war period are, on the one hand, very traditional, since folklorists tried to continue the history of the discipline and ignore the changes in the society around them. On the other hand, the Soviet discourse that was widely spread in the writings was adapted for self-preservation. It depended mainly on the writer’s life experience – and sensibility – to decide, how far one should step into the world of new slogans. The amount of slogans decreased after the end of Stalinism, but the new universal discourse remained as well as the topics that were avoided.

Folkloristic fieldwork diaries are perfect examples of self-censured “between the lines” writing style during Soviet times. The avoidance of complicated topics, the preselection of released information, the usage of euphemisms and unexpected publicist style clichés make the reading of the diaries as documents, depicting a historical period, very difficult. Still, using a method of close reading, while disregarding the stylistic and thicket of slogans and considering the historical dates and events, one can find a real canvas depicting the meetings of country inhabitants with folklorists during in the post-war Estonia.


Manuscripts in the Estonian Literary Museum:

EKM, KKI = the folklore collection of the Institute of Language and Literature

EKM, RKM = the folklore collection of the State Literary Museum


Annuk, Eve (2007). Letters as a New Approach to History: A Case Study of an Estonian Poet Ilmi Kolla (1933−1954). Nora. Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, No. 1, pp. 6−20.

Jaago, Tiiu (2005). Jakob Hurt: the birth of Estonian-language folklore research. In: Kristin Kuutma and Tiiu Jaago (Eds.), Studies in Estonian Folkloristics and Ethnology. A Reader and Reflexive History. Tartu: University Press, pp. 45–64

Kasekamp, Andres (2010). A History of the Baltic States. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kulasalu, Kaisa (2013). Immoral Obscenity: Censorship of Folklore Manuscript Collections in Late Stalinist Estonia. Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics, No. 7 (1), 49−64.

Kulasalu, Kaisa (2017). From Estonian Folklore Archives to Folklore Department of the State Literary Museum: sovietization of folkloristics in late Stalinist Estonia. In: Dace Bula, Sandis Laime (Eds.), Mapping the History of Folklore Studies: Centers, Borderlands and Shared Spaces. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 132−153.

Kulu, Hill (1997). Eestlaste tagasiränne 1940−1989. Lääne-Siberist pärit eestlaste näitel. Helsinki: University of Helsinki.

Kuutma, Kristin. (2005). Oskar Kallas: an envoy of cultural heritage. In: Kristin Kuutma and Tiiu Jaago (Eds.), Studies in Estonian Folkloristics and Ethnology. A Reader and Reflexive History. Tartu: University Press, pp. 121–38

Mertelsmann, Olaf (Ed.) (2016). The Baltic States under Stalinist Rule. Das Baltikum in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 4. Köln: Böhlau.

Mertelsmann, Olaf; Rahi-Tamm, Aigi (June–September 2009). Soviet mass violence in Estonia revisited. Journal of Genocide Research, No. 11 (2–3): 316. doi:10.1080/14623520903119001.

Oinas, Felix J. (1985). The problem of the notion of Soviet folklore. In: Essays on Russian Folklore and Mythology. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, pp. 160–79.

Olesk, Sirje (2011). Writers’ Collaboration with the Soviet Authorities, and the Dominant Literary Journal in Estonian SSR in the 1940th and 1950ths. In: Mertelsmann, Olaf (Ed.), Central and Eastern European Media under Dictatorial Rule and in the Early Cold War. Tartu Historical Studies. 1. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, pp. 171−182.

Panchenko, Alexander A. (2005). The cult of Lenin and ‘Soviet Folklore’. Folklorica. Journal of the Slavic and East European Folklore Association, No. 10 (1), pp. 18–38.

Saarlo, Liina (2017). Regilaul in the political whirlpool: On collecting Regilaul in Northeast Estonia in the second half of the 1950s. Folklore. Electronic Journal of Folklore, No. 67, pp. 115−142. doi:10.7592/FEJF2017.67.saarlo

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[1] For an overview of Estonian history, see e.g. Kasekamp 2010; Zetterberg 2007; about Stalinism in Estonia, see e.g. Mertelsmann 2016.
[2] Most of those fieldwork diaries are accessible through the repository of Estonian Literary Museum KIVIKE (kivike.kirmus.ee).
[3] „The March deportation“ was the Soviet mass deportation from the Baltic states on 25–28 March 1949. More than 90,000 Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, labelled as „kulaks“, „enemies of the people“, „bourgeois nationalists“, etc. were deported to Siberia. See e.g. Mertelsmann & Rahi-Tamm 2009.
[4] A peasant wealthy enough to own a farm and hire labour. The kulaks resisted Stalin’s forced collectivization, but were arrested, exiled, or killed.
[5]EKM, KKI 19, 351/7 – Mustjala (1949).
[6] EKM, KKI 11, 200 – Mustjala (1949)
[7] EKM, KKI 12, 363 – Tõstamaa (1950).
[8] EKM, KKI 13, 245 – Põltsamaa (1950).
[9] In the February of 1956, during the closed session on the 20th Congress of The Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev denounced in his speech the personality cult and dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. The speech was lately read in Party organisations, but was released to the public only 33 years later.
[10] EKM, KKI 21, 126 – Iisaku (1956).
[11] Loreida Raudsep (1922–2004) was a folklorist at the Institute of Estonian Language and Literature.
[12] EKM, KKI 22, 25/6 – Iisaku – Loreida Raudsep (1956).
[13] EKM, KKI 22, 35 – Iisaku – Loreida Raudsep (1956).
[14] In June 1957, the plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU decided to withdraw several leaders of the Stalinist period from the governing body of the Party. The decision was published also in the local papers.
[15] EKM, KKI 26, 23 – Jõhvi – Loreida Raudsep (1957).
[16] EKM, KKI 16, 44 – Setumaa (1949).
[17] EKM, KKI 12, 339 – Tõstamaa (1950).
[18] EKM, KKI 16, 419 – Rõngu (1950).
[19] EKM, KKI 12, 349 – Tõstamaa (1950).
[20] EKM, RKM II 22, 117 – Räpina (1949).
[21] EKM, KKI 12, 342 – Tõstamaa – Ellen Niit (1950).
[22] EKM, KKI 13, 247 – Põltsamaa (1950)
[23] EKM, KKI 16, 73 – R. Viidalepp (1949)
[24]  EKM, He was not however spared from indirect repressions by loosing his academic degree and the salary level respectively (Saarlo 2017).