News this month that Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and the Estonian Parliament had passed legislation clearing the way for the removal of the Bronze Soldier monument (originally Monument to Liberators of Tallinn) has ignited a considerable historical debate, and roiled Russia-Estonia Relations. (this week Russia threatened sanctions if the statue is moved). The Bronze Soldier, which has stood on Tõnismägi Hill in Tallinn since 1947, is seen by the Russians (and some supporters in Estonia) as a monument to their fallen troops in WWII battles against Nazi Germany, celebrating the liberation of the Baltic states. However, it is viewed by the majority of Estonians as a gruesome reminder of the Soviet occupation and empire. At the center of this complex and bitter debate are some fundamental questions about the politics of identity of the former Soviet satellite states and Russia itself. Unfortunately, the West is still nursing a pretty extreme ideological hangover from the Cold War, which results in a tacit and sometimes overt request that Russia “regret” its history. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a fervent nationalism driven by a powerful and unspoken nostalgia for empire. Both versions involve some historical revisionism, and one can only hope that with time, Russians can be proud to be Russians without attaching that identity to past and current authoritarian regimes. From today’s New York Times:
Until then the Bronze Soldier was a largely uncontroversial place of mourning, saved from the dismantling of all other Soviet monuments in 1991. The main monument to Lenin came down four days after the start of the failed coup against the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The clash gave impetus to the wishes of those who viewed the Bronze Soldier not as a war memorial but as a symbol of Soviet occupation. “We don’t want to be weighed down by the past,” Mr. Ilves said. “We want to think about where we are going, what we are doing, but all of that sort of comes back when you have, basically, a very provocative demonstration glorifying the Soviet Union and Soviet power.” He added, “When you see red flags and hammers and sickles, people get upset.” Russia has said disinterring the remains believed to rest beneath the monument would violate the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of war dead. Mr. Lang said the evidence was not clear. Anyone buried there, he said, would have died elsewhere and could be lawfully removed to another place. He added that a trolley bus stop made the site inappropriate. No one is talking about removing it, though. Kadri Liik, director of the International Center for Defense Studies here, said Russia’s reaction fit a pattern of quarreling with its neighbors over history, which she said was personally important to President Vladimir V. Putin as he sought to rebuild a national identity based on a Soviet foundation that, at least in the case of World War II, was unassailable. “They feel so offended by anyone who challenges their view of history,” she said, referring to Russians’ refusal to recognize Soviet rule in Estonia as an occupation. “They should be discussing the other side of the coin.”
Estonians have a mixed view of that history: invaded by both Nazi German and Soviet forces in the war, they had men on both sides of the conflict. The Soviet era also saw the deportation of tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberian labor camps. Some are resentful that such a memorial exists in the center of Tallinn: last year, nationalists protested at the monument and vandals painted the statue with stripes in white and blue, two of the colors of the Estonian tricolor flag. But feelings about the statue in Estonia cut little ice in Moscow, where the Russian foreign ministry recently summoned Estonia’s ambassador to express its anger. The ministry called the Estonian plan a “blasphemous idea and a blatant mocking of the memories” of Red Army soldiers.
“Russia’s threats cannot influence decisions by a democratic sovereign state. It is absolutely obvious that the Estonian people will decide for themselves how to arrange their affairs in their republic,” [Prime Minister Andrus] Ansip said in an interview with Interfax. … “What respect are we talking about while a lot of people stamp on the grave, hold rallies, drink vodka or wait for a trolleybus there – this goes against the Estonian people’s idea of peace for the dead and the place of their eternal rest,” he said. … “The symbols of both occupation regimes are banned in Estonia if they are used for fuelling hatred and if this is done in violation of public peace,” Ansip said. “Nobody bans using such symbols” for educational, artistic, commercial, or journalistic purposes or in order to reflect historical or contemporary events,” he said. However, “both the swastika and the hammer and sickle are symbols of occupation regimes in Estonia,” he said.