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Estonia and the Memory of the Soviet Union
[Opinion] What if nationalists are allowed to simplify history?
Darin Foster (dfoster)     Print Article 
  Published 2007-02-25 15:35 (KST)   
In a case which may have implications for all of Eastern Europe, on Feb. 22 Estonian President Toomas Hendrick Ilves vetoed legislation that had called for the removal of a Soviet war memorial erected in 1947.

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Under pressure from his own party and the Russian government, President Ilves had announced that he would not sign the bill even as it was working its way through the Estonian legislature earlier this month. The bill will now go back to Parliament, which has threatened to override the presidential veto.

Should that happen, the Estonian Supreme Court will likely get a chance to review the constitutionality of the legislation. When and if the matter reaches them, the members of the Supreme Court will be asked not only to rule on the constitutionality of the proposed law, but also to provide a governmentally-sanctioned interpretation of history.

At the center of the conflict is a large statue known as the Bronze Soldier, which has stood for decades near a small cemetery in the heart of Tallinn, the capital city. Arguments over the meaning of the statute have been ongoing inside Estonia, and on the internet, for years.

The Bronze Soldier of Tallinn. (Photo by LHoon.)
The monument was originally built as a memorial to honor the sacrifices and accomplishments of the Soviet Red Army, which entered Estonia in 1944. The Soviets felt that they were liberating the country from a Nazi puppet-government that had been installed in 1941.

From the Soviet viewpoint, the occupation of Estonia, like the defeat of Nazi Germany generally, was both politically necessary and morally correct. Good won, and evil was punished. For many Russians, and for many among the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia, this interpretation of history remains inviolable.

For the approximately 1 million ethnic Estonians, the matter is much more complex. Like many minority peoples, Estonians have a long memory, and they do not forget the injustices they have suffered at the hands of their more powerful neighbors. For Estonians, the perceived history of repression reaches back to 1721, when the territory of Estonia was absorbed into Czarist Russia following the defeat of Sweden by the Russian army.

Estonians had to wait almost 200 years before they gained a brief period of independence following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Estonia remained independent, but politically chaotic, until 1939. In August of that year, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in which the two mighty nations agreed to divide up the smaller states situated between them, namely Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Estonia came within in the Soviet "sphere of influence." Within a year, Soviet troops had occupied independent, neutral Estonia.

History is a chaotic force, and Soviet advances in the Baltic states were quickly followed by retreat. After a period of harsh repression, deportations and executions, the Red Army was pushed out of Estonia by advancing Nazis in the summer of 1941.

Seeing the Nazis as liberators, most Estonians welcomed them with open arms, believing Hitler셲 assurances of independence and assistance. The occupying Nazis exterminated Estonia's small Jewish population and established 22 concentration camps in the country.

Despite Germany's refusal to recognize their independence, many Estonians sympathized with the Nazi cause and volunteered to fight the Soviets. The 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian) was formed, and it saw action along the Narva Line. The Red Army defeated the last fascist troops in Estonia in the fall of 1944.

For years after the war, Estonian guerrillas known as the "Forest Brothers" continued to wage attacks on Soviet forces. Soviet retaliation was harsh, with mass deportations and other forms of political repression. It was not until 1991 that the country broke away from the rapidly crumbling Soviet Union, and once again regained its independence.

Independent Estonia is a tiny country of only 1.3 million people, of which approximately one-third describe themselves as ethnic Russians and tend to speak only Russian. Ethnic tensions have simmered, and sometimes boiled over, in country since the fall of the Soviet regime. Issues of language, economics, and democratic participation have all been sources of tension.

Underneath these surface phenomenon, and in many ways guiding them, is a basic conflict in the interpretation of history. Understood from this viewpoint, the current debate over the fate of the Bronze Soldier has implications for all of Eastern Europe and for the world at large.

At the most simplistic level, Russians continue to view ethnic Estonians as unrepentant Nazis. In turn, the Estonians see the Russians as repressive, conquering dictators who attempted, through the veil of the Soviet Union, to crush all independent thought, culture and heritage in Eastern Europe.

Tragically, there appears to be more than a kernel of truth in each community셲 view of the other. The image of the Estonian Nazi continues to be furthered by such acts as the country's opposition, unique in Europe, to the banning of the swastika as a political symbol, the erection in 2005 of a monument to soldiers of the Nazi SS, and a well-circulated photo of a member of the volunteer militia sporting swastika earrings on national independence day.

At the same time, the Soviets were obviously cruel masters in the Baltics. The original 1939 Soviet-Nazi treaty was an undeniable act of imperial colonialism. The Soviet period saw huge portions of the Estonian population deported to Siberia. Democracy was non-existent, and all expressions of Estonian pride or nationalism were ruthlessly crushed. For much of the Soviet period a clear policy of Russification took place throughout the Baltic states.

These complexities are not unique to the Estonian-Russian relationship. Soveit monuments such as the one in Estonia exist in a number of Eastern European cities. A large Soviet World War II monument in Budapest, Hungary stands directly outside the United States Embassy. The city of Riga, in Latvia is home to a monument similar to the one in Tallinn. Monuments across Poland commemorate the victories of the Red Army over Nazi forces. Recently, one town in southern Poland has proposed to dismantle a Soviet monument and replace it with a statue of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

In each of these countries, memories of World War II and the entire Soviet period continue to have enormous emotional impact. Almost every one of them is undergoing a profound period of national revival and self-assertion. They are independent, and they are proud.

However, at some point, every country must come to terms with its own past, and it must often do so in the context of a chaotic history and strained relations with neighbors. Whether this process occurs through conflict or cooperation, it must occur.

As visible markers of history, monuments and statutes often become the focal point of efforts to redefine the past, and by extension, the future. It is almost universally true that the victors write the history, but does that fact obliterate the objective truths of history? Does the destruction of statues signal confident independence, or is it the first step towards intolerance and conflict?

The objective truth of World War II is that the Russian people sacrificed to an almost unimaginable degree. With the exception of the Jews of Europe, no people suffered more at the hands of the Nazi regime. Over 20 million people, 25 percent of the population, was eliminated in only a few years. The Soviet advance across Eastern Europe in 1944 was one of the greatest military maneuvers of history.

The war unified a continental country, providing enduring symbols of duty, sacrifice, bravery and deep humanity. There is little meaningful debate that the defeat of Hitler and the other minor Nazi parties of Europe was both right and proper. For one of the few times in history, unqualified evil was punished.

The question is, how does a country, or the world, balance those good and noble acts against the repression that followed? Is it possible to commemorate the virtues and sacrifices of the Soviet people, without pardoning the injustices and cruelties of the Soviet leadership? More specifically, can the modern Russia of Vladimir Putin continue to take pride in the key role Russians played as liberators of Europe, while still acknowledging the repression that followed?

On the other side, can the native Estonians renounce their cooperation with the Nazi regime while still retaining national pride in their struggle for independence? Does either side have the strength and bravery to admit that its view of history is not 100 percent correct?

These are not just idle questions, they are key to a cooperative, productive future in the Baltic states. The facts are chaotic, and the truth is messy, and that is how it should be. The Bronze Soldier may in fact have two meanings. And that may be a very good thing. Rather than dismantle an inconvenient past, Estonia should welcome the opportunity to debate with its former master.

The people of Estonia, and across Eastern Europe, must learn to accept the contradictions embodied in the statute and in their own history. If they do not, and if Estonia allows nationalist politics and fringe extremists to simplify history, the country will have taken its first step away from democracy and towards dictatorship.

- Estonia and the Memory of the Soviet Union by Darin Foster (Read by Claire George) 

©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Darin Foster

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