The past is unpredictable
Conflicting views of Soviet history
DEPENDING on your sympathies, your education and your historical experience, a giant bronze Soviet-era soldier in Tallinn, Estonia, may celebrate the liberation of the Estonian capital from fascism; or it may depict the “unknown rapist” in Soviet uniform whose arrival marked the end of one occupation and the start of another.
In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine (or Kyiv—even spelling can be controversial), the church of St Cyril is to some a precious symbol of Kievan Rus’‚ the fabled medieval principality from which both Ukraine and Russia claim descent; to others an obscure museum that badly needs a new coat of paint and proper management.
These are not academic arguments among historians. The Estonian parliament has infuriated Russia with a new law on war graves allowing the bronze soldier to be shifted to the suburbs.
Such a move would be “akin to the [Spanish] inquisition’s destruction of the texts and monuments of classical antiquity”, said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Kremlin fixer and a grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, who negotiated with the Nazis to divide Europe in 1939. From the upper house of the Russian parliament, Mikhail Margelov, another foreign-policy heavyweight, has called for a suspension of diplomatic relations.
A subtler clash of cultures is echoing through St Cyril’s, where the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, tied ecclesiastically to Russia, has influence. Moves may be afoot to redecorate the interior, which contains unique frescoes showing the life of St Cyril.
That thought has provoked anguish among Ukrainians who fear that their country's religious and cultural heritage is being bought, taken or spoiled by their neighbours to the north. They suspect Russian religious conservatives of wanting to do down Ukraine as a rival claimant to the spiritual and historical legacy of Kievan Rus’.
A detail from St Cyril's
Even so, there ought at least to be common ground that the best thing to do with anything rare and fragile is to study it first. It is unbelievable if, as one scholar insists, the interior of St Cyril’s has not been exhaustively photographed and catalogued, the more so in a country with few surviving medieval monuments and with hardly any with iconographic evidence from the Byzantine period.
The argument over Estonia’s bronze soldier is both more banal and more visceral. It has been got up partly by the Reform Party, a member of the ruling coalition, which wants to burnish its patriotic credentials before parliamentary elections in March.
In a narrow sense it has succeeded. It has turned Estonians who reject everything about the Soviet era against Estonians with a lingering respect for the Red Army’s bravery.
But it is hard to argue that Estonia needs this argument right now, and even harder to argue that Estonia should be expending shamefully scarce diplomatic capital defending its behaviour abroad. Most Western countries reckon that war graves should be depoliticised where possible—though, even here, the facts are in dispute. Estonia says there are no Soviet war dead beneath the bronze soldier. Russia says there are.
For good measure the Estonian parliament may designate September 22nd, when Soviet forces captured Tallinn, a “resistance memorial day”; and penalise public display of both Nazi and Soviet symbols.
Fair enough, you might say. But there are so many other things which should have a prior claim on politicians’ attention. Look at the suspicious renationalisation of Estonia’s railways, the rampant corruption in parts of government, xenophobic migration laws, and foolish short-termism in party politics. Patriotism may not always be, as Dr Johnson once claimed, the last refuge of a scoundrel. But it does afford a convenient camouflage.