Thursday, January 18, 2007

europe.view column from


The past is unpredictable

Jan 18th 2007

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.


Eliis said...

Isn't Estonia a sovereign state? I believe it is, so why is Russia interveneing in Estonia's affairs? I mean, Estonians want to relocate a monument on Estonian soil, if that is not an internal affair, then what is?

I'm not the least bit surprised that Estonians reject anything connected to the Soviets. During the Soviet occupation Estonians were forced to reject their identity, they were subjugated to an extensive Russification. No wonder they aren't so chummy towards the Soviets.

dudzon said...

Well, there's an unspoken truth to be told : "Yesterday tanks, nowadays pipelines". Red Army used to threaten the entire world, communism collapsed,but new Russian octopus, called Gasprom, has raised its tentacles. Gasprom , tightly connected with Kremlin is a brutal force that crushes everyone and everything on its way.

It's a pity that western governments are so naive when it comes down to dealing with Russia. Blair, Chirac, Merkel, they all believe that "wishful thinking" will become reality someday. They're simply turning a blind eye to what I say is a constant and well planned raping a fragile Russian democracy. In fact, democracy in Russia has been already raped and torn into shreds.

Western goverments seem to be deaf and blind, and just don't care of establishing democratic instruments in Russia. They keep neglecting "red alerts" sounded by "New post-commie Europe", beacuse as long as Russia is "reliable" oil and gas provider, the rest does not matter. It's a very short-sighted policy. I'd like to be mistaken but history sometimes repeats, and we all know where "wishful thinking" leads, aren't we?

Mr. Lucas wrote a couple of weeks ago a great article urging us all to stand up to the new Russian imperialism. Isn't it too late?

Maybe I'm a little bit biased, maybe it's too pesimistic from Polish perspective, but "Old Europe" must realize that new cold war is on the horizon, no matter how many "New Ruskies" settle down in London.

Tom from Poland.

martintg said...

I wonder if Russian hysteria over this issue has anything to do with the behaviour of the Soviets in the early days of the occupation of Estonia. There were several hundred monuments to the Estonian 1920 War of Independence. Most of these monuments were located in cemeteries. The Soviets removed ALL of them. The soviets even vandalized whole cemeteries like in Kopli and Kalamaja in Tallinn.

martintg said...

Further to my comment above, I think Moscow's hysteria seems to be due to their apparent belief that the rest of the world acts as cynically as Moscow does. They view the passing of this Estonian legislation to *protect* war memorials is just a cynical exercise to destroy all Soviet memorials. So this legislation is protrayed as a prelude to some kind of payback, because that is what Moscow did to Estonia in the 1940's when it removed all the war memorials to those killed in the Estonian War of Independance, every single one. Hence the hysteria. However Estonia today will not act in the same bestial manner as Moscow did in the 1940s. It really is a clash of culture, Russians seem to like their war graves located in down town city parks adjacent to bus stops, while Estonians prefer their war graves located in cemeteries.

Giustino said...

Well, I think it is safe to acknowledge that the Russian Federation has been waging a PR war against Estonia for what seems like forever. Almost every day there is at least one government-informed press release that manages to condemn Estonia - beit its "glorification of fascism" or its "discrimination against the Russian-speaking minority."

This latest activity on the part of the Estonian government only gives the Russian state PR agencies more red meat with which to continue their propaganda war.

Think about this. The Estonian government could rescind its preamble to border treaty, give citizenship to all residents born in Estonia during the occupation, basically do everything Russia "wants" it to, short of changing the official language, which it should never do, and Estonia would probably continue to perform as well economically as it has, and stay as corruption-free (compared to other post-communist states) as it has, and, basically, continue to succeed as it has.

I am NOT saying that they should compromise their principles. I am saying that you've got to know which fights to pick. The Bronze Soldier may be in Estonia, but the guys under it are most likely Russians (if anyone is buried there at all). So this whole controversy just gives the Russians another opportunity to look at Estonia and, as usual, find something they don't like about it.

However, I think that Russia has gotten quite used to the idea of Estonia as a NATO and EU member state. They routinely use it as a bargaining chip, or to distract allegations of human rights abuses. They enjoy talking about Estonia in the EU context. In other words, the road from Tallinn to Moscow really DOES go through Brussels, as President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said last September.

Estonia and Russia have a long, bloody history. But Estonia has remained independent these past 16 years, and it will continue to remain independent. Russians know that the dumbest thing they could do is let a nation of uppity Estonians into their federation. They have enough trouble with those uppity caucasians.

bonzoq said...

I live in Poland and before 1989(the year when communism collapsed) in the very center of my home town of Debica there was a monument of soviet soldiers. Rumour has it there was also a grave underneath it. Right now I'm not sure whetever that is true or not since I was only five when the monument was shifted to a russian war cementary. 17 years later the renovated market square is one of the nicest places in our city, where people go for a drink or to listen to concerts. I can't imagine all that with a monument of russian soldiers in the middle. My point is, let Estonians freely move any monuments in their country if that makes them feel better, in my case it surely did.

Andreas said...


although it's my country you're talking about, then it's still nice to see, that someone is actually noticing. Being from the centre-right conservative party - I too naturally support the removal of the monument as it really mocks the idea, that Estonia is an independent and sovereing country which has been able to shake off its historical baggage and head steadfast into the West. I went to school, the Tallinn English College which used to be situated right next to the monument and believe me, it's quite difficult to walk to class every morning with the Red Army greeting you.
On the other hand, unfortunately your point is valid. Its one thing to relocate the state and war graves to a proper cemetary but completely another to run a circus around the issue as the Reform party has been doing. All it has been able to do is to gradually scale up the conflict between Estonians and resident-Russians and has been constantly feeding the Russian propaganda machine - and the worst part, our diplomatic capital is very fastly running out.