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The Critic Essay

The war of words over Estonia’s Soviet monuments

Despite three decades of independence, Estonia’s Soviet past is still a cause of division

On a strip of land just outside Tallinn, Estonia’s communist past comes to die. It is here that great hulking statues of the Soviet past rest in a cemetery, from a tired-looking Joseph Stalin to a completely decapitated Vladimir Lenin. They are subtle reminders of a time long ago but one that pervades even today, and one that is threatening to open up the most delicate of wounds in Estonian society. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, a frenzy was sparked across the former’s periphery. The Baltics feared — and still do —that they were next. Special laws and regulations were pushed through parliaments at breakneck speed, ideas that had been years in the making agreed on overnight. Time was of the essence and to act now was to act for the future, they said. 

For Estonia, part of this process entailed removing all trace of the USSR from public view, be it statues commemorating communist heroes of the past, reliefs of the hammer and sickle bound into Stalinist structures, or red stars straddling atop towering buildings. 

Though these removals have slowed down since President Alar Karis’ recent refusal to sign a vague, controversial, and “unconstitutional” bill that would entirely destroy such history, much in the way of art and monuments were quickly removed and covered up. Just like that, 51 years of history gone. Some saw a certain irony in the method, reminiscent of the very time being reevaluated. 

The justification was, and still is, that these monuments serve as a beacon for pro-Russian sentiment. In Narva, Estonia’s easternmost city which borders Russia and where 97 per cent of the locals speak Russian, people had begun gathering around a World War 2-era T-34 tank statue to voice concern over the way they felt they were being treated. 

Within a matter of weeks, that monument magically disappeared and turned up hundreds of miles away in Tallinn’s War Museum. When I travelled to the city in 2022, an icy and vacant-eyed Lenin pointed towards some distant memory in the form of Ivangorod, the Russian city on the other side of the Narva River. On returning two years later, a box shaped shadow stood where he once did. 

The whole process has disturbed many in Estonia: to what end will a country go to right an historical wrong? On a scorching hot day in the capital, Marek Tamm, Professor of Cultural History at the School of Humanities in Tallinn University, considered the motivation behind the recent anti-Soviet fever. 

“Statues cannot, of course, really be an immediate threat,” he said. “But they can be used for organising social upheavals and riots, and we have seen this.”

“Estonia does have some of these styles of monuments, but 90 per cent are just modest, small, funerary pieces, many somewhere in the old, forgotten graveyards of yesterday.”

For him, the mobilisation of opinion against the monuments feeds into political opportunism. “It is for certain that these political parties are using the monuments as a pretext to develop something I call the securitisation of history, to turn history into a political weapon, to argue that if you don’t do something immediately, and if you don’t erase these Soviet monuments, then they will be an existential threat to Estonian independence,” he said.

“It is political rhetoric, and not in the interest of the country to create imaginary effects around monuments.”

A government commission was created to identify and list each Soviet monument that posed a “risk” to society. The definitions they came up with were vague and often shrouded in mystery, as was the identity of those deciding what could and couldn’t stay. To this day, only the commission’s chair, Asko Kivinuk, has been named. 

The gist of the group’s mission was to find anything that “incited hatred and endangered the public”. They found 322 Soviet monuments, memorials, and war graves, of which 244 were deemed dangerous enough to be removed. Just 74 were considered safe enough to remain. 

Russia has since put Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on a wanted list for the “desecration of historical memory”. 

The whole ordeal was something of a farce for the likes of Tamm, who points out the risks involved when powers begin making decisions out of public view. 

“In a democratic society, I really don’t believe that there should be a secret committee making decisions about our heritage within a very short period of time, without any public responsibility, without any discussion,” he said. 

“It’s not the way we should proceed, we should definitely not become like our enemies.” 

Now you see it, now you don’t

At the beginning of 2022’s autumn season, visitors to the Estonian National Opera found an unexpected surprise in the great hall. Even those not fond of classical music would often make the journey to marvel at the interior’s socialist realism artwork: a vast expanse of pastels created by three Estonian artists in 1947. A small patch of their work was inscribed with the Leninist motto, “Art belongs to the people”. 

But that motto was now gone. Without telling anyone, Ott Maaten, the opera’s director, had decided to brush it from history, using similar colours to its surroundings to blend it into non-existence. 

Though not by his own account, it sparked something of a national fury, particularly among history and art circles. For Maaten, however, there was no other option. 

“Can you imagine that we would still have in our National Opera the inscription, ‘Arbeit macht frei’? (One of Nazi Germany’s most-used slogans, “Work makes one free”) It is in itself an innocent phrase, but we know immediately who said it, why they said it, where it was,” he said. 

“For me, it is the same with the Leninist slogan. It represents this period of oppression, this very hard political period for our nation, for a lot of people. 

“Such quotes and slogans were used to put people in their place, to direct them in the way the oppressor wanted the direction to be. They were used to crush resistance. 

“For the slogan to have stayed there would be like having someone kill your sister, your brother, your father or mother, but then for you still to be expected to have the murderer’s picture hanging on your wall even after they are long gone. 

“For people like myself who lived through that time, how can we live with that oppression still there?

He believes the same can be said of all Soviet monuments across Estonia. “Every family was touched in some way by Soviet oppression, killings, deportations,” he said. “I don’t see any reason to tolerate it in today’s age.”

The problem comes in trying to separate the art from the political message it carries. Many if not all of the Soviet monuments and artwork in Estonia were created by extremely talented and celebrated Estonian artists. To what end these people truly believed in the ideas they forged into their work will never be known. 

While Maaten concedes that many of the monuments and other works were crafted by “extremely talented Estonian artists”, he is adamant that it is impossible to pick the two things apart. Others who have spent the better part of their lives studying the monuments say it is indeed possible if given enough thought. 

“Of course, the way we see these monuments and the role they play in society is very personal,” said Krista Kodres, an art historian and Professor at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture. 

“But to remove them completely removes the ability for people to read into them what they might. It’s dangerous: how can politicians decide for an entire nation what they cannot see? It is airbrushing history.”

As a graduate during the age of the Soviet Union, Kadres knows all too well the effects of muddying history in the contemporary world. Her student days at Estonia’s ancient Tartu University in the 1970s were filled with studying art in the most superficial sense, lessons of technicalities and word play designed to pacify any sort of critical and analytical thinking.

She and her friends were taught to see things in a binary way: good or bad, an efficient design but devoid of any meaning. She would go on to become a champion swimmer and break several records, picking up art history seriously only after the fall of the USSR.

“Buildings and material heritage help us to understand history. And some of these pieces of art are just that: amazing pieces of art that add value to the space they own,” she said.

“They are abstract and belong where they are. I speak with and teach young people who are fascinated with them and how they shaped their own histories. Removing them takes away this ability to learn from the past.”  

A fatal stabbing 

Though the argument around Soviet monuments has only recently picked up pace it isn’t anything new. 

In 2007, a series of violent street protests erupted in central Tallinn over plans to move a World World War 2-era Soviet Bronze Soldier to the outskirts of the city. 

In scenes uncommon to a country known for its order and discipline, fire tore through ordinarily quiet boulevards, shops were looted, hundreds were injured and one ethnic Russian was fatally stabbed. 

Academics had warned against the removal. In an open letter, they cautioned that a needless debate was being forced onto the Russian and Estonian communities who inhabited the country. It would, they said, unnecessarily expose their differences and polarise historical narratives. The authorities moved it anyway. 

On a balmy Wednesday evening, I strolled among the hundreds of mostly Russian graves at the Defence Forces Cemetery, tiny grey protrusions that are slowly sinking into the lush grass around them. 

Sitting in front of the Bronze Soldier was Andrei, a chain smoking ethnic Russian whose uncle died during World War 2 but whose body was never found. 

“For me, coming here is a way of paying my respects to him, for thanking him for what he did in the war,” he said. 

A handful of other Russians came in and out of the cemetery in the hour or so we sat and chatted before the soldier, each as solemn as the next. Most complained of the journey now required to reach the monument; an entire population pushed to the edges while the centre thrives.

Andrei didn’t care so much about the location as he did the narrative that has formed around the monuments. 

“There used to be many flowers laid here, but someone comes to remove them if there’s too many. No one knows who. There wasn’t any problem with these monuments before the war in Ukraine, but now there’s a big divide. 

“The government is trying to win votes by promising to remove them all. But how can they? You can’t have a future without remembering the past.”

An alternative 

There is no easy way to consolidate the past with the present, not least with one so bloody and violent. The UK knows all too well the struggle to explain the past, in recent years facing uncomfortable historical conflicts about many of its public monuments. 

But to remove a slice of history from the world is to risk setting future generations up to make the same mistakes. Estonia’s history is peppered with being passed to and fro, and the period from 1991 to the present-day is its longest-ever stretch of independence. 

From the Danes to the Germans, the Swedes to Imperial Russia, the Soviets, the Nazis and the Soviets again, larger powers have always fancied their chances with it. 

Hangovers from each period remain, like the grand German manors in which many Estonians aspire to one day live. Even cultural figures who flourished during the USSR are held up as icons today. 

Juhan Smuul is one of if not the country’s most celebrated Soviet-era writers, an artist who surrendered his creative wares for the masses. His works are pored over in the 21st century. 

But only recently did historians discover his shadier dealings in the aiding of the mass deportation of Estonians to Russia.  

What to do, then, with a plaque celebrating him slap bang in the middle of the Old Town. Rather than remove it, the city council has installed a smaller fixture beneath, complete with a QR code titled, “Guilt and Complicity: The Darker Side of Juhan Smuul’s Story.” 

Scan the code and you’re transported to a web page that provides information about his actions: three short paragraphs that put his role into context. 

It seems that in this case, at least, to explain history is considered to be the most efficient way to preserve the good in a sea of bad. Here, Estonians and visitors from around the world can make their own minds up about something so beautiful yet so bitter.

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