Estonia tears down its Soviet monuments amid war in Ukraine

Estonia tears down its Soviet monuments amid war in Ukraine

On Tuesday August 16, Estonian security forces were deployed in the town of Narva, on the Russian border, to allow the removal of several monuments to the glory of the Red Army. The government, at the forefront of support for Ukraine, is determined to clean up the national memory. At the risk of pointing the Russian-speaking minority.

You will see, this fall, the special operation will be here. If this provocation by a demonstrator does not necessarily sum up the wishes of others, it illustrates the electric atmosphere which reigns, this Sunday, June 7, around the so-called “Tank” monument, halfway between the third city of Estonia, Narva, located on the border with Russia, and its seaside counterpart, Narva-Jõesuu, 15 km further north, on the shores of the Baltic. The mayor, Katri Raik, has just come by to see the fifty irreducible people who take turns, in good or bad weather, at the foot of this Soviet T-34 tank mounted on an imposing base. The first city councilor came to reassure its citizens, in a city where more than 90% of the inhabitants speak Russian, and nearly a third even have Russian nationality: she has always spoken out in favor of this monument remaining in place, and she intends to defend its position well. The next day, however, the tide will have turned.

Since the start of the war in ukraine, on February 24, relations between the government and the Russian-speaking minority in the country became a little more tense. The executive, led by the very firm and media-friendly Kaja Kallas, is on the front line in supporting kyiv. The country has always feared its imposing neighbor to the east. Estonia joined NATO in 2004 and since the first cannon shots this winter, has been scolding those of its European partners who condemn Russian aggression too softly. But the Tallinn authorities are not only active internationally. They also chose this moment to get rid of a cumbersome file: the multitude of monuments to the glory of the Red Army which still dot the Estonian landscape, particularly in the east of the country. And too bad if some of the Russian-speaking citizens – a minority representing all the same 24% of the population – are still attached to it.

For years, the Estonian government has maintained a cautious status quo on this issue. But the war in Ukraine changed the situation. The day after the arrival of the mayor of Narva to the Soviet tank, the Prime Minister made the trip to the capital to signify, in front of the cameras and the inhabitants of Narva, that it had to be removed as quickly as possible. A week later, faced with the procrastination of the municipality, the security forces intervened to secure the withdrawal, under the direct supervision of the government.

200 km east of Tallinn, the city of Narva faces Russia.  More than 90% of the inhabitants speak Russian there.
200 km east of Tallinn, the city of Narva faces Russia. More than 90% of the inhabitants speak Russian there. © FMM Graphic Studio

The painful memory of 2007

The task of the executive nevertheless promises to be substantial, firstly because of the number of monuments concerned by this great memorial sweep, estimated between 200 and 400 throughout the country. Dismantle, move, or transform? The question arises for everyone. And each of the answers participates in drawing the border between what the current power considers as belonging to national history and what falls into the propaganda of a foreign power.

For Tallinn, the issue is also security. Kaja Kallas recalled this when she came to Narva: ” What is important is that we are able to ensure security in Estonia, and I am not talking here only about external threats, but also about internal security […] It is precisely to ensure public order that all these monuments must be removed, before tensions and anxiety reach a level where they have a much higher price. Everyone in Estonia can understand the hint.

The episode marked the young state. We are then in the spring of 2007: reinforced by a large victory at the ballot box, the new government decides to move a monument to the Soviet dead, known as “the bronze soldier”, located in the center of Tallinn, in the direction of the suburbs of the capital city. There followed two nights of clashes between Russian speakers and the Estonian police which ended in the death of one person, nearly 150 injured and the looting of many businesses in the city. The initiative also provokes the ire of Moscow. The day after the statue was moved, the main administrations of the country were affected by a vast cyber-attack, attributed by Estonia to Russia.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas came to Narva in person to announce that several Soviet symbols would be removed from public space.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas came to Narva in person to announce that several Soviet symbols would be removed from public space. © RFI / Marc Etcheverry

Under the gaze of Moscow

The current move of the Narva tank has not gone unnoticed by the eastern neighbor either. Russian television channels are following the case closely and the Kremlin has already made it known that it considers this withdrawal to be “a scandal”. The controversy nevertheless came to fit perfectly into the “anti-Nazi” rhetoric worked since the beginning of the war in Ukraine: ” They fight history, what is more, common history, and get rid of the monuments of those who saved Europe from fascism “, denounced, at the beginning of August, Dmitri Peskov, spokesperson for the Russian presidency.

A rhetoric that has also matured in the minds of some tank defenders. ” The tank symbolized the victory of the Soviet nation over Nazi Germany and its alliesbegins Vassili, forty-something who has traveled extensively in Europe before returning to settle in Narva. The Estonian regime has committed a brutal act of disrespect towards at least a quarter of its population. “. And ” this definitely violates all moral and so-called democratic values “, adds the one who goes so far as to qualify this” behaviour ” of ” neo nazi “.

But would Moscow be able to cause trouble in eastern Estonia? It is unlikely, according to Kristina Kallas, a specialist in integration issues at the University of Tartu. If the academic recognizes that it would take a hundred radicalized people to perpetrate violence, the rest of the Russian-speaking population would not follow. ” It’s one thing to destabilize, it’s another to start a civil war. Because there is nothing homogeneous about the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia. ” You have a generational divide between young people who were born or grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union, and their parents who knew that time. The vast majority of young Russian speakers recognize Estonia as their only country, while older people still refer to Russia as their “Mother land“.”

The withdrawal of Soviet monuments from the public space is thus a double or nothing bet for the current executive. The context of the war in Ukraine, decried by the vast majority of Estonians, offers an opportunity to settle the accounts of the past. But this same context can also warm up the most radical minds. This is why the question of the moment is central, and divides even in university spheres. Thus, Mati Heidmets, eminent professor at the University of Tallinn, regrets that the government did not wait for the end of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict to settle this issue. Especially since the country is facing other emergencies, including galloping inflation – and even record for the euro zone.

But no matter, the executive wants to go very quickly. ” The brutal war that Russia unleashed against Ukraine has taken us, here in Estonia, from cooperation [entre pays] in times of peace at a time of conflict where tolerance towards Soviet symbols, the Red Army and the glorification of Russia becomes very low “Summarizes Kristina Kallas.

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