Sadness wrought in bronze
He looks very much like what he is called by most inhabitants of the city -- a bronze soldier, slightly larger than life, looking down with a sad expression on his face. He is bare-headed, holding his helmet under his arm. His Russian WW II uniform indicates that he is not just any bronze soldier, but a Soviet Bronze Soldier.
The sad looks and posture of the Bronze Soldier have been exhibited since 1947 in downtown Tallinn, Estonia. But lately his presence (and a possible change of the Bronze Soldier's parade ground) have stirred up local as well as international -- well, at least Russian -- commotion. In November 2006 the Russian Duma (parliament) in Moscow adopted a resolution, which was sent to the European Council, the EU Parliament, NATO and to the states belonging to the wartime "anti-Hitler coalition".
The war dead
In its resolution the Duma refers to Estonian plans to move the Bronze Soldier from its downtown location, to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. The Russian resolution states that removing a monument to soldiers who "liberated Europe from Fascism" is amoral and in effect amounts to "glorifying fascism".
For the time being the Bronze Soldier (its official Soviet designation used to be "Monument to the Liberators of Estonia") still sadly stands where he has been sadly standing for close to 60 years. But the Estonian Parliament has recently adopted two bills, giving the government the legal right to remove or relocate any monuments glorifying the two 'totalitarian regimes that have invaded and occupied Estonia', i.e. Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.
Why would Estonians want to relocate an innocuous-looking WW II monument? A more apt question would actually be: why has a Soviet monument been left standing for so long? Most statues of Lenin and various Soviet bigwigs were removed around 1991, when Estonia regained its independence. But the Bronze Soldier was sculpted in a somewhat different style, without expressing the usual Soviet megalomaniacal heroics. Most people saw it as just a memorial to Russian soldiers killed in the war. So it was left alone.
But lately, in the last few years, the Bronze Soldier has become a rallying point for small groups of Soviet-nostalgic Russians living in present-day Estonia. Their celebrations of the anniversary of the Soviet 1944 "liberation" of Estonia and of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution -- in the middle of the Estonian capital -- irked most Estonians. Demands for removing the Bronze Soldier were heard. The demands have become increasingly louder.
Deadly liberation: Part I
The "liberation of Estonia from Fascism", which the Bronze Solder officially commemorates, is not quite what it sounds like. The Nazi-Soviet camaraderie during the two opening years of WW II, resulted in Estonia becoming occupied by Soviet Russia in 1940. Only this occupation was not just like any old occupation. What the Soviets set out to do was nothing less than to annihilate all traces of the "bourgeois republic" of Estonia. This was to be done by executing or deporting to Siberia people who could be suspected of being less-than-enthusiastic about the new Stalinist social order. This included virtually everybody who had worked in ordinary professions in independent Estonia: farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, doctors, intellectuals.
It was a vast undertaking, so it took some time to become properly organised. But by early summer of 1941 crammed deportation trains shuttled busily between Estonia and the Siberian Gulags. Local prisons were filled to capacity. However, right in the middle of this "great step toward building socialism", Stalin's old buddy Hitler surprisingly attacked Soviet Russia in force. In a few weeks German troops were advancing across the Estonian border. The Gulag trains had to be hurriedly halted. Hence the Soviets hurriedly shot all prisoners who could no longer be shipped to Siberia. Then they hurriedly left. Estonia was occupied by Nazi German troops.
Would you call this event "liberation of Estonia from Bolshevism"? No, I would hardly think that such a wording could be anywhere near an apt description. What it amounted to was merely replacing one bloodthirsty gangster with another. Many who were next in line to be shot or deported by the Soviets were of course lucky to be saved by the swift advance of the German war machine. But sometimes they ended up in Nazi concentration camps instead.
Deadly liberation: Part II
Three years later the roles of the gangsters had switched. Now the Soviets chased the Nazis out of Estonia. Only this time the old Soviet gangster intended to stay on for the next 47 years. Pretty soon the Gulag trains were back in traffic and the prisons were filled with political prisoners. This was what the "liberation of Estonia from Fascism" amounted to. The two totalitarian "liberations" in succession succeeded in decimating the Estonian population by almost a third.
Some people have maintained that the Bronze Soldier is just a memorial to ordinary soldiers who died in Russian uniform, among them Estonians. Because before hurriedly leaving, the Soviets forcibly drafted Estonian young men into the Red Army. Many succeeded in deserting, but a number of the draftees did actually fight in the Soviet army. So the Bronze Soldier could be interpreted simply as a memorial to the war dead, not as a monument to the deadly "liberation".
Death comes in two uniforms
On the other hand, young Estonians were drafted into the German army as well. By the same reasoning, a memorial to Estonians who died in German uniform should also be erected. This is precisely what some people did in 2004 in the cemetery of Lihula, a small town in Western Estonia. But a memorial with a relief of a man in Nazi German uniform was seen by many as en exercise of monumentally bad taste. In addition it caused bad vibes internationally. The Estonian government had it removed. Unfortunately, it was found that the government had no legal right to remove the memorial. The incident led to the downfall of the government then in office.
The present government wants to do it by the book. Consequently, the first priority was to write the book, i.e. the law. The bills that the parliament has passed now gives the government the legal right to remove any 'monument glorifying the two totalitarian regimes that have invaded and occupied Estonia'. Hence the Soviet Bronze Soldier can be removed, and so can any monument to Nazi German soldiers, in the event that anybody would try to put up such an exhibit of bad taste. This will not necessarily mean that the Bronze Soldier will be removed, but the legal apparatus is ready, if the need should arise. That in turn is very much dependent on the behaviour of the Neo-Soviet groups.
Wanted: Imperial glory
The Russian reaction to a potential removal of the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn (e.g. the recent Russian Duma resolution) highlights some of the ideological contradictions in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Not many Russians are nostalgic for the shortages, queues, and communist bureaucracy of Soviet times. But a great many Russians want to restore the Russian Superpower status, the glorious days when the world trembled whenever Moscow sneezed.
Unfortunately, the concept of 'Russia the Superpower' is a inextricably linked to the concept 'Russia the Murderous Soviet State'. This means that the crimes of the old Soviet regime must be underplayed and preferably forgotten altogether, in order for a new feeling of Russian imperial pride to take root. One thing in the Estonian 'monument bills' that irked the Russian Duma more than anything else was that the Estonian parliament had the gall to equate Stalinist Russia morally with Hitlerist Germany. Even if this moral parallelism is long since established among Western historians, it runs directly counter the Putinist attempts to create a new sense of Russian Imperial pride.
Because of this budding Russian Neo-Imperialism the Bronze Soldier will probably not just fade away, in the usual manner of old soldiers elsewhere. There is a good chance that he will be heard from soon again.
In April 2007 the Bronze Soldier was moved by Estonian authorities to a war cemetery on the Tallinn periphery. This provoked riots among young Russian-speaking inhabitants and nasty responses from Russia, particularly by the Putinist youth organisation 'Nashi' (aka 'Putinjugend'). A 'cyber-war' by Russia on Estonian government computers succeeded in knocking out Estonian official Internet sites during the better part of a day.