Wednesday, May 28, 2008


After the Second World War the Russians who had occupied Estonia decided to express their gratitude to the Red Army for driving the Germans out of Estonia by designing and erecting a memorial commemorating the defeat of the Nazis. They commissioned a famous local artist to cast a bronze statue of a young Russian soldier. It is a beautiful statue, and it became a memorial for the thousands of young men who perished in the war and whose bodies were never recovered. The authorities at the time decided to place the statue next to Karli Kirik, or Carl’s Church, in the very center of Tallinn. The location is a short walk from Toompea, the seat of government and Tall Herman, an ancient tower that symbolizes free Estonia. This was the “bronze soldier” that has been so much in the news.

The trouble with this memorial is that it commemorates something that did not occur. In the summer of 1944 the tide of the war was turning and it became quite clear that Germany was losing. The Russians were gaining on the eastern front and the Americans and their allies were moving into France from the D-Day landing. The German generals recognized the perilous situation in Estonia, and decided to avoid entrapment by withdrawing German troops back toward Germany, through the other Baltic countries, and into Poland. During the withdrawal from Estonia the Germans left behind the Estonian units that had been conscripted into the German army – Estonian boys in German uniforms. These boys were joined by an irregular Estonian army formed after the Germans left -- men and boys who remembered the Red Terror of 1941 and who under no circumstances wanted Russians back on Estonian soil. It was these forces that opposed the Red Army as it thundered across the border into Estonia. The fighting in Estonia in 1944 was between Estonians and Russians, not Germans and Russians, and the Russians were in no way “liberating” Estonia from the Germans. They were engaged in a blatant invasion of a sovereign nation. The Russian boys who died in that fight were not liberators, but invaders.

But all this was not understood by the Russians who occupied Estonia in the fall of 1944. They honestly believed that they were the liberators and that they had saved Estonia from the fascists. The Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was kept secret in the USSR and the people believed that Estonia had invited the Russians into their country in order to set up a soviet republic. The Russian boys who died fighting in Estonia, they believed, were therefore liberators.

After Estonia regained its independence in 1991 there was a strong movement to relocate the statue. To Estonians it represented all the horror and deprivation of 50 years of Soviet rule, and it glorified the very people who had helped to cause this agony. If you want to get a sense of how they felt, imagine if the Germans, after defeating the French in the first years of WW II, had erected a large monument in Paris glorifying Germans soldiers, and had set it next to the Notre Dame cathedral. Once Paris was liberated, how long would it have taken the French to destroy this monument?

The bronze Russian soldier did not share the fate of the statues of Lenin and Stalin right after Estonian re-independence because the Estonians knew what it meant to the Russians. It was their memorial to loved ones lost in war, and in the early days of independence it was not worth the dissention that its relocation would have caused. And so it stood, right next to Karli Kirik, and, ironically enough, right across the square from the newly construction “Museum of the Occupation.”

Finally last spring the major of Tallinn ran for office promising to move the statue, and a year after taking office, he had the bronze soldier relocated to the Russian military cemetery. The timing of the move was terribly insensitive on his part, coming right before the Russian May 8th WW II Victory Day that is one of the most important holidays in Russia. This served to anger the Russians both inside and outside of Estonia, resulting in large-scale rioting by Russian youths in Tallinn. After several nights of broken windows, looting, and many arrests, the riots subsided when the mayor forbade the sale of alcohol in Tallinn. The Russians then attacked Estonia in cyberspace, causing serious disruption of commerce and banking for more than a week and resulting in untold losses to the economy.

Now a year has passed and the bronze soldier is safely in a military cemetery where almost all of the graves are those of Russian soldiers who died during and after the war.

Incidentally, I enquired about an Estonian military cemetery and was told that there is no such thing, and in retrospect, this makes sense. The Russians had no time to honor the dead “fascists” they had defeated, and thus there are no cemeteries for those men who took arms against the Red Army. The Russians were the winners and they honored their own dead.

The new location of the bronze soldier is not easy to find (although the tour buses seem to find it quite easily.) We had to drive through some seedy neighborhoods to get there, but found that the statue itself had been beautifully set into its new stone foundation. The marker says simply “In honor of those who fell during the Second World War.” It is an appropriate place for the statue, honoring the dead who died in a fight the purpose of which they could not have understood.
-- Aarne


Mait said...


A minor correction: this cemetery _is_ the one for Estonian military. The graves there hold servicemen of several nations - brits, for ecxample - who have died on Estonian soil. The misunderstanding might have arisen from the fact that in 1945 the old cemetery was bulldozed flat by soviets and from there on fallen Red Army personnel was buried on top of old graves.

Also, the major of Tallinn was in no way supportive of Aljosha's relocation, with him being the head of Estonia's sole pro-russian party and everything;)

Triin said...

Yup, the moving of the statue was all the "fault" of the Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, or AnSSip ar the Russians quickly denominated him. (Note the SS - a Nazi paramilitary force symbol.) The mayor of Tallinn, Edgar Savisaar, drawing most of his voter base from among the Russian population actually attempted to stop the relocation of the statue, for which he even had legal right according to Tallinn's statutes. But a law was quickly passed in the Parliament enabling Ansip to initiate the move. There was a lot of commotion around the entire issue and not everything was clear-cut...

Also, the new location for the statue is historically the resting place for Estonian freedom fighters from 1918. The Russians were very cleverly buried over the Estonians during Soviet times, and in many cases there are no actual bodies, just headstones. During the Soviet times, the folks working at the National Heritage Board were annually required to "discover" more and more Russian fighters who died within a certain radius from Tallinn, so headstones could be erected in their memory.

The old location for the Bronze Soldier was not good, but actually the new one is not much better, because it's somewhat of an insult. Especially considering the fact that in many cases, underneath the headstones which bear the name of some Russian "Liberators" could rest the bones of Estonian freedom fighters.

Triin said...

P.S. There is also a brand new documentary out about the story of the Bronze Soldier and other monuments. It's called "Monument" and its author is Tõnu Virve, a neighbor of Janika who lives in the straw bale house in Pirita.{1A18B7B3-384D-42C1-A813-F6C528CA79E1}