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Another memory

09.05.2007 |
Alexander Daniel

There are two elements in the whole situation around Tonismagi Square [i.e. the Bronze Soldier].

One is devastatingly tedious: the words and actions of politicians from both sides.

The Estonian political elite are resolving their problems, balancing between European public opinion, on the one hand, and Estonian radicals on the other. They are doing this with the grace and elegance of an Estonian national elephant in a china shop. The Bronze Soldier as such is of no interest.

The political beau monde in Russia , with enthusiastic din, are ripping to shreds the valuable present sent them from Tallinn and are competing for the most impressive patriotism. So let’s not buy their pork! Let’s break off diplomatic relations! No, let’s dismantle stone by stone, brick by brick their embassy in Kalashny Alley! And so forth. They’re even less interested in the Bronze Soldier.

Meanwhile in Khimki they’ve lost (!) the ashes of the fighter pilots defending Moscow in 1941 and they banned a rally of protest over this.

Well what, after all, did we expect from politicians?

Now the second element in the scandal represents (at least for me) a serious, I believe, tragic problem and is of great interest. This involves the conflict between two, or even three, historical memories – ours, the Estonian and that of the Russian-speaking community in Estonia.

For us the War of 1941 – 1945 was a war against barbaric foreign invasion, a war to save Russia from destruction, fortunately coinciding, in addition, with the Second World War against Nazism. For us the lads buried on Tonismagi Square are soldiers of the Great Patriotic and the Second World War, soldiers fighting Hitler. They fought against Hitler in Russia, in Estonia, in Ukraine, in Poland, in Germany, regardless where – and not at all in order to conquer somebody. That was the last thing they had time to thing about.

What did they fight for? On an individual level, they probably simply carried out orders from their superior. The country as a whole fought for its freedom and to a small extent – for all humanity. The country was also not up to thinking about “territorial acquisitions” and “State power”. Unless maybe those in the Kremlin gave serious thought to that, but this bears no relation to the national memory. For them the Bronze Soldier on Tonismagi Square is maybe not the “liberator of Estonia”, but most certainly not the “conqueror of Estonia”, not a fighter of the Empire.

That is what we remember and what we will continue to remember.

All these meanings of the Bronze Soldier are part of the awareness of Russians in Estonia, although as far as I’m aware, already in a seriously reduced form. We have difficulty understanding how far those Russians have over 15 years broken away from Russia, how much their consciousness is different from ours, and how much they separate themselves from Russia. For them Russia is more and more a symbol and a legend, more an “original homeland” than the Homeland.

For them, therefore, the Monument in Tallinn symbolizes the saving of Russia and the world less than it does for us. For them it probably means the driving out of the Germans from Estonia which is their country. However there is another additional meaning for them in the Monument.  The driving out of the Germans was so to speak the precondition for their grandparents settling in Estonia. And the Second World War is, among other things, also the history of the emergence of their community.

Therefore the Bronze Soldier in some way symbolized for them their legitimacy as residents of Estonia, and it is this legitimacy that radical Estonian nationalists are constantly placing in question.  For them it is not so much the Liberating Soldier, as the “First Settler”, something like the monument to Lord Hastings in Bombay for Anglo-Indians (incidentally I haven’t heard of the Indian Government ever planning to dismantle it, and after all Anglo-Indians in India don’t form a third of the population, but an insignificant minority).

That’s how they remember it and it’s unlikely that they’ll ever remember it differently.

While for a considerable number of Estonians (and for some Russian Estonians, whose ancestors had lived in Estonia before 1938, like the Old Believers of Prichudye) the Second World War has only one meaning, as the War during which their country lost its independence and became the victim of a barbaric foreign invasion.

We needn’t delude ourselves with the declared historical doctrine of “three occupations”: that’s for the Council of Europe. In actual fact this part of the national consciousness sees two occupations: 1939-1940 and 1944 – 1991. The period from 1941-1944 is not for them an occupation, but the temporary liberation from the Russian yoke, and the Germans were not occupiers, and virtually liberators.  Estonia would seem to have been the only European country occupied by the Wehrmacht which did not have a national anti-Fascist resistance. In Lithuania numerous nationalist underground groups and military units fought the Nazi Occupation, in Ukraine fighters of the UPA [the Ukrainian Resistance Army] – the “Bandera supporters”, and even in Latvia towards the end of the Occupation there was some kind of anti-German movement.

In Estonia there was none. I have in mind here a national anti-German Resistance, and not the actions of Soviet partisans, sent beyond the frontline from Moscow. The symbolic attempt, half-heroic, half-suicidal, of some members of the Tallinn intelligentsia in 1944 during the Nazi retreat to create an “Estonian national government” can hardly be considered an episode in the Anti-German Opposition.

It is no accident that in official documents in modern Estonia, the events of September 1944 are called the “Seizure of Tallinn by the Red Army”. Not “liberation”, Heaven forbid, and not even the neutral “taking of the city”, but “seizure”. And this applies not only to the actions of the Soviet Army, but also to the military operations of the Allies. As an extremely nice person, an Estonian nationalist (incidentally, ethnically Russian) told me some seven years ago: “Let them (the English, but generally the Europeans) first apologize for bombing our Opera Theatre in 1944, and then teach us about human rights”. So the Germans for them are not at all occupiers, but more likely unsuccessful liberators. And the Anglo-Americans – accomplices of the Russian occupiers who could, it’s true have expiated their guilt before the Estonian people by dropping, somewhere around 1947, a couple of nuclear bombs on Moscow, but didn’t do that, betraying Estonia yet again (I am of course exaggerating, but not so much).

And therefore our arguments that the “Soldier” on Tonismagi Square is not the soldier of 1940, but the soldier of 1944, the soldier of the War against Hitler, don’t work. They were, if not on a different side, then most certainly not on ours, and they are not inclined to think about that. This is not intended as a moralizing statement. Anything can happen in history – and Mahatma Gandhi was on the other side in that war.

That’s how they remember it. Is that good or bad? They have their grounds for remembering it exactly like that, and not otherwise. On 14 June 1941, a week before the beginning of the War, many thousands of Estonians, including the elderly, women, and children, were sent away in goods trains to Russia – to labour camps or to special settlements in Siberia.

And it was in the years to come those people, taken away, who perished, and not those who stayed in Estonia and ended up “under the Germans”. And the 45 years from September 1944 (and especially the deportation of 1948) cast their shadow over the past.

I have seen enough Estonian graves in my travels around Siberia to treat this version of historical memory with respect.

The problem is not in that, but in how two peoples with such different historical memory can live together. And it is not that we Russians don’t want to remember some things. I personally have known as long as I can remember about the Estonian deportation, and the Lithuanian and Latvian: I remembered, sympathised, felt shame.

Yet this knowledge and shame cannot force me to treat memorials to our soldiers of the Patriotic War, wherever they stand other than how I have always treated them. I think that all of us here in Russia, even if suddenly we again harmoniously succeed in renewing the interrupted process of coming to grips with our own past and understand as fully as we seemed willing to do at the end of the 1980s, will still not change our national attitude to the Patriotic War and to the memory of our soldiers who died in that War. 

The most that we can do here is to not forget about the other side of the coin, to remember that there is another memory, and to try to understand this other memory. But we cannot take it on as our own, and we should not.

And how to resolve in this situation specific issues of conflict is a problem.

I spoke in the last few days on this subject with a well-known Russian public figure, a human rights defender who was himself a political prisoner during Soviet times. He said one thing which I believe warrants attention. Well, yes, he said, it does happen that national images of the past enter into conflict. Well maybe then it’s worth turning to general human memory?

If one accepts this point of view, then the assessment of the situation with the Bronze Soldier is clear, since in the general human memory, the War of 1939-1945 is the war against Nazism, that is, absolute and universal evil regardless of whether local East-European bandit Stalin (and the Sicilian Mafia who also contributed to the Allies’ War effort) took part in the anti-Hitler coalition. And all small wars which took part within the framework of that Major War (or were its consequence) and with a meaning opposite to the anti-fascist pathos of the Second World War did not and could not change that general assessment.

And it has thus turned out that what is traditionally our Russian memory is much closer to that universal assessment than the Estonian one.

I am in no way calling on the Estonians to reject their interpretation of the historical events concerning their country. Yet they should understand that for humanity (not only for Russia), the events of 1939-1945 are not only about the tragedy of the Baltic States, but are wider and of more meaning that that image of those events which formed in the historical consciousness of that small nation. And that the transferral of the Monument to Soldiers of the Second World War from the square to a cemetery (i.e. its “desymbolizing”) is a step inevitably touching upon the universal (and not only Russian) memory of that war.

Obviously we, for our part, must try to ensure that the general historical memory of peoples develops and becomes more complex, and that it includes in the end knowledge about the fact of the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians (and the Crimean Tatars, the Kalmyks, Russian Germans, Japanese Americans, everywhere) as about a part of the history of that war.

When I say “we”, I don’t mean Russians or Estonians. I mean people.

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