TALLINN, Estonia — I was lost en route to Tallinn’s harrowing Museum of Occupation, ironically enough, when I stumbled upon the gathering storm of protest at the Soviet war memorial. Within hours this statue of a Red Army regular (dubbed the Bronze Soldier) would become the site of violence, pandemonium, extensive looting and even a death. The beauty of the city and the hospitality of its people make the destruction — most of it, no doubt, motivated more by alcohol, greed, and bad manners than politics — particularly lamentable. When I first arrived on the scene, however, there were only piles of flowers and milling throngs of teenagers and twenty-somethings.
The Estonian government, calling the memorial a painful reminder of Red Terror and occupation, had decided to relocate it and the Soviet soldiers buried nearby to a military cemetery outside of town. (A massive war memorial built in typical harsh, but grandiose Soviet style already lies on the outskirts of the city.) New protesters — mostly from the nation’s 30 percent ethnic Russian minority — arrived continuously. Older Estonians stood along the periphery staring at the spectacle with gaping mouths, some shaking their heads slowly. When I attempted to engage one particularly nervous police officer about the situation, he begged off, explaining he had been bused in from a small village and was still getting his own bearings. This inexperience would soon prove disastrous.
The protesters were not nearly so reticent. “This is a late victory for fascists,” one teenage girl declared when I put out an open call for any English-speaking protesters. She stabbed a finger at the statue. “Without this soldier, Hitler would have won the war and ruled Europe until he died.” This rhetoric was actually fairly mild compared to that of Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin, who called Estonia’s decision “sacrilegious and inhuman.” Later Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised his country would “take serious steps” against Estonia, a threat the Russians have considerable experience carrying out.
As promising as it is to see that Russia and its apologists have finally added the concepts of “sacrilege” and “inhumanity” to their official lexicon, unless you are willfully ignorant or blinded by ethnic loyalty it is difficult to make heroes out of the Red Army in Tallinn. Walk a quarter mile from the site where the Bronze Soldier stood, through the winding cobblestone streets of Old Town Tallinn, and you will find a large dirty building with its lower windows bricked up. This masonry job came courtesy of the Red Army and was designed to muffle the screams emitted from their KGB brethren’s endlessly overflowing basement interrogation cells.
YES, THE RED ARMY lost a far greater number of soldiers in World War II to the Wehrmacht than any other nation. And certainly it was fortuitous for the Allies that Hitler decided to turn on his Soviet ally and open the disastrous second front, driving a desperate Stalin into the arms of Churchill and Roosevelt. Nevertheless, trading one oppressive, murderous police state for another was no bargain in the life of the Estonian nation.
After its Liberation War, Estonia should have had little to fear from the Red Army. Lenin had reluctantly agreed to the Tartu Peace Treaty recognizing Estonia’s sovereignty in 1920. The Soviet Union was a member of the League of Nations, which prohibited international aggression and bullying, and had acceded to the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928 essentially banning war. Non-aggression pacts between Russia and all three Baltic States had been signed between 1926 and 1932.
Alas, in a secret 1928 paper drafted by the Red Army, “The Future War,” the official Soviet policy on the Baltic States was laid out: “From the economical point of view, the independent existence of those dwarf states is not justified.”
The eventual dismantlement of the first independent Estonian state a decade later was done not in defiance of fascism, but in collusion with it. The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany placed the Baltic States in the former’s “sphere of influence” and greenlit Hitler’s conquest of Poland. The “mutual assistance” demanded of the small nations, however, was not so mutual or forthcoming. By early 1940 Stalin had issued a saber-rattling proclamation — “The activity of the Red Army is of relevance also to the world revolution.”
On June 16, 1940 at 2 p.m. the Soviets gave each of the Baltic States the same ultimatum: Agree to open the borders for “basing rights” to an unspecified number of Red Army troops by 11 p.m. or face the consequences. More than 435,000 Red Army soldiers, 3,000 tanks and 8,000 artillery pieces awaited the answer on the other side of the border. Three days earlier they had been ordered to prepare to “isolate” and “annihilate” the Latvian and Estonian armies. The Baltic States capitulated. Internally, the Soviets defined “mutual assistance” with a Central Committee of the Communist Party document entitled, “Measures for Cleansing the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian SSRs of Anti-Soviet and Socially Dangerous Elements.” In August 1940 Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union.
Eight of the young Estonia republic’s ten former presidents were quickly arrested. Most were shot down in dirty makeshift Soviet prison yards. One committed suicide rather than answer a Communist Party summons. Forty-seven former Estonian ministers were arrested. None survived. Can you imagine a monument in Washington, D.C. to a government that murdered eight of our ten first presidents?
During the year of what would become the first phase of Soviet occupation — Germany’s Operation Barbarossa launched a year later on June 22, 1941, drove the Russians out of Estonia by June 26 — eleven-thousand “kulaks and their families, families of bandits, [and] nationalists in hiding” were deported or sent to labor camps where more than half would perish. Eight thousand Estonians were imprisoned, 7,500 more were “executed or died as a result of torture,” and 1,101 disappeared. On June 8, 1941 alone, 193 Estonians were put to death in Tartu. Nearly 35,000 Estonians were conscripted into the Red Army, 21,470 of whom would die in battle.
Then came the Germans and the cattle cars started heading West to labor and concentration camps. Again, the fortunes of war turned. As the Germans retreated the Estonian flag flew again for two glorious days on September 21 and 22, 1944, before the Soviet “liberators” returned to tear it down again. That flag was banned for the next 51 years. Seventy thousand Estonians fled for the Allies’ lines rather than go another round with the champions of the working class. Some 2,000 stayed to die fighting the impossible fight. Thirty thousand more Estonians were arrested before Stalin’s death. Further depravations and hardships were visited upon the country. By 1950, 92 percent of farms in Estonia were forcibly collectivized. The shortages, hardships, and deaths typically associated with such a policy abounded. Farmers who resisted were rounded up and sent to Siberia.
SO, IN SHORT, HOWEVER terrible the Nazis he helped vanquish, the Soviet fighting man the Bronze Soldier represents was never a liberator of the Estonian. His fight may have helped loosen the fascist grip on Western Europe, but in the East he was the deliverer of privation, violence, deportation, repression: the guarantor of state violence.
The removal of this relic of a terrible age is not only justified, but probably long overdue. Moving the statue to a graveyard rather than destroying it shows the Estonian government’s great restraint. That any Russian official has the gall to bemoan it says more about the delusions he has about his own country’s past than it does about the Estonians.