The Myth-Makers of Estonia

The weather broadcast notwithstanding, the end of April 2007 is definitely a hot spring season for Estonia’s high political echelons as well as for people in Tallinn. On the night of April 27, 2007, throngs of people who protested the removal of the Soviet-era monument witnessed the dismantling of the post-WWII-era memorial to a Soldier-Liberator, commonly called the Bronze Soldier. Excavation of the remains of 13 Soviet soldiers buried under the memorial and their relocation were supposed to follow shortly. There are rumors that the monument was cut into pieces and taken to an unknown destination. The dismantling happened at night, and in the ensuing scuffle there were 500 protesters taken in custody, 60 people were wounded, and one dead. According to Russian news channels, participants in the night vigil and protest think that the authorities were to blame for the ensuing disorder and looting. After all, these authorities were the ones who ordered police to disperse the crowd. As one of the participants emphasized, police used water cannons, sound grenades and tear gas. As people left the square, driven by Estonian police and soldiers, they started to destroy businesses and looting began. One may guess that this protest is not the last. The Estonian government is ready for action: Estonian soldiers have been delivered live cartridges to ensure the protection of public order in Tallinn.

The Bronze Soldier is a World War II memorial that was dedicated to the liberators of Tallinn from fascist forces. It was built in 1947. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing anti-Russian hysteria, for many Estonian nationalists the Bronze Soldier in a Soviet uniform became a symbol of Soviet occupation. The back ground on this issue is presented at the Wikipedia website: “The issue of post-WWII history is at the core of the ethnic issues in Estonia. Non-Russian ethnic Estonians widely regard the period of Soviet Estonia as an illegal Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, a viewpoint that is the official position of the Estonian government as well as major Western powers such as the U.S. As a consequence, the ethnic Russian and other non-native population that immigrated during the occupation have been labeled by some as illegal occupiers. However to them the statue has an important meaning–it is a symbol of their right to live in Estonia as the descendants of the liberators, not as illegal occupiers.”

The facts of Soviet aggression toward the Baltic States are undeniable. This occupation happened as a direct result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its division of spheres of influence between Nazis and Soviets. I should add that when I visited Estonia a couple times in the 1980s, I was always amazed at the level of prosperity there compared to any Russian city, even Moscow and St. Petersburg. Not that this prosperity can serve as a justification of aggression, but the fact sheds light on something important: how often political reality is regulated and organized for political advantage and how its interpretation unfolds in sync with what kind of symbolic construct it is being accomodated. This notwithstanding, the prime point at hand is not so much the fact of Soviet aggression back then or the relatively prosperous life of Estonians under the yoke of the Soviet regime later on, but rather the self-evident effort of the Estonian government to recreate the political myth of the Estonian state at the expense of non-Estonians and by wiping out the facts of history as if they never existed.

For the purpose of clarifying the meaning of the term “political myth”, I use Mona Harrington’s approach employed in her book, The Dream of Deliverance in American Politics, and consider “political myth in its broad sense as a general system of belief–a system of values and attitudes that define the general political norms of a nation, its fundamental goals, national conceptions of what is right, and also expectations as to what is achievable.” The system of values and attitudes in present-day Estonia is completely different from what existed in the same place, but in a different time, when Estonia was a part of the USSR. Temporal shifts brought a lot of changes in Estonian people’s beliefs in what was right then and what is right for them now. That is, the national self-identity of Estonian people during the Soviet period is remarkably different from the present national self-identity. This shift is a result not only of the temporal changes but also of the politically conscious manipulation of the political myth that defines Estonia today.

The word “manipulation” may disturb one’s self-esteem because we would like to see ourselves as independent and objective persons, not so easily swayed. But let’s look into the face of reality from time to time. In addition to manipulations concocted for the sake of political gains, we should also realize that there are many other factors at play. For instance, the late French political sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) brings to our attention the simple fact that “we forget a little too easily that the whole of our reality is filtered through the media, including tragic events of the past.” Baudrillard’s perspective on history and reality–explored in his essay “Necrospective”–adds a new dimension to the conduct of the Estonian authorities in dismantling the World War II memorial and exhumation of the remains of 13 Soviet soldiers buried under the monument.

To begin with, Baudrillard states, “History should have been understood while history still existed.” In other words, what kind of psychopolitical drama was dominant at the moment when the Soviet army drove fascists out of Estonia and what kind of political myth was at play back then? Now, more than 50 years after the event, “we shall never know” whether Nazis were really welcomed and desirable in Estonia compare to Soviets, or if the liberation of Tallinn from fascists was considered as a mere fact of subjugation. That is, we will never know with absolute assurance because “we are no longer part of the same mental universe. Even supposing the facts lay shining bright before our eyes, they would still not have the power to prove or convince.” Three-days protests in Tallinn and spreading protests in other towns of Estonia and Russia are the consequences of the Estonian government’s task “of replacing any event, any idea, any history, with any other,” more suitable to the prevalent political myth, which–in this particular case–had been turned upside down, by conversion from the myth of liberation by the Soviet army to the myth of Soviet occupation and repression.

The insidious feature of political myths is that they are used deliberately to forge a supposedly historical actuality that serves specific political goals; in other words, the invisible tentacles of political myths extend throughout both national self-identity in general and individual sub-consciousness in particular, in order for them to be adjusted to current political needs and be used for concrete political goals. What is happening in Estonia right now, in Baudrillard’s words, “is a transition from the historical state to a mythical stage: the mythic–and media-led–reconstruction of all these events” that transpired in pre- and post-WWII Estonia. “But in order for this to be achieved, in order for even a crime to become a myth, the historical reality must first be eradicated.” By means of dismantling of–or eradicating–the Bronze Soldier, the Estonian government is translating the Soviet army’s liberation from fascism into the Soviet army’s occupation of Estonia.

What is occurring in Estonia right now is the eradication of historical reality. And what dangerous in this eradication “is not nostalgia for fascism What is dangerous–albeit pitiful–is that pathological re-enactment of the past in which everyone plays a part, in which everyone effectively collaborates,” those who defy the Soviet occupation almost 60 years after it happened–an “occupation” which is epitomized in the monument of the Soldier in a Soviet uniform–just as much as those who welcomed fascism in Estonia back then. “What is dangerous is the mass delusion whereby all the wealth of imagination missing from our time, all the capital of violence and reality, now become illusory, is transplanted back to that time by a sort of compulsion to relive it, by a sort of deep-seated guilt over not having been there,” according to Baudrillard. Or is this messing up of the historical memory just a result of shame for having borne th e brunt of the Soviet occupation without doing much against it?

Meanwhile, history is unwinding: Russian businesses declared a boycott against Estonian goods in Russian stores. For instance, some of the groceries stores in Russia,s Far East have a sign with the following words: “We do not sell Estonian goods–we do not betray the memory about Soviet soldiers.” Furthermore, three nights of riots over the removal of the Bronze Soldier resulted in 156 people, including 30 policemen, injured, one man dead, and 800 people detained. After all this commotion, the Bronze Soldier statue had been re-erected at the military cemetery of Tallinn. On May 1, 2007, according to news reports, “Russian State Duma delegation visited the new location of the statue, placed some flowers and a wreath in front of the bronze soldier. The delegation members also closely examined the figure and claimed that it had obviously been cut in pieces and reassembled. The Ministry of Defence denied those accusations.”

We might sigh with relief and claim that Estonian political Solomons came to a wise resolution of the crisis. All the same, what is so blameworthy in the conduct of the Estonian government is how it handled the whole controversy. First of all, the authorities didn’t take into consideration that about 50 per cent of ethnic Estonians and 86 percent of the Russian-speaking population of Tallinn were against the dismantling of the Bronze Soldier. Secondly, the removal was been conducted at night, in the manner of common thieves. Thirdly, the “night perpetrators” brutally dispersed the protesters by using robber bullets, water cannons and tear gas as well as treating detained protesters extremely harshly, according to Russian news websites and the pro-Russian Estonian Anti-Fascist Committee’s claims. Authorites deny all accusations about police brutality, which is not surprising. Fourthly, the removal happened right on the eve of Victory Day, May 9, celebrated as the anniversary of the capitulation of the Nazis to the Allies. Finally, it should be emphasized that “abusing memorials to feed exaggerated nationalism or ‘patriotism’ reflects poor credit on Estonia

In any case, such re-construction of the political and historical reality is nothing new. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were thousands of Soviet-era monuments, statues of Lenin first and foremost, that were eagerly destroyed, cut into pieces or taken to unknown destinations. There were no protests about the fate of those Soviet relics. The same quick actions were apparent in the eradication of Stalin’s statues all over the former Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. So the Estonian government just follows the steps of its former “Big Brother”. As Baudrillard pointed it out, “Such is irony of fate that it is we [sic.–Western countries] who are going to be obliged perhaps one day to save the historical memory of Stalinism, once the Eastern countries have forgotten all about it.”

Indeed, maybe it is a merit of the West that at least some of the historical memories of the war against fascists are preserved intact? Last May,a few days after the Victory Day, on May 13, 2006, I had a chance to visit Berlin and was amazed to see the memorial to the Soviet Soldier, with a statue of a warrior in a Soviet uniform, which was strewn with wreaths and flowers. A few ribbons had such words as “Thank you to Soviet soldiers.” The inscription on the memorial has a text in Russian, which–in translation–says: “Eternal glory to the heroes who–in combat with German-fascist occupiers–sacrificed their lives for the freedom and independence of the Soviet Union, 1941-1945.” The whole experience really surprised me because in the country–and the city–where the victory of the Allied nations was consummated and where Soviet soldiers erected the Soviet flag over Reichstag which–symbolically–represented Nazi Germany at the time of World War II and is a seat of the German parliament today, one might think that Germans would hate those who did this to them or at least try to get rid of any signs that would remind them about their country’s defeat in 1945. In a city that has been divided by the Berlin Wall and for a few decades bore economical, political and social consequences associated with this artificial division, preservation of the memory about the Soviet liberators is not a threat to German self-identity, as it is the case for the post-Soviet Estonia.

Baudrillard’s conclusion of “Necrospective,” which was written on the eve of the 21st century, is very appropriate to the situation unfolding in Estonia right now. “We are busy, in accordance with an oddly enthusiastic mourning process, smoothing out the salient events of the century, whitewashing the century, as though all that had occurred therein (revolutions, partitions of the glove, extermination, the violent transnationalism of states, or nuclear cliffhanging)–in short, History itself in its modern stage–amounted to nothing but an imbroglio with no exit.” Baudrillard’s corollary is not just about one country but relates to all other countries where some eradication of history is taking place. Despite the oozing pessimism of this conclusion, there are some shining exceptions, as with preservation of historical monuments in Germany, which defy the temptation to eradicate and, subsequently, reconstruct the historical past and, thus, avoids the dangers of political aphasia and of transmogrification of national self-identity. The latter is not something that should be ossified and shown in a wax museum. A healthy self-identity is fluid and solid at the same time; it manages to reconcile differing historical realities and political myths, that is, to dance on a rope extended above the abyss of multiple cultures, meanings, perceptions, implications and social worlds.

Or, “in Wittgensteinian sense of understanding” (Zygmunt Baumann, In Search of Politics), it is created by people who “know how to go on in the face of others who may go on–have the right to go on–differently.”

ALEVTINA REA can be reached at