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Estonian war crimes, minority rights, Russian moral ambiguities, and the way forward

May 08, 2007

Occasionally I get comments to my previous post that are not hate speech or propaganda but instead try to further a meaningful discussion. I figured I’ll answer shorter things amid the comments, but I’ll answer more interesting and longer ones that require some more research and thinking in separate posts such as this one.

So here are the relevant bits from the comment of Mikhail with my responses.

There are facts related to the period of German occupation which are hard to deny. Like the fact that Estonia was one of the few Judenfrei (Jew-free) areas in Reich. The support of extermination of Jews and other “untermenschen” cannot be justified by the atrocities of Soviet regime. Not only the Soviet regime was a tragedy for estonian people, but also the support they have provided to Nazi Germany in that dark time. This fact does not support your idea of long history of tolerance.

It is indeed a documented historic fact that under Nazi occupation, some Estonians participated in crimes against Jews, that can be classified as either war crimes or crimes against humanity under international law. The most recent authoritative non-biased historic work that I know of about this subject is the work of Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against Humanity convened by the late President of Estonia Lennart Meri and featuring undeniable international experts and dignitaries. The reports of this commission are readily available on their site and are well-researched interesting reading.

The people who participated in such acts were war criminals and must be prosecuted accordingly. Many of them have passed away by now, many were tried and mostly executed during the Soviet occupation that followed. I am sure that if there are any people remaining whose guilt can be proven and who can be tried and convicted, our legal system will do that.

BUT: it is the classic propaganda/conflict-fueling tactic that both the Nazi Germany and Soviet Union practiced en masse, to take a few people of a group who committed some crimes, and extrapolate these crimes to the whole group. “All Jews/men/homosexuals/mentally-ill/better-educated/those-who-think-otherwise are criminals/pigs/kulaks/enemies-of-state.” Under a democratic European legal system, guilt is individual. Therefore, while I acknowledge that some Estonians were war criminals, I refuse to make any connection or generalization or conclusion about Estonians as a whole supporting the goals and tools of Nazi regime. (“Estonian” here could mean either Estonian citizens during the First Republic or ethnic Estonians, the meaning doesn’t change.)

I especially do not believe that Estonians were en masse in support of crimes against humanity against the Jews. This is for a simple practical reason. I’m by far no expert, but I’ve studied the subject a bit, and I understand that the Nazi extermination system tried to operate at least under some camouflage. Death camps were set up in remote areas so that few people would find out about them, and the whole operation tried to maintain at least some level of secrecy both in Nazi Germany and in the occupied areas. Most people in Germany did not find out about the “final solution” until the war was long over, and I believe the same is true for Estonia.

The report of the History Commission ends with the words:

It is unjust that an entire nation should be criminalized because of the actions of some of its citizens; but it is equally unjust that its criminals should be able to shelter behind a cloak of victimhood.

This sums it up briefly and precisely. There have always been collaborators who have worked with/for the occupiers, and in Estonia it happened both during the Nazi and Soviet periods. It is unjust to make decisions about entire nations based on these collaborators.

I do not support the annexation of Estonia to the USSR, but the pre-war politics that lead to what some people call 1st occupation was quite compicated.

Indeed it was, both internationally and within Estonia itself. But no ambiguities can justify occupation and crimes.

On the issue of Russian minority - I’m sure you have read the articles by Amnesty International. They are not quite favourable towards Estonian policy in language and citizenship. Why should Russians in Estonia be treated differently than, lets say, Catalunyans in Spain, or Welsh in the UK or Russains in Lithuania?

Russian Federation is winning some propaganda battles here. Amnesty and other similar groups sometimes tend to base its reports on Russian Federation propaganda instead of facts. They use biased and outdated information. Also, the concepts of “human rights” and “political rights” are sometimes confused. Russians in Estonia have their human rights far better guaranteed than they have in current Russian Federation (such as, say, freedom of speech? Or how about the right to life and not getting gassed to death by your own government?). Amnesty only talks about human rights, not political rights.

There have been no documented cases of violation of human rights in modern Estonia as witnessed by numerous international studies and commissions. All that I hear is generic complaining about “discrimination”, which when translated from “newspeak” to plain language, means “Estonia and its people are not willing to act like a Soviet colony and do everything on old Soviet terms any more”. When rights have been violated, there’s a legal system to counter that – and if you’re not happy with the Estonian legal system, you can go all the way to the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights.

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by Catalunyans or Welsh, but I believe you are talking about political rights and citizenship. In this respect, the situation of Russians in Lithuania was much different from Estonia and Latvia. In Lithuania by the end of the Soviet occupation, more than 80% of the population was Lithuanian and only around 6% or so was Russian. I’m not sure how they managed to pull that off, but that’s how it was. So Lithuania could give citizenship to all these people without risking too much. In Estonia, the proportion was something like 60/40, and in Latvia it was even worse. And to give citizenship to this many people who have zero respect for your language or constitution would have been a real risk to national security.

You can enjoy all political rights in Estonia by obtaining citizenship, whereby you’ll be getting fully equal rights to other Estonian citizens. (The only thing you can’t obtain with citizenship by naturalization is being elected President of the Republic. That right is reserved to those who are Estonian citizens by birth. All other rights are fully equal.) There are exactly two prerequisites to this: you have to know the basic level of Estonian language, and you have to be loyal to the state and respect the Estonian constitution. These conditions are exactly the same as in any other European country. There are many ethnic Russians in Estonia who have chosen to do exactly this and are fully using all their rights and don’t complain – because there’s nothing to complain about.

Much (but not all) of the current Russian population has been brought to your country by Soviet regime, which did not discriminate Estonian or Russian when it was about sending to Siberia. Relatives of many of these people suffered not less than yours.

This is an interesting point that illustrates the ambiguous moral position that I imagine some Russians living in Estonia are currently in. And I don’t envy them – it must be pretty difficult and confusing to deal with some of this, getting two mixed messages. Bear with me while I try to illustrate.

So, on one hand you (not Mikhail personally, but more generally anyone in this group) have all this history/propaganda that was taught during the Soviet period, about how great everything Soviet is, and there weren’t any occupations or crimes against humanity or any other silly things like that. Instead, Soviet state was the largest promoter of peace in the world and had to put up first with Nazis and later with all those imperialist capitalist scums but it would endure and end up in a happy communist utopia, and how all the “socialist republics” begged to be incorporated into the Soviet Union voluntarily on their knees, and indeed, uncle Stalin was so generous that he graciously accepted them all and even let them keep their “republics”. And for most of the world this propaganda lives now in the past, but as I said, Russian Federation has chosen to construct its current identity on this and this view continues to be pushed through their mass media and international political scene and such.

And now on the other hand, you have these people like me coming and saying hey now, things were a bit different and there was a lot of bad stuff going on during those times and at the end of the day, the Soviet regime was simply criminal and brought suffering to all.

And so, being in the Russian media space, and being countered with these conflicting views, you are in a difficult position. It is one of the most humanly difficult things in the world to “unlearn” things – that something that was ultimate truth before may not be so any more. And so people sometimes come up with these artificial weird justifications like above which, if I paraphrase, sound like “The Soviet regime didn’t only persecute Estonians. It persecuted us Russians too, so it can’t possibly have been that bad.”

Whether it persecuted Russians too or not doesn’t change the fact that it persecuted Estonians and committed many crimes against humanity here. I know very well it did the same things against Russians and other nations, and if anything, it just makes things worse as it adds to the crime count. And yes, the Red Army soldiers of this regime did noble things on the battleground such as beating the Nazis, but this doesn’t make the regime any less evil. (And the soldiers themselves didn’t really behave that nobly after the victories.)

The way out of here is to recognize that being an ethnic Russian and being a Soviet person are two entirely different things. You don’t have to justify what the Soviets did, and you don’t have to act like you were one of them and are now trying to smooth things. All we have to do is to together jointly recognize that the Soviet regime was a criminal one whose days are over. This is why I never call any ethnic Russians “occupiers” or something else derogatory like this, and I oppose others doing this as well, as it only incites conflict and is unjust (you cannot make current people responsible for past crimes committed long before they were even born). The glorious Russian nation is much greater and has a much broader history and culture than the Soviet period, and hopefully a brighter future too, so it would make sense to disengage from the Soviet thing.

I honestly don’t know how the above would be possible for someone living in current Russia, but I’m quite sure that it’s possible for someone living in Estonia where the free world and free press are much more accessible and you don’t have to keep acting like a Soviet person. That such reconciliation is possible is shown by none other than Germany itself, who I think has by now dealt with the lessons of its past. They are not glorifying anything that happened – instead, they are going to museums to study past crimes against humanity of the criminal Nazi regime that happened to rule their country for a while, but apart from recognizing and respecting this, they are a modern European democratic nation that can live side by side and peacefully work together with its former foes.

What I think is missing in your text is the look into the future, because so far the concentration seems to be on the past. Estonian and Russian communities (and other communities which already there or will come) do not have other choice but to co-exist. Looking at Estonia as a mono-ethnic and mono-cultural state is not realistic. And the reconciliation will come when all the parties involved accept this.

This is the most important part of this comment and I agree fully. The way to the future is very simple: to think about what everyone personally wants. And I’ve done some experiments and incited some funny dialogs about this with random taxi drivers all over the world, and no matter who or where, we always come back to the same thing:

People simply want to go about their daily work and live a happy, prosperous life.

Estonians and Russians and other nations are currently doing this just fine in Estonia. I think that Estonia with its modern, democratic, peaceful and increasingly wealthy society provides you every opportunity to live a happy life, do domestic or international business and engage in any sort of other legal and peaceful activity. If you choose Estonia as the place to live, you just have to recognize that the main purpose of Estonia is to preserve its culture and language. Other cultures and languages are welcome and indeed I think everyone in Estonia only benefits from the influx of new people, cultures and ideas. No one talks about mono-ethnic, but we do talk about the Estonian state language. And “multi-culture” indeed means “multi-culture” – but I’m very wary about this term because under “newspeak”, some Russian activists sometimes say “multi-culture” but they actually mean “Russian/non-Estonian”. Russian culture belongs in Estonia exactly as Finnish, Swedish, Latvian, German, American, Indian, Jewish and many others we are happy to have here.