What I think of the riots in Estonia

April 30, 2007

(see postitus on saadaval ka eesti keeles)

Through the past year, I’ve been away from Estonia for quite a while. I’ve been to shorter trips to the US and Europe, and I’ve also lived abroad in chunks of one or two months. At the same time, I’ve read and listened to memories of Estonians about the 20th century history, such as the Second World War and the Soviet times that followed, and also about newer events such as the Iraq war.

During this time, I’ve found myself thinking quite often and deeply about what being an Estonian means to me. You don’t think about it that much when you’re in your home country, but do when you’re abroad. This is important to me because it’s one of the sources of my identity – it’s important to me to know where I come from, who I am, where I’m going and what values of my predecessors I am carrying forward.

This is why the causes and interpretation of this past week’s riots in Estonia matter to me. This is to me directly connected to personally being an Estonian, and the place of Estonia as a country in Europe, the world and next to Russia.

The occupation and its symbols

The source of the problem is in this brief paragraph that typically accompanies the reporting of the riots in Western media.

Soviet troops invaded the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – in 1940, but were pushed out by the Nazis a year later. The Red Army retook them in 1944 and occupied them until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This interpretation of history is valid both in Estonia and in the West. It’s neutral objective historic truth.

The occupation from 1940 to 1991 brought along crimes against humanity, terror and physical and mental destruction of the people living in Estonia at the time. Members of my family and other people I know were deported to Siberia in cattle trains. Their guilt was that they were wealthier, more industrious or educated than the others, or simply had been working in public service during the first Estonian Republic (1918-1940). When the “criminal” didn’t happen to be at home, anyone else around was grabbed along in his/her place because the deportation quotas had to be filled and individual guilt and proper procedures didn’t really matter.

Those not deported were subjected to decades of communist terror and persecution. Many were forced to join the Communist Party not because of their beliefs, but simply because this was often the only way to have a meaningful career. They were then made to spy against their colleagues or family, or made to commit other crimes against their will.

The Soviet state demonstrated its presence and superiority in Estonia by erecting monuments. One of them was the “bronze soldier” in Tallinn. To all who suffered from the communist crimes against humanity or persecution in Estonia, it symbolized occupation, crimes against humanity and the persons and power that executed those. It would be morally improper that this remained in the centre of Tallinn in front of the National Library and next to one of Tallinn’s most important churches. The monument should have been relocated immediately after regaining independence similarly to how the many statues of Lenin and other ideological monuments were removed. The bronze soldier, differently from the others, though, remained under the protection of the Soviet army, and relocating it would have been possible only after the Soviet army left Estonia in August and September 1994.

I cannot say why the statues was not relocated until now. It’s always easy to judge things in hindsight. The statue was removed now because had it remained in place, the ethnic tensions around it would have been escalating until resulting in a clash that would have brought along far greater (human) losses than what we’ve seen in this past week’s riots.


In an interesting coincidence of events, the first president of Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin passed away just this last week. We may think of him as the creator of modern democratic Russia. Estonia values Yeltsin highly, as from the viewpoint of contemporary Estonian history, Yeltsin was crucial in the events of August 1991 where democracy-loving people of Russia, Estonia and other surrounding countries stood against the communist coup. Among other things, this made it possible for Estonia to regain its independence.

Yeltsin tried to turn Russia towards democratic development and was successful in his time to an extent. In the current Putin era, though, Russia has chosen an imperialist path, reconnecting itself with its Soviet heritage, for example, by re-establishing symbols such as the Soviet anthem as its own. Russia is not a civilized, modern European country. It’s something that I don’t even know a name for, as nothing like it exists elsewhere in the world. Russia is a unique phenomenon whose governance significantly differs from the modern European and Western political culture.

The official Soviet and current Russian interpretation of history called the monument in Tõnismäe “soldier-liberator”. According to this, the Red Army liberated Estonia in 1944 of the Nazi occupation. This is absolutely true. But Russia has to date failed to acknowledge the history that followed – that one occupation (that they defeated) was simply followed by another, their own.

The democratic European political discourse assumes open and honest communication, clarification of terms and respect for different opinions. On the other hand, the rhetoric arsenal of totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Union, has always contained tools like selective interpretation of history and purposefully misusing terms and concepts. Occupiers are called “liberators”, falsified and forced elections “free” and massive famine in the 1930s “economic flourishing”.

Russia continues to seek opportunities to regain control over states that it once controlled, and disregards their sovereignty. The “bronze soldier” provides an ideal pretext to morally attack Estonia. The propaganda works, as many people in Russia, and the people in Estonia who live in the Russian media space, truly believe that Estonia supports nazism and wants to destroy the monument of those who fought against it and discredit these memories, while in fact, Estonia is only relocating disturbing symbols of occupation into an area that would be less prominent in its capital.

At the same time, it seems to me that the people in Russia still want to belong in the Western and European culture in a way. Why is hard business in Russia done in “bucks”, US dollars, and not in their own legal currency? Why do we see so many Russian emigrees in Europe and the US, while only a handful of diplomats, journalists and businessmen are operating in Russia from the west?

Other nations in Estonia, and the limits of tolerance

Estonia has a long history of tolerance. The Cultural Autonomy of Ethnic Minorities Act, passed in the first Estonian Republic in 1925, was among the most progressive in the world and established the right for all nations living in Estonia to protect and develop their culture and heritage. Estonia has always wished to be a part of a multicultural Europe. Unfortunately we are not able to live up to this past heritage fully yet – there are isolated instances in Estonia where people from other races or cultures are discriminated against, or it’s unnecessarily difficult for them to be able to work in Estonia. We can fix all this.

Currently, many people live in Estonia who (or whose parents) came to Estonia because the Soviet occupation told them to. Maybe it was also out of their free will, or maybe it was against their will. I know that many of them and their children understand history differently than I do. We may discuss these differences face-to-face over a beer, or maybe on the Internet or at some peaceful meeting. But the limit of tolerance for me is when things become criminal and violent. Violence and criminal acts are never justified, and they are especially not justified when political reasons are the pretext. Many older people living in Estonia have commented over the past week that the rioting on the streets isn’t really that different from the entrance of Red Army in 1940 and 1944 – similar looting and barbarism took place then.

It would be a big mistake to engage in fueling ethnic confrontation. As you notice in this post, I don’t use the words “Estonian” or “Russian” to refer to nationalities, except when talking about myself personally. There are many Russians living in Estonia who condemned the rioting. Unfortunately, some Estonians also decided to participate in the criminal activities of the past few days. It’s not a choice or confrontation of ethnicities. It’s about choosing whether you want to be a “Soviet person”, homo soveticus who has no respect for anything and spits on it all, or whether you want to be a law-abiding person living in democratic Estonian Republic, member state of the European Union and NATO. This choice can be made by everyone personally and themselves, regardless of nationality or other criteria.

Morally standing our ground

I’m happy for the actions of Estonian authorities, government and police in controlling the riots. Only one person got killed, and most likely this happened in a fight between the rioters themselves. Most of the damage has been to property, but this will be compensated by the government and insurance. As the owner of a looted pub half-jokingly remarked, “I was planning to renovate the place anyway”. The police keeps things under control without excessive violence. To those who think that this situation is not really normal, I recommend watching European news – unfortunately, we can see such events often in case of major political conferences or sports events. This is the dark side of a democratic society, but we must still prevent and stand against crime in all ways possible.

Now let’s compare this to the selective action of the Russian authorities. On one hand, they curb most democratic gatherings extremely violently and using the “strike first” principle. On the other hand, they are not able to (are not willing to) ensure even the basic level of security for the Estonian embassy in Moscow, so that it will have to shut down and cannot provide consular service neither to Estonian nor Russian citizens.

I believe that the following two things are possible in parallel.

On one hand, the Estonian constitution sets its purpose to be “the preservation of Estonian nation and culture through all times”. One inseparable part of a culture is identity, history and historic memory. It is my duty and responsibility as an Estonian to carry this memory forward to be remembered and studied by other nations and future generations. The Estonian Republic has been created “on the inextinguishable right of the people of Estonia to national self-determination”. I’m not going elsewhere to force my views upon other countries, I’ll remain within the bounds of Estonia with this. I must always be prepared to negotiate and listen, but there are some things (such as the question about whether Estonia was occupied or “liberated”) where changing my views would mean giving up the historic memory of my ancestors, and I cannot do this – but I can live and work side by side with those who peacefully think otherwise.

(the Estonian version of this post has a reference to domestic politics here, I’ve omitted this from the English version as I believe it has no relevance to my English readers)

On the other hand, you can be a part of multicultural Europe and the world, where we have a multitude of opinions, and where national chauvinism and xenophobia are replaced with respect and cooperation. We still need to get used to the fact that an open society in an open world functions differently from a closed society behind the iron curtain. Learning and discovering this has been an interesting journey to me and I wish the same to others.