reede, november 10, 2006

Honoring Estonia's Founding Fathers

This week Estonian right-wing parties, with the backing of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, introduced a bill in the Estonian parliament that calls for the removal of a controversial monument to the Red Army in central Tallinn. At the same time, the Russian Federation is moving forward with a United Nations resolution that will condemn xenophobia and racism.

Russia's professional flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhiranovsky is interested enough in the Bronze Soldier controversy that he has called for an economic blockade of Estonia, which I assume means gas and transport. Meanwhile Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves believes that the monument should remain and that Estonians should treat it as a memorial to those who died at the hands of the Red Army.

What I think is that this debate isn't over a monument. It's over the identity crisis of those who show up each year and wave the Soviet flags and lay red roses in the heart of their capital city -- a city that was bombed by men wearing that uniform. The monument has stood there for 15 years without a plan to relocate it, but the moment it became a source of conflict in Estonian society was when Estonians waving the flag of the Republic of Estonia were taunted and scuffled with those holding the flag of the Soviet Union.

Why anyone in Estonia would wave the flag of the USSR is beyond me. For beginners, those who came to Estonia after 1945 chose of their own accord to remain in Estonia after 1991. Russia is the biggest country in the world. What's more, it wants its compatriots back. Russian-speakers without citizenship also have always had the right to pursue Russian citizenship. So the fact is that, language laws and school reform aside, the Russians of Estonia have chosen Estonia over Russia.

Why? Why don't people want to leave Estonia, even if their human rights are violated, even if they are forced to speak that godawful Estonian language? Because the economic opportunities are better. As the Baltic Times recently noted:

For Baltic Russians, the program is too little too late. Sergei Sergeyev, who heads an association of Russian organizations in Estonia, summed up the situation perfectly. “The Estonian standard of living is higher, and life itself more peaceful,” he was quoted as saying earlier this year. “People here are used to amenities that cannot yet be found in Russia. If Russian youth in Estonia want to pursue a career outside Estonia, it’s the West – rather than Russia – they’ll head for.”


For almost two centuries, Estonia was a part of the Russian empire. During most of that time its people lived as peasants. When that outdated economic system was abolished in the first half of the 19th century, Estonians became educated, and generally came to the conclusion that they should run their own affairs. The revolution of 1918 gave them that opportunity and they took it. During the period of independence from 1920 to 1940, Estonia successfully reoriented its economy from East to West. The architects of this successful transition were men like Jaan Tõnisson, Aadu Birk, Ants Piip, and Jaan Teemant -- all of whom died at the hands of the Soviets.

Let me repeat to make myself clearly understood -- the Soviet Union murdered Estonia's founding fathers. Its Hamiltons, Madisons, Adams, and Washingtons. All died at the request of Moscow. The Soviet Union murdered the men that created the blueprint for the very country that is now successful enough that even those who disagree with its minorities policies begrudgingly admire its economic position.

All of this bodes well for Estonia. Though those who wave the flag of the USSR at memorial rallies may not get it, they themselves have endorsed the vision of Tõnisson, Piip, Birk, and others by simply staying in Estonia. They have voted with their feet on the issue of whether or not Estonian independence is paramount. They may have shouted "fascists" and lighted candles for the long dead Red Army - but the next day they woke up and went to school or went to work and continued to contribute by their very actions to the success that the USSR tried to keep at bay for 50 years.

In the late 1980s, Estonians once again sought independence for the benefit of their country. They looked at the standard of living in Sweden and Finland, and they knew once again that their country could do better going it alone than as a Soviet province. And despite the best wishes of Vladimir Lebedev's Intermovement, Estonia went in its own direction, and those ethnic Russian who have stayed have voted with their presence that it was the best decision.

So the final reality is this. Estonia's right wing parties need not trouble themselves with monument wars. Their economic policies have convinced enough of Estonia's newcomers that living and working in a second language is worth the price of admission. They might dislike Mart Laar's "history" but they sure like his economic policies. So what's the difference?

Second, those who commemorate the Red Army should ask themselves this: "Why are we celebrating the same guys who murdered our land's founding fathers?" Each resident of Estonia that stays in Estonia reaps the reward of the blueprints set by the men who achieved Estonian independence. If they like Estonia so much, maybe they should spend more time honoring the people who came up with the idea in the first place.

Of all the solutions, my guess is that Ilves has it right. Tearing down a statue won't solve anything. It will just take more time for some people to realize that 1918 has ultimately had more of an affect on their lives than 1944.

5 kommentaari:

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

The comparison with Adams makes sense. And many of the estonian military commanders of 1918-1920 didn't survive the GULAG. Founding Brothers.

Giustino ütles ...

I feel like I am walking a fine line writing this stuff, but at the same time I think it needs to be said.

I don't want to tell a bunch of Russian-Estonian kids that the Red Army soldiers that defeated Hitler and unworthy of appreciation. I understand that.

I just wish that the Estonian minds of the 1920s and 30s were more respected and appreciated.

And this is partially the fault of the Estonian authorities. I wish Ansip would stop talking about "foreign conquerors" and "occupation" and tell it like it was.

Tell them how Jaan Tõnisson died - most likely executed in Tallinn in 1941. Tell them about Otto Strandmann, who committed suicide when the NKVD came to collect them.

Use their names. Tell their stories. Let all people in Estonia, regardless of ethnicity, know what happened. If Putin or Lavrov want to say that Estonia wasn't occupied, then fire back and ask them why their president had to die in a psychiatric prison, or why their former prime minister had to be executed?

They'll have no good response for that.

oliver ütles ...

Whaaat? Occupied? Executed? By Soviets? That's just crazy talk - Mart Laar's history! You dirty nogood history rewriting Russophobe!

This is the answer you are most likely going to get...

And you even don't have to go that far back to see how ridiculous are Putin, Lavrov and official Russian history.
Let's just look who is president of Estonia. Toomas Hendrik Ilves - born in Sweden, parents escaped from Soviets.
President of Latvia Vaira Vike-Freiberga - at age 7, parents escaped from Soviets.
President of Lihuania Valdavs Adamkus - underage partisan fighting both the Germans and the Russians, escaped to Germany! from Soviets...
They returned to their homes ~50 years later...

And then you have Putin who talks about how they liberated the Eastern-Europe. How absurd is that. Not even absurd, but disgusting and offensive...

Giustino ütles ...

Whaaat? Occupied? Executed? By Soviets? That's just crazy talk - Mart Laar's history! You dirty nogood history rewriting Russophobe!

This is the answer you are most likely going to get...


How do they not know that their former prime minister Jaan Tõnisson was most likely executed by NKVD in 1941? How do they not know that?

See, if Trivimi Velliste went up on May 9 with a big picture of Tõnisson instead of a sign saying "this soldier occupied our land" and the ominous dates 1868 - ? maybe it would be easier to get the point across.

O. (Estonian studying abroad) ütles ...

Well written, Giustino.