On Saturday, I enjoyed my first real Estonian Independence Day. I have been here twice before for Feb. 24, but this time it was the real deal. Although it was so cold that the military parade in Tallinn was cancelled, the flag raising ceremony at Tähe Torn in Tartu went on.
And it was cold, so cold my legs were numb and my face hurt when I tried to adjust my grimmace to a smile. Eventually, after the ceremony, I had to go take refuge in a kohvik near raekoja plats just so my nose wouldn't fall off. But there we were, old ladies, little kids, and lots of students, celebrating the 89th anniversary of the founding of the Estonian republic.
I know as well as you do that there was a 50-year-long interlude, but the way it felt all day, you wouldn't have known it happened. Instead, the young people of Estonia wore their society hats and unfurled their Estonian flags, and the feeling created was forward-thinking and good. This is something of which to be proud. 1918 was indeed a long time ago. To put it in context, when Estonian independence was proclaimed, my 88-year-old grandmother wasn't even conceived. My grandfather, who would be 91 this year, was just starting to put his sentences together. And here we are, writing in our blogs, nearly a century later in Eesti Vabariik. Impressive.
In the evening I watched Toomas Hendrik Ilves' first big speech. I remember Arnold Rüütel's speeches, and I have to say that Ilves' was slightly more coherent, even though I understood about 20 percent of what he said. The parts that stuck out to me concerned some fairly controversial issues of the day. I like that he referenced Estonia's kindred Finno-Ugric peoples, like the Inkari Finns, Veps, Votes, and Karelians, whose fate might have been shared by Estonia if it wasn't for the foundation of the republic.
But most of all, I was happy to see Ilves take on the monument controversy, by pointing out that the Soviets had been more than happy to dismantle the monuments Estonians had raised to the victory of 1918. Instead of doing as the Soviets did and dismantling the Red Army memorial in Tallinn, I think Ilves challenged us to let it remain, but to think about it in a historical perspective. My opinion on this matter has changed back and forth, which is why I should never be in politics and will stay in media world. But today, I'd have to say that I agree. Which is to say that it is perhaps more important to confront the sufferings of the past and to digest them and learn from them, then to try and erase all memory of a painful national experience.
After browsing YouTube looking for nifty footage of Estonian past events, I found that someone had posted footage of the Estonian 20th Waffen SS in action and another world battle had erupted between the grandchildren of Legionnaires and the grandchildren of Red Armymen. It was pathetic to see teenagers fight back and forth over who was worse, Hitler or Stalin.
I wish I could tell both the Estonian and Russian nationalist groups something.
For the Russian nationalists, I would have to explain that, while World War II started for Russia in 1941 when the "German invaders" attacked the USSR, for Estonia it started in 1940, when the Soviet army occupied Estonia. While World War II ended for Russia in 1945, on that very special day in May, for Estonia, it didn't really end until Stalin died in 1953. From what I read, that was a day that signalled the end of the Red Terror in Estonia. Within a few years, those deported in 1948 started coming home, and people began to put their lives back together again.
They should know that Estonia is unique. The Estonian people are unique. Estonian history is unique. The Russian nationalists must understand that Estonia is and was a state, just as its sister Ireland is, just as Iceland is, just as Finland is. I am not sure if they'll ever listen, but for their own sake, they should.
For the Estonian rightwing nationalists, I'd have to say this: Look around on Independence Day. Estonia is a success. The 18-year-olds of today feel it just as much as those born in 1900 did. There's no need to proclaim new national holidays or to legislate heroism or to tear down old war monuments. Estonia knows who its heroes are, and it already has the perfect day to celebrate them: Feb. 24.
That's what the restoration of independence was about, it was about taking the hidden flags out of the attic, and singing the national anthem in public, and putting together again that which was so cruelly destroyed. Looking around on Saturday, it felt like the business of restoring the republic was finished some time ago.