The Social and Humanitarian Committee of the UN General Assembly adopted a document on Nov. 18 voicing "deep concern" over the "glorification of the Nazism movement and members of the former Waffen SS organization”, as well as “opening the monuments, memorials, and holding public demonstration glorifying the Nazi past, Nazi movement and neo-Nazism.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry sees the adoption of such a resolution as a great achievement, but the probable passing of this document next month by the General Assembly will have no impact on my life in Estonia and will go unnoticed by my colleagues, friends, relatives, and others with whom I have day-to-day contact.
Why? Because, contrary to the line from Sergei Lavrov's Russian Foreign Ministry, there is no mainstream revival of Nazism in Estonia. There are extremists, yes, but there are also extremists who think Russians should control all the land from Paldiski to Narva, even if Russians don't dwell in most of that territory. I believe such extremists exist, and are paid too much attention, in all countries.
I have found that in Estonia, there is actually very little interpersonal discussion of the Second World War, as most of Estonia's political and media elite are of a post, post-war generation and they are tired of it. These are people born after the Khrushchev era for whom World War II and its aftermath are as distant and foreign as Vietnam will be for my children. It makes for good pub discussion, but little else. The current economic crisis is relevant. WWII? Not so much.
Now, there are political forces within Estonia that wish to honor the personal sacrifice of Estonians, most of whom were drafted, who served in the Estonian Waffen SS. As far as I can tell from reading books, such as Eesti Leegion, authored by former Prime Minister Mart Laar, there is no open, official embrace of the German Third Reich or its values, other than its value of anti-Bolshevism, which is a value embraced also by the Russian Federation today.
Also, because Estonia is a pluralist society with a parliamentary democracy, that means that there are also political forces that do not seek to pass such sense resolutions, or who share the same interpretation of history as others. The controversial vote to remove the Bronze Soldier statue, for instance, passed by 2 votes in Estonia's 101-seat parliament, the Riigikogu. Resolutions to proclaim the Estonian SS as freedom fighters in Estonia failed. The monument to those who fought against Bolshevism in Estonia, erected by the local authorities in the West Coast town of Lihula was removed.
I have Estonian friends and colleagues who think the portrayal of the Estonian SS as freedom fighters is BS. They too are entitled to their opinion. It's nice to portray ever Estonian citizen who ever lived as acting in the state's interest. Some have even tried to rehabilitate the June 1940 puppet government that first told the people upon coming to power that Estonia would remain independent, and yet voted to join the country to the USSR the next month, with hundreds of Red Army and Navy personnel in the Riigikogu chamber to make sure the vote went the right way. They were naive, idealistic Estonian communists, the argument goes, not cut from the same cloth as their comrades next door, for whom human life was incredibly cheap.
These arguments go back and forth from time to time in the editorial pages of Estonian newspapers. Estonians are voracious consumers of historical works and their media caters to this interest with article after article about anything that ever happened here, from the diet of the peasantry in medieval Danish Estland to 1930s agricultural trends. Perhaps there is a new book out, or a domestic "thought leader" has something to share about his interpretation of the past. Were the people under consideration heroes, villains, or in the wrong place and the wrong time? You be the judge.
That's how I think we should deal with history. The Russian foreign ministry has other ideas. They don't think you should evaluate your own history by yourself. They think that they should tell you what the correct version of history is, and they will use all avenues, such as the UN, to do so.
This is what Sergei Lavrov's foreign ministry spends its time doing: telling the Estonians they don't know their heroes from their villains; telling the Latvians that they are confused about their past -- your state wasn't founded 90 years ago, those extremely rapid 22 years from 1918 to 1940 were "short-lived" -- just a blip, a two-decade-long lost weekend not worthy even thinking about. Ukraine, there was no Soviet effort to specifically wipe your nationality off the face of the Earth. Besides, you are "not even a state." If you only ascribed to the official, Lavrovian view of history, then everything would be in order.
What sad is that most of this is such a waste of time, for Russians, Estonians, and all others touched by political campaigns to rebrand history. The modern Estonian historical narrative is the same narrative that existed, in exile, during the years of Soviet rule. The reason that it emerged in Estonia proper the late 1980s, is because Gorbachev's policies allowed people for the first time since 1940 to openly discuss their national history.
And because 22 years are not really just a blip, but a whole generation's worth of time, there are plenty of people alive today, such as my wife's grandparents, both of whom saw one or both parents deported, who can explain what they witnessed and what happened to them. You cannot shut history up Lavrov; it has a way of talking whether you like it or not.
US former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes that Russia's main dilemma in foreign policy has been that it has yet to produce one truly gifted diplomat. Despite all of Kissinger's associated baggage, I think he may be right.