[by Chris Burks]
Large, public monuments, such as war memorials, can serve as powerful symbols of a state’s historical narrative. However, when this narrative is contested, the monuments themselves can become the focal point of heated controversy. Such is the case with the ‘Bronze Soldier’ war memorial in Tallinn, Estonia, which in 2006 became the physical manifestation of Estonia’s failed attempts to effectively exorcise its World War II and Soviet-era demons and forge a shared and uplifting historical narrative for the period.
Originally located on ‘Liberators’ Square’ in central Tallinn, the ‘Bronze Soldier’ is a Soviet-era war memorial commemorating the ‘liberation’ of Tallinn from the Nazis in 1944. The monument depicts a decorated Red Army soldier, head bowed in honor of his fallen comrades set against a large, stone wall. In the years after Estonian independence, it served mainly as a gathering place for Red Army veterans, most of them ethnically Russian, on May 9 (Victory Day) (Pettai, 947). For the ethnic Russians who make up nearly half of Tallinn’s population and a significant portion of Estonia’s as a whole, the ‘Bronze Soldier’ is a “locus of identification” for a group largely excluded from and discriminated against by the Estonian state. For them, the memorial reflects the traditional Russian narrative, claiming that Russia liberated Estonia from Nazi Germany and denying the suffering of Estonians under Soviet occupation. Removal of the memorial, therefore, would be viewed as an explicit endorsement of fascism (Burch and Smith, 914). For Estonians, however, the monument is a hurtful symbol of Soviet occupation and oppression, and many wanted it removed (Pettai, 947).
The most recent controversy began on May 9, 2006, when, in response to ongoing Victory Day celebrations, Estonian nationalists held a counter-protest at the monument, and were detained by the police. Estonian politicians were outraged at the police conduct, and Estonian activists returned to the memorial a week later, demanding the monument’s removal and dismantling. In response to these threats, young ethnic Russians gathered at the memorial on the following day determined to keep watch over the monument and prevent it from being taken away in the night. Fearing escalation of the conflict, the Estonian Interior Minister responded by banning congregation at the monument and instituting 24-hour police protection in the area (ibid.). The decision on the memorial’s future then moved to the highest levels of the Estonian government. Reform Party Prime Minister Andrus Ansip sided with the nationalists, and led the charge for the monument’s removal. In opposition to him stood Edgar Savisaar of the left-leaning Centre Party, a coalition partner of the Reform party (ibid., 947-948). Savisaar, whose party counted on ethnic Russians for a significant portion of its support, wanted a broader societal consensus achieved before the statue’s removal. The Centre Party also controlled the Tallinn City Council, which, according to Estonian law, had jurisdiction over the monument’s future. Seeing no immediate alternative, Ansip pushed legislation through Parliament allowing the national government to override local government for the purpose of removing any war memorials or burial sites that caused public disorder. In doing so, he used votes from the opposition Res Publica and Pro Patria Union parties. President Ilves vetoed one of the two laws, but after Ansip won the March 2007 national election, he waited only a month to dismantle the memorial, relocating it to the Defense Forces cemetery amid Russian protest and street violence (ibid.).
The ‘Bronze Soldier’ controversy, however, was not the first of its kind. In fact, it was one of many in post-independence Estonia, as the small country tried to negotiate the contradictions of its past and present manifested in public monuments. In 1995, the very same ‘Bronze Soldier’ was embroiled in controversy, this time revolving around the original plaque commemorating the ‘liberation’ of Tallinn by Soviet troops. This inscription was replaced with an alternate plaque, reading “To the Fallen of World War Two” (Burch and Smith, 919). In September 2004, another monument was removed in Lihula, Estonia. This one, constructed by a veterans’ group, commemorated Estonians who fought against the USSR alongside German troops during World War II. The controversy here revolved around the memorial’s depiction of an Estonian fighter with SS insignia. The inscription read: “To Estonian men who fought in 1940-1945 against Bolshevism and for the restoration of Estonian independence” (ibid., 913-914). Critics of the government in this case argued that if the Lihula memorial was removed for endorsing the vices of Nazism, then Soviet monuments, such as the ‘Bronze Soldier,’ implicitly representative of their own era’s demons, should meet the same fate (ibid., 914). In a similar vein, a wave of vandalizing of Soviet monuments throughout Estonia saw the ‘Bronze Soldier’ splattered in red paint, upsetting many ethnic Russians. Interestingly, though, a German military cemetery was also desecrated (ibid.).
Another interesting debate surrounded the erection of the ‘Swedish Lion’ monument in commemoration of the 18th Century Swedish victory over the Russian Empire in Narva, a predominantly (96%) Russian-speaking town near the Russian border (ibid., 915). The monument was commissioned by Narva mayor Eldar Efendiev in an effort to draw the city closer to Sweden after the end of the Cold War and to break the city from its Soviet past (ibid., 920-921). During the Estonian independence movement, Narva remained a bastion of Soviet support, but by reviving memories of a past ‘Golden Age,’ the ‘Swedish Lion’ monument effectively contributed to the narrative linking ethnically Russian Narva to a Swedish past, and therefore an economic future closely tied to Sweden (ibid., 924). Today, however, the memorial is viewed in a largely non-political light. It is generally regarded either with indifference or as a legitimate symbol of the city’s history (ibid., 931).
Overall, the controversy surrounding the ‘Bronze Soldier’ war memorial, as well as other Estonian war memorials, reflects an identity void among Russian-speaking Estonians in the post-Soviet system. Russians are victimized by citizenship laws which exclude them from participation in national elections and prohibit them from running for public office. Thus, antagonism between a necessarily pro-Estonian national government and the large Russian minority can be expected, as can the strikingly different local politics made possible by Russian enfranchisement on the municipal level (ibid., 919). But, despite this discrimination, there is increasing identification among Russians with the new Estonian state, but at the same time little identification with the Estonian ‘national community (ibid., 923). Instead, ethnic Russians are forced to look to a tsarist past, or to local history (ibid., 931).
- Stuart Burch and David J. Smith, “Empty Spaces and the Value of Symbols: Estonia’ ‘War of Monuments’ from Another Angle,” Europe-Asia Studies 59 (2007).
- Vello Pettai, “Estonia,” European Journal of Political Research 46 (2007).