29/4/07: The real roots of the Tallinn mayhem

The Monument next to the Tallinn ‘Freedom Square’ and the City Hall would equal having a memorial close to the entrance to Tivoli in Copenhagen with a mourning Wehrmacht soldier to highlight the German sacrifices for ‘Neuropa‘ during the occupation of Denmark.

To move the bronze monument to the armed forces’ cemetary now instead of having it blown up in 1991 immediately after the end of the Soviet occupation was and is a sign of political maturity and real consideration for those who fought bravely for Stalin against Hitler, those who sacrificed themselves to replace one evil empire with a different, more robust, evil empire.

In most of Continental Europe, the Second World War became a civil war, where small and large nations were drafted, enticed or forced by lack of other options to fight for both totalitarian systems. No matter how courageously they fought for their comrades, their effort must be remembered as deeply tragic, as the Estonian have wisely chosen to do at the bloody ‘Blue Hills’ 1944 battlefield West of Narva.

Fighting for a totalitarian system must not be celebrated, but mourned.

Unfortunately the Russian leadership is far from realising or accepting this.

We in Western Europe could be grateful for the sacrifices made by the Russians fighting on the Eastern Front. They made it possible for the U.S. and Great Britain to invade the continent and liberate a space where we would get time to further develop liberal democracy. The Estonians and other East Europeans had nothing to be grateful for. They had to wait until the surviving rotting carcass of Stalin’s evil empire collapsed under the weight of its self-serving corrupt bureaucracy. They had their societies and individuals polluted for 50 years.


Europe is facing several problems, all of these related to the tendency to ignore those problems and thereafter reacting with a combination of civilized optimistic patience and appeasement.

The development in Russia the last 10 years is one such problem, a serious one for our common European future.

Instead of using the decade to move and develop into the 21st Century, picking up the Western political civilization of the post Second World War period, the Russian political leadership has chosen to regress 100 years to the ways of the pre First World War period.

The attitude of Russia to the World and especially to its neighbours is presently close to that of the general great power attitudes of that earlier period. It is built on a demand for ‘respect‘ for the country because of its size. Is it rooted in the geo-strategic and geopolitical attitudes tainted with Social-Darwinism that dominated the conservative elites of all other major European states of the period.

During the period 1905-14 the Russian elite separated itself from the European main stream by being more concerned with domestic reform than external matters and prestige. However, today’s Russia seems to try to compensate for the ‘failing‘ of that otherwise distant period.

The concern for its position in Kosovo is a pure regression into romantic Pan-Slavism. The Finnish role in that process ensures that any logical and legitimate Russian concerns are addressed.

The respect demanded from the small – and thus contemptible and ridiculous – states on the borders is similar in type to that demanded by a mafia ‘capo‘. Presently the focus is Georgia and Estonia.

As then everywhere, the writing of history in Russia today does not seek to present a balanced truth. Russian official history under Putin and Ivanov is written to reinforce the ‘Potemkin‘ image of greatness, to enhance the ego and self-confidence of Russians.

If necessary that is done by deliberate rejection or distortion of known truth and used as a tool of disinformation and propaganda domestically, among Russians in the near and far abroad and to confuse or misguide the increasingly historically illiterate European leaders and populations.

A necessary element in this is a total rejection of the fact that Communism and especially Stalinism was a criminal political and cultural disease similar in most ways to Nazism. Stalin must now be seen and respected as one of the Great Russian leaders. The massive crimes against his own people as well as the – in Russian eyes – second rate nations like Poles and the ridiculously small Baltic nations are seen and presented as justified and necessary.

The facts in relation to Estonia, partly or fully distorted by Russian as previously Soviet historians are fairly straightforward.

The Soviets:
* got freedom of action through the Molotov-Ribbentrop deal
* used the framework of the deal to force the Estonians to accept massive Soviet controlled bases in the North and West of the country in the autumn of 1939
* used the newly established air bases (in formally neutral Estonia) in their air campaign – including the terror bombardment of Helsinki – during the unprovoked invasion of Finland in the Winter War, the act worsened by the Finns being the brother nation of Estonians
* used the strategic clarity created by the German victories in the West to invade and fully occupy Estonia in the late spring of 1940
* organised a fully Soviet controlled and rigged election to create a ‘popular wish’ to be able to justify annexation
* removed the leadership of the Estonian nation by deportation and physical destruction of the political, official and cultural elites – a process that drastically culminated in the massive, well-planned deportations just prior to the surprise German invasion of the Soviet Union
* carried out of a massive forced draft of young Estonian men in Northern Estonia for the Soviet Army and thereafter forced the mostly reluctant conscripts to fight, when they had no chance to desert from their hostage takers
* employed these Estonians at the end of the campaign in Estonia in 1944 to fight against, get killed by and kill other Estonians that had joined the German forces (the Waffen SS was the only organisation open to foreigners) during the previous year to defend against a renewed Soviet invasion – visit the soldiers’ cemetaries from the final fighting on the Sõrve peninsular on the island of Saaremaa (Ösel)
* carried out an extended campaign of terror and massive deportations to destroy the remaining resistance of the ‘Forrest Brothers’ and destroy the Estonian rural society by collectivisation
* colonised Estonia from other parts of the Union thus changing the ethnic balance of the country and especially the urban areas of the North

It took a few decades for Germany to move into the future by facing the ugly past. Japan and Turkey are finally in the process of moving. In Russia, the leadership has deliberately chosen a full return to ‘the big lie‘ and to a totally anachronistic view of the world.

Russia is no longer like an Upper Volta with nuclear weapons – and surplus natural resources. She has now regressed to become an early 20th Century spotwise economically developing authoritarian state with nuclear weapons and the surplus natural resources.

The states bordering Russia realise all too well what they see and are justly concerned. In Western Europe we are just worried about the energy supply and ready to appease and ignore to have a loaded promise and a share of the growing Russian marked.

Depressing and challenging.

Nationalistic self-brainwashing based on historical disinformation was the source of tragedies in Ireland, former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus.

When does this irresponsible nonsense stop?

7 thoughts on “29/4/07: The real roots of the Tallinn mayhem”

  1. Impressive, trenchant stuff, as always. However, one might still wonder at the timing and methods of politically handling the event. Being right on absolutes does not absent one from respecting the relativities of international discourse. Faits accompli and ultimata are not always – actually, very rarely – the best way to make a point, sustain a policy or establish a tradition.

    Peter Foot
    Genea Centre for Security Policy

  2. Dear Peter

    You are right that a much better time would have been during the early Jeltsin period, before regression in Russia started in earnest.

    However, no sovereign state should consider the move of a symbol of 50 years of totalitarian or imperial rule a matter for international negotiation with the former imperial power. Ask the Irish, if you are in doubt.

    Small nations have to underline that being smaller does not necessarily mean accepting suzerainty, even if this would be comfortable for the reasonable people far away from historical painful experience. Maybe this is difficult to understand for some citizens of a former imperial power.

    The problem is deliberately distorted history spread from pulpits, by newspapers as well as now especially from TV and radio studios. This is the cancer of future international that peace centres like yours should worry about, not the small nations that reject showing ‘respect’ for a repeated lie.

    Russia’s suffering and sacrifices during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ were to a very great extent a result of Stalin’s actions from May 1938 till March 1940. It would help the Russians and us if they started to come to terms with that painful fact.

    The heroism that therefore became necessary is a great story, even better if the effort had not been in support of a system as fundamentally evil as Nazism.

    We do not help the Russians or ourselves by quietly appreciating the recreation of Aleksandr. III’s Russia in our midst, armed with thermonuclear weapons, acting as that state in that time.

    Your Michael

  3. Dear Michael,

    I accept that post-imperial commentary from far away might miss the pain and humiliation of more recent experience. However, the matter cannot rest there. Surely there is a predominant need to handle the expression of independence by a small nation, at the very least, in conjunction with neighbours and allies – and in such a way as to minimise the negative impact on a third of the population. It is not to flirt with the sirens of Appeasement to point out that being ‘right’ in international affairs is only the half of it. We do our friemds in Estonia no favours by suggesting that this has been well-handled or can be solely blamed on Moscow’s orchestrated disinformation. ‘Clumsy’ is the best description of Tallinn’s actions that I can come up with.

  4. Dear Peter

    You assume that there is an elegant way to handle Russia for a small bordering state, you should try.

    You assume that we in Western Europe could be brought to accept the removal of the monument. I strongly doubt that, having worked in the Tallinn diplomacy at a time – in 1994 – where the CSCE (now OSCE) Ambassador formally used the term ‘Liberation’ in an official report on the 50th anniversary of the reoccupation. I remember the following years, where the leading EU ambassadors strongly advised the Estonians to appease, to show ‘respect‘.

    Only U.S. determination got the Balts into NATO and as a result of that into EU, using a narrow Window of Opportunity. Vaclav Havel is probably right in concluding recently that Europe would not have had the guts to enlarge, if Putin had been president in the 1990s. One more time where the U.S. helped Europe to do the right thing.

    You assume that there is a way for Estonia to have a normal diplomatic negotiation with Russia, where they could come to a ‘reasonable‘ compromise solution. Forget it. It would debase the dignity of Russia to conduct such negotiations with a state that in its perception should act as a humble client.

    Traditional common sense, reasonable approach will not work with Russia for the time being, especially not if you are a small state bordering Russia. It is typical Western ethnocentricity to ignore that.

    You should read the publications that the Russian Defence Ministry Institute for Military History publishes these years about the neighbours.

    You would probably get a different perspective if you watched Russian television in Tallinn.

    Russia should be treated with quiet and determined, friendly politeness by the states that it considers worthy of attention. However, do not expect official Russia to accept liberal logics.

    I do miss your proposal for an alternative – less ‘clumsy‘ – for Estonia. The moment Russia vetoed any change, Estonia had to demonstrate its sovereignty. In most places in Eastern Europe that statue would have followed the Lenin statues long ago. To place it on the national military cemetary can not be called offensive or worse in my world, in spite of the Russian attempt to block.

    Your Michael

  5. I quite agree that I am largely ignorant about official military history puiblications from Russia and that I watch no Russian television in Tallinn. I have no great knowledge of the ethnography of the region – except that of a reasonable man. I admit entirely to the charge of being a liberal – however offensive that is to Bush supporters! And I entirely understand your wish to protect your beloved Estonia. But the implication that Estonia has handled this well is, frankly, something that leaves out rather a lot.

    We all understand that Putin’s Russia is not a neighbour to be trusted; that it has attitudes within its ruling elites that ‘pass muster’ in no civilized setting; and I share entirely your view that ‘Russia should be treated with quiet and determined, friendly politeness’. It is a pity that Estonia chose a posture and a speed of decision (why now, for heaven’s sake?) that could be so readily presented as noisy, determined and rude.


  6. The displaced statue represents the painfull Russian occupation of 1945-1991
    for the Estonian popultion, during which tens of thousands of Estonians were deported to Siberia, just disappeared or were imprisoned for “treason” – as was the modus operandi in Soviet governed states. The statue was situated inconveniently for the growing Tallinn, and there shouldn’t be anything really dramatic in moving it to a more appropriate environment in the memorial cemetary.

    All in all, there would have been nothing dramatic in the moving of the statue, had the Russian minority not been agitated by Moscow hired operators as is alleged. The whole incident has been devised, in part, to test how commited the EU and NATO are in looking after the benefits of its smaller members.

    Russia is once again showing its true colors in interfereing in its neighbours business. There will be interesting times to come once the state nurtured neo-nationalistic elements begin to gain power within Russia.

  7. Answer to Peter Foot

    Estonia did not act suddenly. The issue has been debated ever since independence i 1991and probably before . Russia and the local Russians were aware of this.

    I met the debate about the monument, when I started to work in Estonia in mid 1994, close to the 50 years anniversary of the re-occupation, at a time where the last regular Russian still were in the country.

    The fact that the West Europeans were surprised show more about the position of the Baltic States in the media and political interest than about the situation in the three states.

    When a decision is taken actually to act and move the monument to a final restingt place at the soldier’s cemetary, there is no more need to broadcast your intentions in advance than to publish warnings in the media about the time and place of future police raids.

    The only thing Estonia would get out of a warning would be an even more massive and intense Russian campaign, convincing even more West Europeans of the correctness of the Russian position.

    The only thing that surprised me was the restraint show by the Estonian government in the choice of a new place for the monuments.

    If you are in doubt about the type of mayhem that followed the onganised demonstrations, I suggest that you watch the unedited TV-stream that you can find on the web-page of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    Your Michael

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