The monument to Soviet soldiers that stands in central Tallinn.
Photo: Александр Гужов
Bronze Soviet Soldier Figures in Estonian Elections
The general elections that took place yesterday in Estonia were the culmination of several months of an ongoing scandal that has flared up around the so-called Bronze Soldier, a memorial to Soviet soldiers that stands in downtown Tallinn. Hoping to get ahead in the elections, the parties that make up the country's ruling left-right coalition have been milking the issue for all it is worth. Kommersant correspondent Mikhail Zygar reports from Tallinn about the brouhaha and those for whom it has proven useful.
In Memory of the Occupation
"Why is Russia so concerned about the Bronze Soldier? We're not asking the Russian authorities why they're tearing down this or that building in Moscow. In general, we don't meddle in other people's affairs. In Stavropol, you took down a monument to those killed in the Second World War. And nothing, nobody objected," Urmas Paet, Estonia's foreign minister, said to me in Tallinn's Museum of the Soviet Occupation, which is located almost directly across from the Bronze Soldier.
"You need to understand the feelings of the Estonians. During the occupation, a quarter of our population was killed. For the Estonians, the red (Soviet) flag is not a symbol of liberation. A monument to the occupation cannot stand in such a visible location. It needs to be moved to a less visible spot," he said.
There is a wealth of artifacts on display in the Museum of the Soviet Occupation. Here are two telephone booths from Soviet times. Numerous frightening gramophones on legs. Two hideous cars. And in the center of the room: a dentist's chair.
Urmas Paet made a special visit to the museum on the eve of the elections in order to explain why his government is demanding that the Bronze Soldier be removed. His party, the Reformers, heads the ruling coalition and will undoubtedly be involved in forming the next government as well.
"He has stood there peacefully," I said, "for 15 years. And all of a sudden you have decided to remove him. Why so suddenly?"
Cheerful music filtered through the torn curtain. In the museum's caf?, some young people were celebrating something.
"This is the deal: the elections are coming up. And Russia has always wanted to influence politics in Estonia. [Russia's] goal is to show that we have problems, that we don't have our act together."
"In other words, the protests against the removal of the monument are organized by Moscow?"
"Directly," he replied.
In Memory of the Liberation
I approached the Bronze Soldier. Next to the monument, a man in a black cap was collecting money from his younger comrades. This was Dmitry Linter, one of the leaders of the so-called Night Watch, a group of young people who began to keep watch by the monument last May after Prime Minister Andrus Ansip promised to have it taken away.
"Right now we're like a girl of marriageable age. Everyone knows about us, and everyone is trying to entice us over to their side. Not long ago we were at a United Russia party meeting, and right after that we attended a Just Russia meeting. Now we're being invited to Pskov by the local organization The Last Frontier," Linter says before turning to his friends: "Give me the money for tickets, you'll be reimbursed later."
A year ago, Linter and his comrades, the defenders of the monument, created the Constitutional Party for the purpose of making a run at getting into parliament.
I headed for the party's office, where its leader, Andrei Zarenkov, complained to me that United Russia is supporting Economic Minister Edgar Savisaar's Centrist Party rather than the Constitutional Party. Moreover, he hints, United Russia has other ulterior motives.
"Have you seen [the television show] 'Banditsky Petersburg'?" he asks. I tell him I haven't. He forges ahead anyway: "Do you remember how Antibiotik says, 'We're getting it from the Finns?' That's what's happening to us with United Russia. They're getting it from the Finns. That's why they're supporting Savisaar."
I tried to get Andrei to explain why the majority of Estonia's Russian-speaking population supports Edgar Savisaar instead of the Constitutional Party.
"First of all, they play this clip on television every day where [Russian State Duma speaker Boris] Gryzlov calls Savisaar his best friend. Secondly, you understand, there are more honest elections in Russia. There, people vote for the candidate that they like. Here, people only think about money. They vote for whomever is promising them more money."
"Yes, people are strange," I said.
"The Russia authorities need to develop the concept of their foreign policy. To understand what [Russia] needs and what it needs to fight for," he continued. "Moscow doesn't understand why they need to support us. We're the only ones who share Moscow's position on the question of the occupation. All of the Estonian parties acknowledge it. We're the only ones who say that there was no occupation of Estonia."
"Not at all?" I asked.
"Not at all. It was a free and voluntary entry into the USSR. It was approved at the time by Estonian President Konstantin Paets. By the way, [Russians] consider him a traitor (Paets was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in 1940 and deported to Russia, where he died in a mental hospital in 1956), but you can see that I have a picture of him on the wall."
"So there was no Molotov-Ribbentrop pact?"
"Well, there was. But so what? You have to understand that Estonia is now a beachhead. That problem was purposefully blown out of proportion by the Americans in order to make the Estonians fear the Russians more and to make them agree to the arrival of American troops here."
"So are they being aided," I asked, "by an American agent, [Estonian] President Tomas Hendrik Ilves?"
"He's America's henchman. I mean, he worked at Radio Svoboda (Freedom). And everybody who worked there was probably vetted by the CIA."
A Monument to Misunderstanding
I met with Vladimir Velman in the restaurant of his hotel.
"Enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and then we'll talk," he suggested. Vladimir Velman is one of the most famous Russian politicians in Estonia. He is the fourth man from the top in Edgar Savisaar's Centrist Party, which is oriented mainly towards Russian voters. The party is a member of the ruling coalition and is likely to retain its position after the elections.
"There is a lot that the Estonians don't understand. For example, they never drink at cemeteries. The Russians do. It's an accepted thing for us. They are irritated by the red flag. On May 9 (Victory Day) last year, there was a brawl near the monument between Russians with red flags and Estonians with Estonian flags. That was our mistake. The Tallinn authorities allowed two demonstrations to take place: both Estonian and Russian. Of course, that shouldn't have happened. And it turned out badly. On the one hand, the people from the Constitutional Party, who have nothing to do but defend Russianness, whipped up a commotion. On the other hand, the prime minister had it in for them. He took the bit in his mouth and ran with it."
"And if the monument were moved to a different location, would that immediately settle everyone down?"
"Even many veterans of the war are saying that if the location in town is so irritating, let's find a better spot. At a war memorial, for example. But then another conflict arises. Besides the veterans, there are also military pensioners who want to pass themselves off as veterans."
"So after the elections, the monument will definitely be moved?"
"Well, no," Mr. Velman hesitated. "The monument belongs to the city. And our party has a majority in the city council. And as long as our party has a majority, the monument will stay where it is."
"But some of your party's deputies voted for a law that allows the monument to be moved," I said.
"No, our deputies voted for a law that demands that soldiers' remains be reburied in cemeteries. And we protested against a second law, which would have moved the monument. Incidentally, the president vetoed it.
"But there are soldiers' remains under the monument," I pointed out.
"Well, no one knows where exactly they are, or even whether there are people there. That needs to be clarified. But there were terrible things in the laws. For example, they forbid the enshrining of the memory of [foreign] occupiers – in Narva they want to erect a monument to Peter the Great. Now they can't."
"So Peter the Great was the first Russian occupier?"
"Well, not the first. The first was Ivan the Terrible."
All the Article in Russian as of Mar. 05, 2007