The following has nothing to do with what’s usually said on this site, but I feel it’s important since there’s not much first-hand English commentary and foreign news services have been (too) diplomatic on the subject.
How it all began
I will try to sum up the key events that lead to this situation, as best as I can (there’s a really good documentary series about the occupation over at the Museum of Occupations home-page).
In 1944 the Soviet Red Army re-occupies Estonia. A year later the remains of 12 soviet soldiers are re-buried close to the city centre. These particular soldier’s had little to do with the “liberation” of Tallinn, since the Soviet troops didn’t meet any resistance. In 1947 a statue is erected on top of that grave and the site turned into a monument. Stalin is at the helm. In-all, roughly 200 000 Estonians are deported to Siberia, almost as many flee the terror to Western countries. Any Estonian today will have some of their ancestors either sent away or escaped. There are those who would call this genocide.
1953 - Stalin dies and the massive killings stop at some point. It seems that even the new leadership is too scared to admit the atrocities that have taken place. For decades the statue stands there. In the sixties a trolley stop is built practically on top of the graves and in front of the monument. Each year the celebrations are held on May 9th (Russian version of WWII victory day), but also on the various army-related festivities. About 10 000 Russian settlers are brought in every year, a number four times greater than the Estonian birth-rate at that time. The country is officially bilingual, but you basically have to know Russian to get anywhere in life.
Remember that in the USSR, there basically was no such thing as nationality. You’re either a “Citizen of the Soviet Union” or your not. “Fascist” is a general derogatory term used to describe anyone against the USSR. Kinda like “communist” in the States. Except back in those days, you could be killed for being accused as such.
This is a regime that eradicated it’s own nation’s heritage - monarchs killed, churches destroyed not to mention 20% of their own intelligentsia and military elite shot or sent to death camps. I’m not making this up it’s is all well documented.
In the late eighties the USSR begins to crumble. In 1991 Estonia regains it’s independence; three years later the ex-soviet troops leave the country after over 50 years of occupation. In the coming years communist symbols and monuments are systematically removed from the Estonian landscape (as they are in practically all other liberated states, including Russia) but for some unknown reason the Bronze Soldier is left standing. The “eternal fire” before the statue is removed and also the plaques on the sides of the monument are changed and the names of some soviet soldiers removed. Few older Russians (mostly war veterans) continue to visit the statue every year on May 9th (Victory day). Younger generations don’t really pay much attention to it. Some say Russian newlyweds visit the monument but I have never seen this myself (I think they’re mistaking it with Russalka).
Estonians and Russians still live in Estonia. While about 30% of the Estonian population is considered Russian-speaking, there are cities that are almost completely Russian-speaking. It’s pointless to make any kind of generalisation about the relationships between the “two sides” - some people get along very well (many Estonians marry Russians and vice versa), others not so much, the great majority just accepts it. There’s some effort on the government side to integrate Russians and Estonians, but for the most part life just goes on. My own family is a perfect example - my mother was born in Leningrad, Russian is her mother tongue, but she’s lived her whole life in Estonia, where she met my dad, a native Estonian. My name is Russian, given after my Russian great-grandfather and I speak fluent Russian.
I personally don’t think it’s fair to call Russians living in Estonia a minority. Living where I do (Western part of Tallinn), you often get the impression you’re living in Russia - you hardly hear any Estonian spoken, workers in shops speak Russian and expect you to speak in Russian. Not a day goes by that you’re addressed in Russian in some situation. A great number of Russians seem to assume that Estonians should learn Russian instead.
An increasing number of Estonians find it inappropriate that there is a monument symbolising the Soviet occupation standing in the heart of the capital. Most people (myself included) still simply ignore it. No government or city officials basically has the guts to do anything about this. A large portion of the people voting for the mayor of Tallinn (and his party) consists of russian-speaking pensioners.
- Then a about a year ago things take a turn for the worse. I wish I’d have more concrete references, but I think at one of these festivities, a group of Estonians is fed up with the waving of Soviet flags (I think there was even a group of people who celebrated September 22. - the date Tallinn capitulated) and IIRC, a few Estonian nationalists (and please remember that nationalist != nazi != fascist) decide to stage a demonstration in front of the monument.
It should be noted that all attempts by Estonians to protest on this matter had actually been been stopped by the police to prevent any confrontations. The Russians have always been the majority in this matter. Here’s a particularly ironic video clip showing a gang of Russians picketing in front of the Liberty Statue while Estonians with Estonian flags are not even allowed to the site.
At some point I hear from my friends that it’s not wise to move around the Tõnismägi area at night speaking Estonian. Later we find out that there was indeed an organisation called the Nochnoy Dozor (The Night-watchmen) who were patrolling the neighbourhood. There are reports of this same organisation paying young kids ~$6/hour for causing disturbances. This is one of the biggest gripes I have with the Russian propaganda machine - these kids have nothing to do with their twisted ideologies (if there are any), most of them were born into independent Estonia. What brainwashing makes them yell out “Russia, Russia” in the streets of Estonia and wave the Soviet flag?
The situation gets pretty intense and the Estonian Police is forced to set up a security perimeter around the monument site with around-the-clock surveillance. This costs the police around 2 mil EEK a year. Parliamentary elections are approaching and one of the bigger parties makes this matter a key element in their campaign. They win, and the newly elected Prime Minister makes the decision to commission an excavation on the monument site to see if it could be classified as a burial and so be moved to a cemetery. Complete removal is never ever brought up, maybe only relocation which the minister says will take place after Russian V-day, if all goes well. I personally think this was a very delicate way to handle this situation.
The same night all hell brakes loose and the authorities have no other option but to move the statue to a safe location ASAP. I can totally understand this decision. Without it, the 2 nights would have gone on for weeks.
The two nights of marauding are followed by a week-long stakeout in front of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow. Instead of trying to de-escalate the situation, Russia sends a delegation to Estonia demanding the resignation of the government.
This is all while a massive DDoS offensive is launched against the Estonian Internet infrastructure. Anti-Estonian forums and sites crop up everywhere. This forum is co-ordinating an attack on Estonian DNS servers while these dorks release ping flood utilities.
The cyber attack has been going on for weeks now. Some sites have also been defaced, but I think the most damage has been avoided by simply denying foreign access to government pages and even some news sites. All of this sets an interesting precedent and was even written about over at Ars Technica.
All of this poses an interesting question about how fragile the media really is. It’s easy to get lost in a rosy vision of a completely democratised media with all this Internet stuff, but we have to remember that the views and opinions of the vast majority of people are still shaped from what they see on TV and read about in the papers.
Here’s one example of this - a Russian TV news segment that, among other things, reports that the one person killed in the “riot” died because of police brutality (that they had beaten him and kept him tied to a pole until he died). This is completely false - this guy was stabbed (this was immediately in special news broadcasts after the looting started) and he’s also by now been identified as participating in the looting. No concrete suspects have yet been found but the investigation is on.
The news report then goes on to say that some parts of the monument were sawed off, which again is completely false. Here’s a picture I found on a Russian news site (sorry, lost the URL) which depicts a poorly-Photoshoped picture with just the feet of the monument (on the right). The caption reads “Examples of modern vandalism”:
But it gets worse. The next day, the same channel (Vesti) goes on air with an interview with Andrey Zarenkov, head of the Estonian Constitutional Party (which I had never even heard of, but notice the name!) who claims that the Estonian Police is threatening the life of Dimintri Linter (the head of the Nochnoy Dozor movement) which is just complete speculation (he was detained, which is completely understandable), that there are soldiers gathering in the streets (completely false, the army was not called in to help. The government was even criticised for this). He then goes on to say that the looting was actually started by the Estonian government who had embedded marauders in the protesting crowds.
Another testament to the hypocrisy of the Russian media is that just a week before this had happened, Russian authorities had removed a WW II monument near Moscow, sorry can’t find a direct URL anymore either. All I have left are traces of a Google search.
I think it’s completely unacceptable how the media and government in Russia completely obfuscate people’s perception of reality.
Here’s My Truth
Russia is a morally messed up country. None of this is so much about different nations having a different view of history as it is about the Kremlin not having one in the first place. Their truth is such a painful one that it’s going to take at least 2 more generations until they can come to grips with their own past. It’s about the fact that their own leaders sent millions of their own people to death while ruthlessly executing it’s intellectual elite. It’s about their own governments lying to their own people for a whole generation. Russia is in an identity crisis - a nation robbed of it’s past and still being manipulated by the powers that be.
And when I say all of this, I’m talking about the Russian state, NOT the people. Putin, like any other dictator, want the two to be the same BUT THEY ARE NOT. Patriotism is about loving the society you’re living in and wanting a better future for IT, not for whoever happens to be in power at that particular time.
There’s no way to bring back the dead, but at the very least, a head of state should stand up and admit the terrible past. I strongly believe that Russia will not heal before this happens. This should be followed by a letter of apology to all the occupied countries.
Russia has an incredibly sad and violent history, one that their own people have not yet come to grips with. It seems the world has unanimously persecuted nazi war criminals and brought many of them to justice. Why hasn’t this been done for the Soviet criminals? Where are “Stalin’s Nurenberg trials”? Does anyone think that Germany would have been able to move on if all those terrible things have just been swept under the rug?
But I guess it’s true what they say about the victors writing the history.