“Disputed exhuming” caught my eye in the headline and I read, in this morning’s Sun‘s “World Digest,” a wire report concerning riots in Estonia, where government officials were enraging the country’s minority of ethnic Russian citizens by moving a memorial to the Soviet army that stood since 1947 until this past Friday in the center of the Estonian capital. Yesterday’s disturbances were low-key compared to the previous two nights’, when a Russian citizen was killed and over 100 people — including two dozen police — were hurt. There have been over 800 arrests so far. “Local news media reported that several graves of famous Estonians had been desecrated, as well as some belonging to Soviet soldiers and the Nazi troops they fought during World War II.”
What on earth? I wondered. One gets almost accustomed to these sorts of spasms, some old grievance rearing its head and mobs of bored and probably unemployed kids reenacting out their grandparents’ resentments — on some days it seems to be the defining activity of the human race — but the grave desecrations were too intriguing to just pass over. I wanted to understand what was really going on.
According to Wikipedia, Estonian history has been defined by struggles to get out from under Russian dominance since the abolition of serfdom in the 1800s. Estonians fought and won a war of independence 1918-20, but two decades later Hitler “gave” Estonia to the USSR in a secret amendment to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty, the pact that was supposed to prevent aggression between Nazi German and the Soviet Union. We all know how that turned out, and, as the USSR consolidated its forces to meet the German assault, Estonia fell under Nazi control, 1941-1944.
But the Soviets now considered Estonia “theirs” and were back like a bad habit at the end of the war. Just as in so many other USSR-occupied countries over the years, tens of thousands fled; of those who remained, tens of thousands more were deported in 1949 “in response to slow progress in forming collective farms,” most dying, the rest not permitted to return for almost two decades. The Soviets were resisted by Estonian veterans of World War II, many of whom had been members of the German Wehrmacht and even the Waffen-SS. In the meantime, a policy of “Russification” moved hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians into the tiny country before Estonia took advantage of the coup attempt in Moscow during the sumer of 1991 to declare its own independence.
Given this history, it is a little easier to understand why a two-meter high bronze statue of a World War II Soviet soldier occupying a place of honor in a park in the center of Estonia’s capital might be a source of controversy. The Estonian nationalists consider the statue an offensive reminder of nearly five decades of Soviet occupation, and the Estonian government, ostensibly tired of nationalist demonstrations at the site but probably also well aware of which side its bread is buttered on, recently announced plans to relocate the thing. But the imported ethnic Russians, for whom Estonia is now home as much as it is for the ethnic Estonians, understandably start to feel a little tight in the collar when the government accedes to chanting crowds calling for the removal of a symbol in which they take pride. Soon there is pushing and shoving in the street, a Russian citizen is stabbed to death, and the riot police rumble in with armored trucks, rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons.
The Russian was stabbed Thursday night and the Estonian authorities removed the statue Friday morning. “It was like spitting into people’s souls,” said a 65-year-old Estonian quoted by CNN. The man’s sentiment is especially understandable when you realize that the statue also marked the graves of what the Estonian Defense Ministry believes to number 14 Soviet soldiers. One person’s exhumation is another’s desecration, and now there are gangs of youths smashing windows and tit for tat grave-robbing.
And history shoulders its way out of the textbooks, cracks its knuckles, and asks, you hadn’t forgotten about me, had you?
Some of the coverage of this story suggests that the statue was removed because of the rioting, but the Reuters coverage offers a little more depth, if you’d like to read more.