Bryan Caplan  

Estonian Symbolism

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I rarely care about symbolic issues, but for the Estonian statue controversy, I'll make an exception:

Young Russians staged raucous protests in Moscow on Wednesday to denounce neighboring Estonia for removing a Soviet war memorial from its capital, and the Estonian ambassador said pro-Kremlin activists tried to attack her as she arrived at a news conference.

Sweden said its ambassador also was assaulted as he left the Estonian Embassy after a meeting Wednesday, saying protesters surrounding the compound kicked his car and tore off a Swedish flag.

The protests were the most disorderly in Russia since Estonian authorities took the bronze statue of a Red Army soldier from a downtown square Friday. The monument, which commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, was put in an Estonian military cemetery this week.


Most Americans will probably be baffled by this controversy, so let me give a little background. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin divided up eastern Europe. Estonia went to Stalin, and many Estonians were sent to slave labor camps in Siberia. In 1941, Hitler turned on Stalin, and quickly occupied Estonia. By the end of World War II, Estonia had been reconquered by the Red Army, and Stalin annexed it. Estonia remained a captive nation of the Soviet Union until 1991.

And Russians take offense because the Estonians moved a monument to their "liberation" by the Red Army?


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Sigve Indregard writes:

I think you forgot a few things in your history lesson. Shame on you for that - you are not exactly taking your role as an informant for a "baffled" American crowd seriously.

The ties between Estonia and Russia go far beyond 1939, but I will not tell that story. The most notable point about this memorial is that many Estonians fought on Hitler's side, and not merely to push Stalin away. Some of them converted to 'nazism all things included' - meaning that Estonians were in charge of mass murders and purges of Russians living in Estonia and the romani people.

Even more important is the fact that Estonia never has taken a clear stance against this behaviour during WW2, and it is evident that many Estonians believe there is no need to do so. While they're not exactly nazis any more, this is quite a touchy theme. There is a 10 % Russian population in Estonia.

For the Russian population of Estonia, the liberation of the Red Army clearly was a liberation. Celebrating that heroic war effort by these soldiers of Soviet seems quite appropriate.

Indeed, some commenters have made the point that the removal of this memorial fits into a long line of Estonian politicians playing a very hard game on the Russian population, and some are even suggesting that these politicians would have preferred the opposite outcome of WW2.

In such a political climate, it is obvious that this is hugely provocative. I'm not saying it is immoral or wrong - after all the liberating army's commanders weren't benevolent - but it is quite understandable that it causes uproar.

However, the reason the Russian politicians of today care, is that the removal of the memorial is seen as a move to integrate Estonia with Europe. To do that, of course, is Estonia's prerogative, and Russia should stay clear.

Buzzcut writes:

You have to be kidding, Sigve. The ESTONIANS aren't acknowledging their past? Russians have complete amnesia about what they did to each other, much less other peoples, over the 70 odd years that they blighted the world with their "Soviet Union".

This is cut and dried: Russia bad, Estonia good. We need to do everything we can to protect the Estonians from this belligerent people. EU, NATO, whatever.

TGGP writes:

This is cut and dried: Russia bad, Estonia good.

Even though I basically agree with you, Buzzcut, that's an awful way to argue your point.

"Four legs good. Two legs baa-aaa-aad"

jaim klein writes:

There are monuments to the Russian Soldier in every capital liberated by the Red Army: Budapest, Vienna, etc. Removing these monuments would signify is a clear aggression against Russian sentiment. Moreover, it means that the Estonians would have preferred Nazi victory. In our days, when Nazi movements are coming to life all over Europe, the removal of the monument carries ominous symbolic significance. Everybody should be protesting and not only Russians.

Max writes:

Well, isn't the statue about the soldiers? Well, then it shouldn't be such a big problem, because it reminds us of the brave soldiers and not the rampant totalitarian ideology on both sides. It is a statement to the poor souls who have lost their lives thanks to whimpy populations, unconstraint democracies and blood-lusty dictators.

@Jaim Klein: What do you mean when you say that NAZI movments come alive all over Europe?
This is hardly the case, especially in Germany. However, I see a rampant socialism creating an extrimist niche for both sides and a third (Islamist disillusioned youth). If you have seen the footage from Berlin on May 1st, you can acknowledge that far leftist aren't any better than the far right.

However, we see a radicalisation of those views because of the wishy-wash social-democratic process that paternalizes those youths and they react to it the old way...

If we look at Germany, we even see a democratisation of NAZIsm (NPD getting elected into the Landtag), which at the same time produces a party with less affection to violence. The numbers for the violent Nazis and their deeds is largely limited to propaganda crimes (speaking what they think is right) and a few physically violent crimes.

IF we look on the other side, we see a rise in socialist/communist crimes during the same period of almost 40%. In contrast to the NAZIs it is less physically violent, but there are a lot more crimes against property (farms, cars, burning down things) and a few phyisical crimes.

Cyrus writes:

All degrees of choice and lack thereof have been involved at various places and times in people becoming soldiers. But at the core, the profession exists to the Bad Things in the name of an authority, and romanticizing soldier-hood is a disservice to the idea-space of any people. If the morale of the troops, everyone's troops, is low even during peacetime, fewer wars will start.

The building of war memorials to expiate the crime of war is a mistake. Better to leave the crime un-expiated and better remembered.

Buzzcut writes:

You guys are insane. Taking down statues of Soviet soldiers is not a tacit admission that you'd rather the Nazis have won. Unfortunately for Estonia and all of Eastern Europe, they were literally between two evils. They lost no matter who won.

The Soviet Union was just as evil as Hitler. There was no difference. None. Soviet soldiers commited unspeakable attrocities. Katryn forest, anyone?

The fact that Russians are rioting just goes to show that they are a belligerant people who have imperial ambitions that are thwarted by nothing more than their own incompetance. Given a chance, they'd rebuild their "Soviet Union" in a heartbeat. Acts like the riots show exactly why Nato needs to ride right up to the border.

Robert Speirs writes:

Both Prague and Budapest have taken down or moved statues of Russians without much protest. And how many Estonians consented to the immigration of Russians into their country? I don't see why Estonia has any duty to celebrate their enslavement because a certain number of citizens of a country that enslaved Estonians were moved into their country against their will.

Mensarefugee writes:

Mebbe the estonians have had it with ANY foreigners? Right or wrong.

Cliff Styles writes:

Perhaps the controversy also reveals how ignorant many Russians are of their own true history, even at this late date?

Buzzcut writes:

Perhaps the controversy also reveals how ignorant many Russians are of their own true history, even at this late date?

Cliff, that is absolutely one of the problems. They are completely ignorant of the evil that their parents and grandparents suffered AND committed. Anne Applebaum documents this in her book "Gulag".

dearieme writes:

In the days of the blessed Mrs Thatcher, someone joked that the British cabinet contained more Estonians than Etonians.

tagamira writes:

@buzzcut
It is impossible not to be ignorant at this point in time. Each Russian family has quite a mixed history. For example, my own family consists of a former kulak, a member of intelligentsia, gulag prisoner, a navy officer, and a communist state official. Who do I have to hate and who can I love? It makes no sense to blame the people, but it certainly makes sense to blame the system.

Giedrius writes:

Of course Bryan's last question is rhetorical. These people in the streets of Moscow are just nationalists of the worst kind (plus a bunch of young people who have no idea what they are doing). What is scary is that these people have support from their government. And the reach of propaganda of a kind "if you are against us, you are with nazis".

Buzzcut writes:

It makes no sense to blame the people

Bull. Do we blame the Germans for the Nazis? There were plenty of Germans who were victims of the Nazis. But they get lumped together under collective guilt.

The Russian people need to be introspective. What is it about their mass psychology that makes them so destructive? What is it that makes them go along with dictators like the Czar and Stalin (and maybe Putin)? Why is life so cheap to Russians, even today.

It makes no sense to blame the people, but it certainly makes sense to blame the system.

"The system" is nothing without people to run it. Of course you need to blame people. You need to blame the leaders who run the system. You need to blame the people who follow the orders of the leaders. And the people who do real evil, those who murder or allow death to happen all around them (like workers in concentration camps) need to be held responsible.

But that would be too diffucult, especially when perpetraitors like former KGB official Vladimir Putin are still running that wretched excuse for a country.

Jüri Saar writes:

A short time-line: 1939 the Soviet Union invades Estonia as Europe is dived up according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. 1941 Hitler turns on Stalin and in 1941 Nazi Germany invades Estonia. 1944 the last of the German soldiers are leaving Estonia as the Soviet Union rols in, but the flag they tore down in Tallinn was that of Estonia not Nazi Germany and the government that was overthrown was the re-established legitamate Estonian one. Its members were either exectued by the NKVD or sent to gulags.

The problem with Estonia in WW2 was that people wanted independence and while some people saw the repressions of the Soviets during the first few years of occupation and some of them saw independence or at the very least autonomy as something the Germans could provide. Families were split over the issue and it wasn't all that uncommon for two brothers to be fighting on opposite sides - the Red army and the the Nazis respectively.

There is no Nazi glorification in Estonia anywhere except the very fringes of society and I challange anyone to come up with an open and democratic European country, where such such fringes do not exists.

When a memorial to Estonian soldiers who fought with the Germans during WW2 was erected in an Estonian city that had SS symbols on it, it was promptly removed by the government.

The Bronze Soldier was a constant reminder to most Estonians of the losses they suffered after the Soviet Union invaded - the mass deportings to Siberian gulags and the countless disappeared. Even today it's difficult to find an Estonian, who doesn't have a personal story to tell about parents or gradnparents either disappear into the night or end up in Siberian gulags for decades.

The Bronze Soldier was in the middle of the city and was not deemed suitable to that location, so a decision was made to move the statue. It has not been destroied, simply placed in a millitary cemetery, where it belongs - a memorial to the unkown soldier.

Today, Russian speakers form about 30% of the population of Estonia and overwhelming majority of them have made a conscious choice to stay in Estonia rather than move to Russia even though Putin has made generous offers to all ex-pats that includeing financial compensation.

Who am I? I'm an Estonian with a Estonian father, who can trace his roots back all the way to the 1600s, while my mother is about as Russian as they come.

jaim klein writes:

As far as I know, Budapest did NOT remove any monument to the Soviet Army. An enormous golden goddess raising a palm leaf looks down on the city from the Gellert rock. When I talked about renaissance of Nazi movements, I was thinking of the recent pan-European meeting in Budapest honouring the 40,000 Hungarian and German soldiers trapped by the Red Army in Budapest who made a daring break out and united with the German Army. While these young people are not Nazi in the original political sense and most are not even antisemites, they stand for a revisionist version of history. These people, including the Estonians, are trying to rewrite history and can justly be called Fascists. In this case the truth is not somewhere in the middle, there was a good side (but not a perfect side), and a very bad side.

Mikhail writes:

It is sad to see how the most simplistic interpretations of historical events are overtaking peoples minds. Too many people manage to put the extremely complicated and controversial events of the WWII (and european history of the XX century) in just a few strings.
I afraid that such "little backgrounds" as the one that is brought up by the author to support his conlusions only aim to convince the average reader that our world is still fairly simple and straightforward place to live in, bad guys are still bad and good ones are still good.
How nice and convinient!

Buzzcut writes:

These people, including the Estonians, are trying to rewrite history and can justly be called Fascists. In this case the truth is not somewhere in the middle, there was a good side (but not a perfect side), and a very bad side.

Dude, you're insane. Seriously.

I will say it again. There is no difference between Communism and Nazism. None. Nothing. They're both EVIIIIIIIIIL. In fact, just by sheer numbers of people killed, Communism is actually worse, having killed far more people.

The Russian people, having forced themselves and their evil system on countless other peoples (including the Estonians), should be held to account no differently than Germans are for Communism.

And if the Estonians and everyone else want to purge their country of all references to the evil that was the Red Army, more power to them.

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