A memorial plaque dedicated to Boris Yeltsin was opened on Thursday on Nunne street, at the base of the Patkuli stairs. Proposed 18 months ago by 39 Estonians, the idea to monumentalize Yeltsin's memory in the city initially drew a lot of skeptics and counterarguments. Now that the citizen initiative supported by donations has been carried out and the result is there for everyone to see, reactions seem to be more balanced, although the undertaking still has its critics.
The reason for erecting the monument is inscribed in the plaque around the relief: "In memory of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, to honor his role in the peaceful restoration of Estonia's independence in 1990-1991." That role is a fact and there are few arguments against it.
Nevertheless, some find that erecting a memorial to Yeltsin somehow diminishes the role of the Estonian people in restoring their independence, leaving the impression that we were merely a protectorate freed thanks to Russia's generosity. Even yesterday, Defense Minister Urmas Reinsalu considered it necessary to emphasize that the Estonian people were not freed by the grace of Yeltsin but by their own will.
National pride is a very important thing; national arrogance is good for nothing. The big role of Estonian people in restoring their independence can in no way be diminished by being thankful to those who support the cause from outside. After all, the restoration of Estonian independence was not a lone historical event, but part of the huge political changes that took place in the whole of Eastern Europe. As much as we want to emphasize our importance, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not a service that could be attributed fully to the Estonians. It was, however, a precondition of Estonia's peaceful independence.
Yeltsin's historical role in the destruction of the Soviet Union, bringing freedom to tens of millions of people, was also stressed by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, when on his way to Yeltsin's funeral in Moscow in 2007, he said are indebted to Russia's first president for one of the greatest geopolitical deeds of the 20th century.
There have been reproaches that the group wanting to memorialize Yeltsin should have erected a monument to some other well-known politician instead. Some of the names have been Vaclav Havel, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Be my guest!
As Igor Gräzin shrewdly writes in today's Õhtuleht, the initiative of 39 is not a sculpture workshop. Yet the monument opened yesterday can certainly be an inspiration to those who make such propositions. With determination and enough supporters, it is possible to make an idea happen.
Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar yesterday said happily that the monument gives tour guides a way to better introduce Estonia's complicated recent history. But it seems to me that it is worthwhile for Estonians themselves to stop by Yeltsin for a minute so that they can be reminded of their own history.
It seems society has increasingly come to believe that the Singing Revolution was just one big song festival and Estonia's freedom was won merely through singing patriotic songs and waving blue-black-white flags. It has been forgotten how critical the situation was throughout the year of 1991, beginning in January.
From journalistic coverage it sometimes seems that the main conflict of the time had been the friction between the Popular Front and the Citizens' Committee. Forgotten is the real enemy and imminent danger that came from the collapsing Soviet Union and its war machine, and those defending the old ideology, the Interfront and union of workers' collectives. In fighting these dangers, Yeltsin was a reliable and irreplaceable ally to Estonian politicians.
Yeltsin's critics say that in reality he was not concerned about Estonia's fate so much; his priority was Russian interests and his political career. Surely there is not a single country in the world, whose president would be ready to support Estonia against his own country's interests. But sometimes it is possible for countries to find common interests - as happened in 1991 in Estonian-Russian relations.
The Yeltsin memorial is also a message that, provided our sovereignty is honored, we are prepared for similar reciprocal cooperation in the future as well.