Ukraine events strike too familiar of a chord among older Estonians

Jüri Estam
Jüri Estam Source: Photo: Postimees/Scanpix

Horrific events in Ukraine spark a frightful sense of deja vu for many older Estonians, as does the West's repeated failure to see, in time, Russia as the serial predator suffering from a phantom limb sensation that it really is, Jüri Estam writes.

As we collectively witness the Ukrainian nation being brutalized by the Russian armed forces, I'm gripped not just by a sense of foreboding, but also of deja vu in dark tones.

Considering the number of warnings made by the American government during the weeks leading up to the recent sharp intensification of warfare in Ukraine, we can't say that the countries that aren't aligned with Putin's Russia were caught by surprise, but one can nonetheless suggest that Western publics appear to never have fully "gotten it" as concerns the nature of the beast (or more specifically the Russian bear), at least until now.

At the risk of sounding cynical, it comes naturally for me as an Estonian to get up in the morning, check the news of recent days, and then say out loud: "Been there, done that!"

Many of Russia's neighbors experience Moscow as a serial predator. In a think piece published in Foreign Policy on March 6, Benjamin R. Young – an assistant professor at the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs – wrote: "Putin believes an invasion of Ukraine is a righteous cause and necessary for the dignity of the Russian civilization, which he sees as being genetically and historically superior to other Eastern European identities."

The imperial impulse has long driven Russia to repeatedly send her warriors to Estonia, be it during the Livonian war that began in 1558 under Ivan the Terrible, or during the time of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), which led the Russian General Field Marshal Count Boris Sheremetev to report to Moscow from the Baltic area: "There is nothing left to ravage here. The entire place has been reduced to a desert. Only Riga, Pärnu and Tallinn remain standing. Nowhere in these parts is a barking dog nor a crowing cock to be heard any longer."

One of the major differences between the assault that the Soviet Army made on the Hungarians and their cities in 1956 and the present is that in the middle of the twentieth century, the all-observant social media hadn't been invented yet. 

I have a tape recording of a desperate appeal made on November 5, 1956, by what was apparently the last radio station still held on that day by the freedom fighters of Hungary. They broadcast repeated calls for help. "Civilized people of the world. On the watchtower of 1,000-year-old Hungary, the last flames begin to go out. Soviet tanks and guns are roaring over Hungarian soil. Our women — mothers and daughters — are sitting in dread. They still have terrible memories of the Soviet army's entry in 1945. Save our souls. This word may be the last from the last Hungarian freedom station. Heed our call. Help us! Not with advice, not with words, but with action, with soldiers and arms."

What we then called the Free World sat mortified for some time as Soviet tanks rode roughshod over the Hungarian uprising, which was no less defiant and valiant than the struggle we now see in Ukraine. After 180,000 Hungarians had fled to Austria and another 20,000 to Yugoslavia, it took three years to resettle them to a large number of host countries. Thereafter the world turned its attention to other matters, and for a long time forgot what had just transpired in Hungary.

The trouble with the rump Russian Empire is that it keeps being plagued, figuratively speaking, by what physicians call phantom pain and "phantom limb sensation." Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and France, have come to grips over time with the loss of possession of their former colonies, but the Kremlin has never proved capable of pulling off this act, nor has it been forced to.

When it comes to persons, phantom pain feels like it's coming from a body part that's no longer there. Medical experts have come to recognize that in people, these very real sensations originate in the spinal cord and the brain. Others who've had a limb removed report that it can feel as though the amputated limb were still present. Perhaps this medical analogy can help to explain Vladimir Putin's irredentist obsessions, irredentism consisting then of political or popular movements that claim and then seek to occupy territory they consider "lost," based on history or legend.

Estonia and Finland have both been parts of the Russian Empire in previous centuries, with Stalin successfully reclaiming the former into the Soviet fold in 1940 by force and against the will of most Estonian people, while Finland resisted during WW II and avoided being absorbed into the USSR, which is now, in its territorially reduced form, called the Russian Federation. 

These days, the longer that President Putin rules Russia, the more it comes to once again resemble the harsh and repressive USSR.

On March 9, Estonians gather on Harju Street in what remains of Tallinn's Old Town to place candles in memory of the victims of what the locals refer to simply as The March Bombing. The largest of a number of WW II Soviet bombings of Nazi-occupied Estonia occurred on March 9-10, 1944. As Wikipedia notes: "After Soviet saboteurs had disabled the water supply, over a thousand incendiary bombs were dropped on the town, causing widespread fires and killing 757 people of whom 586 were civilians and 75 prisoners of war, wounding 659, and leaving over 20,000 people without shelter." The extensive fires caused by this bombing lit up the night sky, with the glow being visible to the naked eye in Helsinki, some 70 kilometers across the Gulf of Finland.

Just days earlier, ancient and handsome Narva in the northeastern corner of Estonia, which used to be referred to in old travel guides as "the baroque pearl of the Baltic," had already been bombed into oblivion by the Soviet Air Force. Even before that, in February of 1944, the Kremlin had ordered its air force to carry out what are now called The Great Raids Against Helsinki. 146 persons died on that occasion, 356 were wounded. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed or damaged in the Finnish capital.

In the aftermath of all of this use of military force against largely civilian targets, which is reminiscent in many ways of what's now going on in Ukraine, 70,000 or more Estonian residents — mostly women and children — made perilous escapes to safety in the West. 70,000 is a lot for tiny Estonia.   

Much of what we're seeing now in Ukraine is familiar to older Finns and older Estonians, starting with the undulating wail of the air raid sirens, the smell of cordite, the rubble and the corpses in the streets of our cities, and ending with the anguish of mothers struggling to care for their children as they attempt to make their way out of combat zones. 

Since the residents of Central and Eastern Europe and northern Europe don't know when and where the Russian juggernaut will come to rest this time, many of us look helplessly at the victimized Ukrainians and think: "There but for the grace of God go I"!   

History can repeat itself over and over again, particularly as concerns the way that the Russians continue over the years, decades and even centuries to use their military to attain the imperial aspirations of their leaders.  

The Western world chose to not provide military support to the Hungarians in 1956, or to the Czechs who rose up in 1968. The list of nations from which the West has stood back in order to avoid the potentially fatal escalation of conflict with either communist regimes, or with unpredictable Russia in particular, is longer than what's contained in this article. Now too, we see lines being drawn in a measured way, in order to try to avoid a new world war, or even the Armageddon that Vladimir Putin has ominously hinted at on more than one occasion. 

As Estonians light a sea of candles in Tallinn's Old Town on Wednesday in commemoration of their civilian war dead, we're also deep in thought, wondering how this is going to culminate for the Ukrainians, whom we wish well and whom we deeply commiserate with. 

It ultimately depends on the Russian people to transform their country and make it possible, sooner or later, for all of us to be able to finally live without fear alongside Russia. Otherwise, peril will continue to chronically pulse outwards in spasms from what Ronald Reagan called the "Evil Empire." 

If it was possible during the last century for the martial spirit of the Germans to be brought to heel, then it must also be possible for the Russians to pacify their own souls as well. This is really important. It would also make the neighborhood a much less unpleasant corner of the world to live in. Not just for us, but for ordinary Russians as well, if they would only set out to rein in and reprogram the violent and imperial impulses of their leaders. Otherwise, we will all remain stuck in a dystopian and repeating cycle of Russian delusions of power and imagined grandeur, while actually living over and over again in desperation among the ruins.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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