In an address at Thursday's Tartu City Council meeting, prominent Center Party member and city councilman Nikolai Põdramägi referred repeatedly to the war in Ukraine as a civil war, called NATO's desire to defend Estonia into question, referred to plans to rename the city's Victory Bridge as Russophobic and recounted a version of recent Estonian history reminiscent of Soviet historical propaganda.
Council members at Thursday's city council meeting debated a proposal to rename Victory Bridge, a bridge in Central Tartu spanning the Emajõgi River and connecting Riia Street with Narva Highway at the junction of several of the city's primary arterial roads.
The bridge, which began to be built in 1952 following the destruction of all of the city's bridges in World War II, was formally named the Victory Bridge in 1965 to mark the 20th anniversary of the victory of the Great Patriotic War. The renaming of the bridge was included in the Tartu coalition agreement at Isamaa's request last fall already, but the council now wants to complete the process quickly due to the current war in Ukraine.
Põdramägi took the floor, announcing that he was the council member in the cultural committee who had been against changing the name of the bridge.
"The one person who was against it in the cultural committee was me," he said. "Which is why I will attempt to justify [my stance]. Yes, indeed, as we have read and heard, the City Center Bridge was renamed the Victory Bridge in 1965 to mark the 20th anniversary of [Soviet] Victory Day. That was a victory against Hitler's fascist Germany."
Põdramägi continued reading his prewritten address, stating that millions of people died in World War II, and that unfortunately thousands died and cities, towns, villages and factories in tiny Estonia too. He noted that of his own uncles, one fought in the Red Army and died in the Battle of Velikiye Luki, but another ended up in the German Army, for which he was sentenced to "25 years plus 5" in a Soviet prison camp.
"In war, someone always wins, comes in first place, and someone loses, or comes in second," he said. "There actually aren't any great victories in war, whether it is a war of conquest or — by all means — a war of mission."
Põdramägi said that perpetrators of war should no doubt be condemned, then asked rhetorically whether they always have been. He cited U.S.' atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in December 1945.
"200,000 people died in one city and 150,000 in the other," he said. "Has anyone been condemned or punished for this? They weren't put on trial at Nuremberg, in any case! But they should have been, because these were crimes against humanity."
The Center council member added that no one can say what would have become of Estonia had Hitler's Germany won, although [Adolf] Hitler had plans of his own.
"After the war and the deportations, we lived in relative security here in Estonia for nearly 50 years," Põdramägi said. "Germany no longer constituted a major threat to us, and the U.S. was far away from us. Those faraway wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Syria were disturbing, but nonetheless there was no daily danger and fear. But now there is a civil war underway in Ukraine that has gone on for eight years already, and has gotten pretty close to us. Our big neighbor has intervened in Ukraine's civil war."
It has been claimed to us that Estonia is covered by NATO, but do we feel very safe? Põdramägi asked.
"Our days are filled with the fears and horrors of war," he said. "I believe that now isn't the right time to discuss the renaming of the Victory Bridge. This would be like pouring gas on the fire. What would we achieve by doing this? We need to take into consideration that Russia was, is and will remain our neighbor. This current Russophobia won't be doing us any favors. We were supposed to become a peaceful Nordic country like Sweden, Norway or even Finland."
The council member concluded by stressing that Tartu is the City of Good Thoughts, referring to its official slogan, but that changing the name of the Victory Bridge is not a good idea.
"And if this name is nonetheless changed, then that is a stupid thing to do," Põdramägi said. "The Victory Bridge's name is a good name — it celebrates the victory of good over evil. Why else would Tartu City Council have opposed changing the name in 2008 already?"
Council chair: Other council members troubled by address
In a post on Facebook on Friday, Tartu City Council chairman Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) stressed that the other members of the city council were very troubled by Põdramägi's address, many of whom expressed their outrage immediately.
"In my rebuttal, I highlighted that throughout history, including in Estonia, the goal of occupying powers has been to wipe out freedoms and call the repression of other peoples their victory," Lukas wrote. "An occupier's victory is the deprivation of another people's liberty! Street and bridge names are symbols of such an occupation's propaganda."
The city council chair also noted that from 1940-1941, occupying Soviet forces had changed the name of Tartu's previous Freedom Bridge to Victory Bridge as well.
Nikolai Põdramägi has been a member of the Center Party for more than 22 years. He has served on several Tartu City Councils. In October 2009, he also served as MP in the XI Riigikogu as an alternate to Aadu Must.
Editor: Aili Vahtla