Cancel culture, fighting Soviet monuments and Russian schools in Estonia

Morning of May 9 at the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn
Morning of May 9 at the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

By leaving Soviet WWII monuments where they are (with minor adjustments like information tablets about the controversial history of the monument), we could preserve reminders for future generations of turns that history can take if we do not stay conscious and united in the name of keeping our country free and independent, Svetlana Štšur writes.

The term "cancel culture" has become a part of our everyday vocabulary in recent years. Cancel or "call-out culture" represents a practice of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure by a group of people towards a physical or juridical persona. The rise of social media has undeniably contributed to the momentum of cancel culture and the idea of the virtual collective consciousness in the 21st century.

However, there is hardly anything ground-breaking about the modern cancellation phenomena. Since ancient times there have been cases of personas falling out of society's good graces. For instance, Galileo Galilei dared to place the Sun rather than the Earth at the hub of the universe and overthrow the biblical Earth-centric belief of the time, ending up as public enemy number one for the Catholic church. For centuries, society disregarded women who had sex outside of marriage or men for their attraction to the same sex. 

From a sociological perspective, a core element of cancel culture, public shaming, as a social, ritual was essential to upholding social bonds and regulating hierarchies in early societies. Outrage over something which we consider morally wrong has also a strong psychological effect: it simply makes us feel good about ourselves and helps maintain an imaginary border between "us" and "others," which is an important part of identity formation. 

Cancellation can be justified by a legal framework, moral code and culture at the time and place. However, as there is always the risk of sending an innocent person to death row, a cancellation campaign can also end up as injustice.

Cancel culture is also accused of erasing or rewriting history as it tends to eliminate both good and bad in case of past controversy for the sake of starting a new page. Quite a few evil masters in history saw oblivion as the harshest punishment, and even though Caligula, Ivan the Terrible or Joseph Stalin and many others deserve to be buried in the annals of history, by forgetting the bad, we miss an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of ancestors. Isn't it something that is happening to Putin's Russia today?

May 9 and Soviet heritage

Every year, May 9 is celebrated as Europe Day in European Union member-states. The same day is commemorated and celebrated as Victory Day by Russians and Russian-speaking people in the post-Soviet countries. In Estonia, every year, someone starts a familiar discussion in the media about the necessity to demolish or relocate remaining Soviet memorials from public places to cemeteries. Every year, there is someone who speaks for and someone who speaks against this initiative. 

The problem with the Soviet "stone heritage" is rooted in a conflicting meaning that Alyosha (or the Bronze Soldier, a Soviet World War II memorial in Tallinn) and other Red Army war monuments represent today for Estonians and Russian-speaking Estonians.  The situation became even worse in 2022 in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that disrupted Europe's peace and COVID-19-shaken stability and caused a major energy crisis as many European countries have been dependent on Russian oil and gas for years.  The unity of Europe has also suffered. For instance, Germany's unwillingness to say goodbye to Russian gas made a core player of the European Union "a bad guy" in the eyes of fellow Europeans and caused massive damage to its reputation. I believe that Germany's extremely poor results at the last Eurovision contest (won by Ukraine) is a direct result.

Moreover, the Russian war in Ukraine gave a new meaning to NATO.  The most neutral countries in Europe, Sweden and Finland, have submitted applications to join the alliance. And these countries have been preserving their neutral status throughout the whole Cold War! Well done, Mr. Putin!

For Estonians, Soviet memorials are obvious reminders of mass deportations, which took place in the 1940s, and were followed by occupation of their country by the Soviet Union. What Estonia has become today, a Baltic tiger with several tech companies worth upwards of a billion dollars, is a result of political effort and direction that Estonian elites in the 90s, headed by Lennart Meri, Mart Laar and other pro-Western Estonian politicians, intellectuals, and civil society activists, plotted and followed through for decades. Breaking from the Soviet past became a dominant narrative on the Estonian political landscape and a part of the Estonian identity. 

However, Estonia's success in transitioning to the market economy, routinely holding democratic elections and breaking through in the digital world, was shadowed by the Russian-speaking population integration issue. Namely, a significant number of Russian-speaking Estonians, born and raised here, still do not speak Estonian and rely on Russian media platforms for information and entertainment. A coined term "ühismeediaruum" (joint media space – ed.) represents the core of the problem: Estonians and Russian-speaking Estonians live in different realities because they consume information from different sources. Recently, major Russian networks were banned in Estonia for spreading false information about the war in Ukraine. 

Considering the above-mentioned, it should not come as a surprise that for Russian-speaking Estonians, Alyosha represents something different – a memory of their family members who fought and died in the struggle against Nazi Germany. Victory over Nazism is a source of pride and an important identity element for Russian-speakers.  Unfortunately, the narrative of "the great victory" tends to overlook the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, occupation of Eastern European countries, deportations, forced russification and mass repressions against Soviet people of all nationalities. The same narrative implies that Russians attack only when they are forced to do so, or for a noble cause. This is the main reason why many Russian-speakers have difficulties believing that Russian soldiers are guilty of war crimes and rapes like the ones committed in Bucha (a small town near Kyiv, the photos of its streets covered with corpses of civilians shocked the world).

Bronze Night

In Estonia, when talking about war monuments, it is impossible not to mention the infamous Pronksiöö or Bronze Night in April 2007, when a WWII memorial was relocated from Tõnismägi in the heart of Tallinn to the Rahumäe Cemetery in the middle of the night by then Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. The operation angered the Russian-speaking community and their collective dissatisfaction spilled into several days of riots, followed by cyberattacks on government websites.  The Bronze Night was probably one of the most apocalyptic experiences that the Estonian nation had since WWII. The memory of the event has since been used as a cautionary tale in political debate and public discussions, a reminder of something that we do not want to see repeated. 

In 2022, the memorial issue was raised again in national news and the subject quickly picked up by political figures. This year seems like a particularly convenient time to go to war against Soviet monuments more fervently than ever. First, national elections are coming. Second, Putin's war in Ukraine destroyed Russia's reputation and made such symbols of Victory Day as Ribbons of Saint George and general enthusiasm about May 9 inappropriate and highly provocative not only in Estonia but in Europe as a whole. Finally, Russians are far from being popular in Europe. Ukrainian people on the contrary, their war struggles, forced migration and cries for help are the focus of international attention. Under the circumstances, while "cancellation" – dislocation or demolition of Red Army monuments – can hurt the feelings of the Russian-speaking community, it is unlikely to be too much of a concern on a global scale. 

Moreover, today the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish take on history and foreign policy is showing Europe a way. On February 24, Russia's military aggression towards Ukraine shook the world, but for Estonians this did not come as a surprise. Estonian politicians and diplomats had been talking for ages about the Russian threat but were mainly ignored.  Today everything has changed. Estonia's moral image is also high as it turned out that we are the greatest supporter of Ukraine in relation to our GDP. We are on the top of our game in global politics and therefore dealing with controversial war memorials will most probably remain a purely domestic issue without any damage to our reputation. 

Russian-language schools

The struggle and losses that Estonians endured from the Soviet regime are undeniable. Confusion and resentment of the Russian-speaking people seeing how grand tales of victory (which they have been told for decades from generation to generation) proved to be partly myths and partly manipulations by the Soviet regime and now Putin's Russia, as the Ukrainian war has clearly demonstrated, are comprehensible too. Only the cold stone of the monuments over the graves of people who lost their lives under circumstances that humans should not encounter during their lives feel nothing.

From the battles of the past, I want to guide the reader's attention to the battles of present and future. Namely, thirty years have passed since Estonia regained its independence, but we still have over 21,000 children studying in the Russian language in Estonia. This is 13 percent of all children attending school in Estonia, and it is an issue.

According to the Estonian Integration Monitoring (2020), only a little bit over 62 percent of basic school graduates manage to pass the B1 level Estonian language exam. It means that one third of 15–16-year-old Russian Estonian youths do not know the Estonian language well enough to successfully continue their studies in high school, where 60 percent of subjects must be taught in Estonian and 40 percent in Russian. It was also pointed out in the survey that Estonian language skill affects educational and career choices of young Russian-speaking Estonians. Students who have difficulties learning in partly Estonian high school will have major difficulties transitioning to higher education and most importantly not dropping out of university in the first couple of years.

In 2019, Tallinn University scholars found that Russian-speaking Estonians are earning less per hour than Estonians. This gap is explained by the fact that Estonians on average occupy higher and better paid positions on the labor market. Moreover, Estonian men are earning on average more than both Russian-speaking men and women in Estonia. And while a Russian-speaking man is earning more than an Estonian woman, the latter is earning more than a Russian-speaking woman in Estonia. Basically, Russian-speaking Estonian women are one of the most vulnerable members of our society, subject to both ethnic and gender inequality.

Over 80 percent of Russian-speaking students see the public sector as a desirable career opportunity. At the same time, there are only 10.8 percent of people of another nationality (read Russian-speakers), who are currently employed by the government.

Russian speakers feel less economically secure, report experiencing more workplace discrimination and have lower chances of achieving a higher career position compared to Estonians. It was brought up in the Estonian Integration monitoring 2017 that Estonians tend to dominate in management, media, education, arts and entertainment, while Russian-speakers are more often employed in industry, real estate, logistics and support roles in administration.

Eesti Ekspress, Levila and the University of Tartu conducted data analyses, which traced the social-economical background of Tallinn residents and relevant changes throughout the last 30 years. The analyses have demonstrated that wealthy neighborhoods such as Pirita, Südalinn or Nõmme are predominantly Estonian speaking. The poorest regions of the city such as Paljassaare, Astangu or Majaka are populated with poorer and less-educated Russian-speaking residents. What is especially concerning is that the trend is ongoing and does not seem to be slowing: poorer Russian regions become even poorer over time and the Estonian wealthier areas get even more wealthy in the foreseeable future. People tend to settle next to people like them, and who can blame them for it?

Martin Ehala wrote in his article "The Role of Language in Estonian National Identity" published in the Estonian Human Development report (2016-2017), that good knowledge of Estonian language alongside general satisfaction with quality of life are crucial to the self-identification of the Russian-speakers with the Estonian state. It means that the better a Russian-speaking person in Estonia speaks Estonian, the greater the chance that they will refer to themselves as Russian-speaking Estonians or Russian Estonians and not just Russians. The concerning part of this observation, however, is that in 2017 only one-third of the Russian-speaking population in Estonia identified with the Estonian state.

Fighting monuments or fighting for the future of the Russia-speaking Estonian youth?

Coming back now to Soviet monuments and cancellation of the Victory Day narrative and its strong association with the Soviet past. Demolishing or relocation of war monuments will bring temporary relief to Estonians, and a distress for the Russian-speaking population. However, the war against the memorials won will hardly bring two communities any closer because there are far more important battles to face – one of them is Russian-language education in Estonia.

By keeping Russian-language schools in Estonia, we continue to undermine the chances of Russian-speaking youths for better education and successful careers. We are also creating more obstacles for Russian-speaking Estonians to identify with the Estonian state and culture.

On the other hand, by leaving infamous Soviet WWII monuments where they are (with minor adjustments like information tablets about the controversial history of the monument), we could preserve reminders for future generations of turns that history can take if we do not stay conscious and united in the name of keeping our country free and independent.

Another conclusion is that sometimes it's better to embrace history with its good and bad and focus on building a strong united nation today than fighting stones and ghosts of the past.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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