Local authority wants proof of human remains in war memorial removal case

The Soviet war memorial formerly located in the Mihkli cemetery in Lääneranna, Pärnu County, prior to removal.
The Soviet war memorial formerly located in the Mihkli cemetery in Lääneranna, Pärnu County, prior to removal. Source: Tarvi Sits/Kultuurimälestiste register

The fate of a former Soviet-era war memorial in southwestern Estonia hinges on details yet to be clarified.

The monument, at the Mihkli cemetery in Lääneranna, Pärnu County, was removed the weekend before last against an atmosphere of concern to remove any such edifices which could be interpreted as glorifying Russian militarism, given the invasion of Ukraine.

Although a national government ruling says that while monuments without human remains are a matter for local government, those with graves in situ will be the responsibility of the state to deal with, even this is clouded further by questions over whether human remains are indeed buried at sites they were reported to have been during the Soviet era, and the nature and origin of the human remains at a time when ideological considerations trumped virtually all normative applications of anything resembling the truth, at least by western standards.

The fate of a former Soviet-era war memorial in southwestern Estonia hinges on details yet to be clarified.

Ene Täht, the mayor of Lääneranna municipality, told ERR that clarity and evidence of human remains was needed before further action can be taken in respect of the monument, formerly in the Mihkli cemetery, and which was removed by persons as yet unknown sometime overnight Saturday, May 14 to Sunday, May 15.

She said that: "First of all, we want clarity on what to do with the remaining plot … We have placed soil there, but we do not know what to do next, as it depends on whether it is actually a grave or not.

"We want to take into account everyone's feelings and opinions," Täht went on, adding that opinions are divided in the municipality on whether the removal should have taken place or not.

Eyewitnesses had said that the night the monument was removed, excavation work had also taken place, to ascertain whether there were human remains buried there or not.

Director of the national war museum Hellar Lill said that patience was in order, given the surge in interest in relocating Soviet-era war memorials in the light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Ene Täht said that, while the official register says that 12 Soviet fighters' remains were buried at the site, local information from people whose families have lived in the locale for generations contradicts this.

The rural municipality has a further half-dozen similar monuments in its territory, and has applied to the relevant authorities – the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Defense and the association of care for war graves (Sõjahaudade Hoolde Liit) for clarification on the status of human remains which may or may not be interred at any site.

Ene Täht said that beyond that, she had no more information about the removal of the monument than did the general public, adding that she had been questioned by the Police and Border Guard Board about the episode.

Hellar Lill said that in effect, absence of evidence was not evidence of absence; in other words any object registered as a war grave must be treated as if there is a burial of human remains there. If excavation reveals that there are no remains after all, this must be recorded also.

Previous experience with Estonian war graves demonstrates that the number and names of the fallen may not always tally with actual remains also, while remains from those who fell in battles elsewhere may sometimes be buried at a site also.

This was exacerbated by the ideological aspect of Soviet war graves and memorials.

The Protection of War Graves Act requires that the war graves commission (Sõjahaudade Komisjon) rules on the disinterment and reburial of remains, while this decision must be approved by the Minister of Defense and directed to the War Museum for the actual excavation work.

While specialists can carry out preliminary work by, for instance, researching newspaper archives of the day, the excavation must be handled by the war museum.

"No one can go and do it by themselves," Hellar Lill said.

All that remains of the Mihkli cemetery memorial (see cover image) at least as visible from above ground is a single concrete block and a patch of freshly-dug earth.

Other memorial sites to have attracted interest or controversy in the light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine include a large memorial in Tartu, and a dummy T-34 tank placed at the roadside outside of Narva. Mayor of that city Katri Raik has ruld that the dummy tank will remain where it is, in the interests of social cohesion.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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