Otepää war grave excavation reveals no human remains

Soviet war momument in Otepää
Soviet war momument in Otepää Source: Kultuurimälestiste register

Excavations in Otepää, at the site of what was believed to be a common grave for local Red Army soldiers killed in the Second World War , have revealed no signs of human remains.

The excavations were initiated by Otepää municipality and organized by the Estonian War Museum following a decision by the War Graves Commission and the Minister of Defense.

According to records from the Soviet occupation era, 34 people were supposedly buried at the site on the corner of Otepää's Tartu mantee and Palupera tee. The location was marked by a grave stone from 1957, which was renewed in the 1970s.

Director of the Estonian War Museum Hellar Lill, said it was surprising to find that no one had been buried in what was presumed to be a war grave.

"While it is common for official figures on the number of casualties to be inconsistent with the number of people whose remains are actually found in a grave, the fact that a war grave turns out to be a complete propaganda hoax is a first in Estonia," said Lill.

However, according to Otepää mayor Jaanus Barkala, the results of the excavation confirmed locally held beliefs about the site. "Older local people also verified that no one was actually buried there. I'm glad that space in Otepää was freed from this inappropriate and fictitious monument," said Barkala. 

Earlier this year, the Otepää municipality had approached the War Graves Commission of the Ministry of Defense regarding relocation of the grave from the town center to a more appropriate site in a local cemetery.

In accordance with the War Graves Protection Act, the excavations were organized by the Estonian War Museum under the Ministry of Defense in cooperation with Otepää municipality and AS Aqua Marina, the holding company of Estonian fuel retailer Olerex, which leases the land from the municipality.

After the Second World War, the occupying Soviet authorities in Estonia ordered individual war graves to be grouped together. These so-called "brotherly graves" were usually placed in the centers of towns and villages, creating shrines which also had the sanctity of burial sites. In this way, the Soviet authorities used the dead to serve their ideological and educational aims by transforming people's historical consciousness.

In 2007, Estonia adopted the Protection of War Graves Act, which allows war dead buried in inappropriate locations, along with any markers of such sites, to be removed for reburial in suitable cemeteries. Over the last few decades, hundreds of remains of Second World War combatants, both German and from the Red Army, have been reburied in Estonia.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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