We are not erasing history but public space cannot force on people messages they cannot avoid and that we consensually find offensive, filmmaker Ilmar Raag writes.
Estonia has relatively few Soviet monuments left. The few that are do not constitute an existential problem. Nevertheless, times being what they are, we need to take a fresh look at them.
First, philosophically. Only those who have been liberated can erect monuments to their liberators. Because liberty is first and foremost a reflexive emotion. A monument to a liberator, deontologically speaking, can only be a manifestation of gratitude and can never exist in the form of self-praise.
I do not know anyone except Estonians having ever liberated Estonia from anything. All World War Two monuments to soldiers-liberators have similarly been erected by someone else. Therefore, they intrinsically cannot be monuments to liberators.
Perhaps a monument to the Red Army is fitting in Russia, because despite rank mistakes by the political and army leadership at the time, the Russian people did manage a heroic feat in freeing their land of the Nazi war machine.
But even this conclusion might not hold up to scrutiny as monuments to the war did not express the will of the people rather than the decisions of the dictatorship. That is why we cannot believe in the sincerity of all monuments erected in undemocratic countries. They do not express the will and gratitude of the people.
What are we dealing with in the case of such monuments? Leaving aside individual monuments to specific battles (like Tehumardi), we are talking about cult objects. More or less along the lines of the motivation for building churches, erecting monuments to saints or crosses to reinforce the position of Christianity back in the day. Especially in medieval times, this was clearly a policy of authority as churches were built on top of old sacred sites as symbols of the new power. Organic wishes by the faithful to celebrate their convictions followed after a while.
With this in mind, we can perhaps once more list the arguments in favor and against Soviet monuments in Estonia.
FOR – We cannot deny history, we can only rise above it. There is a rather popular monument to Barclay de Tolly in Tartu, even though there is no love lost between Estonia and the Russian Empire or its military commanders. In the end, the entire Tallinn Old Town, complete with its imposing churches, stands as a symbol to Germanic conquests that made us part of Western European culture. And yet, we no longer regard this conquest as painful. After all, we are independent.
AGAINST – First of all, public space is limited. Every remaining Soviet monument robs us of the chance to erect another meaningful object in its place that would do a better job at expressing the things we want to remember or revere.
Secondly, these monuments praise an ideology that justifies conquering other states through military means. I always feel a cold wave wash over me when I see a street named after Cortez, who destroyed the Aztec civilization, or a monument to Pizarro, who did away with the Inca, in Spain. Nor am I sure how I should feel about the Austerlitz train station in Paris as it marks a battle in a war of conquest. I do not want such monuments.
Therefore, history should remain in the right context – in museums, books or films as diving into in should be a personal choice. We are not erasing history but public space cannot force on people messages they cannot avoid and that we consensually find offensive.
Editor: Marcus Turovski