Recent excavations in Otepää revealed that there were no human remains in a mass grave for Red Army soldiers and there may be other similar cases across Estonia.
According to the national register of cultural monuments, the mass grave was supposed to contain the remains of 34 people, but during the excavation none were found.
Hellar Lill, the director of the Estonian War Museum, is surprised by the lack of remains. Even though locals had reported that there were no bodies buried in the grave, their accounts were usually distrusted.
"According to a local lore, which we were somewhat skeptical of, there were no bodies buried there and that turned out to be correct," he said.
Lille said during the excavation the soil layer was found to be intact and that this might be the case in other places of presumed burial as well.
"With future excavations in mind, we should take into account that even this is possible, as it also happens regularly that official figures on the number of casualties are inconsistent with the number of people whose remains are actually found in a grave," Lill said.
Sawdust, stones and branches
Hstorian Olev Liivik said during the Soviet occupation soldiers were mainly buried individually at random locations, rather than in mass graves in cemeteries; with only a few dozen of them possibly buried in the same grave.
"Especially in 1944, when the front was moving fast, or during the heavy battles around Sinimäe, it was nearly impossible to transport the dead bodies to distant cemeteries. In most cases, the Soviet mass burial occasions were rather about propaganda and confirmation for the Soviet army," Liivik said.
It has also happened that in lieu of human remains sawdust, stones, and branches were placed in communal graves:
"There have been multiple records of such kind, e.g., at the Maarjamäe memorial and in a number of other places. This certainly cannot be ruled out."
The historian concluded that more work is required to uncover the decades-long Soviet propaganda.
"Previously we might have only suspected that those occurrences are possible. However, as it has been confirmed in the case of Otepää and we must be prepared for other similar cases elsewhere. How can we defend a war memorial if no one is buried there? When we are protecting the sites that do not truly exist, we are wasting our resources."
Liivik also said the proper burial site for the deceased is a cemetery, not a busy city square, and that the remains should be reinterred and that is the responsibility of the Estonian government.
Discussions about the future of Soviet war memorials have arisen after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Several municipalities have said they want to remove memorials in their regions.
Editor: Kristina Kersa