Raul Rebane: Different songs, different monuments
There is no symbol of war as strong as a tank. These days, they also have an additional meaning: to justify Russia's policy, Raul Rebane finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.
A few years ago, an Armenian student asked me the rather unexpected question of what do Estonians feel when they hear Alexander Alexandrov's song "The Sacred War." I told them that younger Estonians do not know it. We have fought only one sacred war -- the Estonian War of Independence. It is not our song.
Nations have different war songs. Nevertheless, it was quite horrifying to hear "The Sacred War" performed to justify the invasion of Ukraine on a Russian state television propaganda show recently. Russia is now spoiling its own history. This brings me to the topic of monuments where the same process is taking place.
The Bronze Soldier crisis in 2007 has left us feeling that we are the epicenter of the war monuments conflict. That is not the case. The status of monuments is a Europe-wide topic.
Various sources suggest there are at least 14,000 Soviet war monuments in a number of countries. When it comes to what to do with them, three waves can be observed, always following changes in Russia's status or its political decisions.
The first wave started after the collapse of the Soviet Union when it became possible for a lot of countries to reevaluate the significance of these monuments. The second wave followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when Russia unveiled its aggressive plans.
The third has started now, in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The latter will be a major wave, a tsunami even. These waves have seen monuments relocated, removed or neglected. There are major commemorative complexes left to crumble in the Balkans and elsewhere.
Things are simplest regarding war graves. Their fate is usually regulated in international agreements. Major burial sites are looked after, and many countries have dedicated graveyards for the casualties of both sides, irrespective of the war they fought in.
I visited the Normandy landing site in April. A few dozen kilometers from the American cemetery immortalized in the movie "Saving Private Ryan" there is located an immaculate German burial site with 21,000 graves.
The process of moving Soviet markers and statues from city and settlement centers to cemeteries is ongoing. For example, a monument to Alexander Matrosov was moved to the Südfriedhof in Halle, Germany. By the way, Tallinn's Tondi street used to be called Matrosov street, and there were other objects with that name in Estonia.
Ideological monuments make for a separate topic. When the sanctity of the October Revolution and Lenin waned in Russia in the mid-1990s, it was replaced by the rising significance of the Great Patriotic War. It has become absolute now in that victory (in the Second World War -- ed.) has been promoted to the most important event in history and turned into an instrument of geopolitical struggle. This is in sharp contrast with most other countries' experience of the war, with conflicts unavoidable.
Ideological monuments are also systematically removed. In Poland, 130 out of 500 public monuments have disappeared and the process is ongoing. The removal of a monument to Marshal Konev in Prague in 2020 resulted in Russian protests, which did not manage to thwart the decision. Georgia blew up a WWII monument in Kutaisi in December of 2009 etc. Monuments are often moved to local war museums.
Tanks on pedestals, also found in many places, make for a separate topic. Especially now, during the war, they work as symbols of Russian militarism. They have been combated for decades, and many were removed a long time ago. The most famous such act took place in Prague in 1991 where a tank was painted pink, which course of action has later been emulated in other places.
There is no stronger symbol of war than a tank. These days, they have the added significance of justifying Russia's policy, even though many are reluctant to admit it. "What are you really protecting when protecting a Russian tank in another country's territory?" is a simple question that's worth pondering. Things are even more complicated when people gather at the tank's location to reaffirm their collective identity, when flowers and ribbons became sights of pilgrimage.
The situation is especially complicated in Ukraine where it is currently very difficult to look at Russian monuments glorifying weapons. There, the score with Russian military past is still to be settled and will be done thoroughly.
Therefore, Russia's attack on Ukraine has unleashed the third wave of the monuments war that's still picking up momentum. As time goes by, Russian ideological monuments will be gotten rid of -- the trend, of which Estonia is just a small part, is irreversible.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski