Ilmar Raag: Soviet tank sign of no empathy for Eastern Europe

Ilmar Raag.
Ilmar Raag. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Through all the new manifestations of Russian imperialism, a defiant idea has been forming in the minds of many Estonians: this time, we will fight back. The Russian empire may still be stronger than us, and war is never pretty. But we have nothing to lose and we will fight back no matter what. The removal of the [Narva] tank is only a small part of that same preparedness, Ilmar Raag writes.

The comment was originally published in the portal Edasi.

On the surface of it, the matter of the Narva tank and other Soviet monuments is simple. While fighting historical monuments is hardly a noble cause, Vladimir Putin has done everything in his power to make them relevant once more. The simple principle of the friends of your enemy being your enemies applies, and what the aggressor uses to justify its war deserves nothing but contempt.

It is a pillar of the Kremlin's identity to proceed from and indeed relive pride over its victory in the Second World War. This vision completely ignores the possibility that the Red Army did something wrong, next to destroying fascism. It ignores the suffering the ensuing Soviet occupation visited upon Eastern Europe.

In a way, it saddens me that Stalin ruined Russia's triumph over fascism with his imperialist ambitions. But when the Russian Federation uses WWII rhetoric to justify its aggression in Ukraine, new aggressive meaning is attached to the tank in Narva.

Leaving it where it is would mean justifying Russian aggression. In this situation, I cannot agree to keeping a Soviet tank in a place of honor in Estonia. (The Estonian government relocated the "Tank T-34" monument from Narva to Viimsi on Tuesday, August 16 - ed.)

A foray into the subconscious of Estonians

Yet, we should also look into the subconscious currents of Estonians' self-awareness that have now radicalized us in a way. Whence our decision (to relocate the tank - ed.) and why now?

Following the restoration of independence in 1991, attitudes toward the Soviet legacy that was the Russian population in Estonia were two-pronged and wordlessly morphed into two competing strategies.

The first demanded the immediate destruction of everything Soviet and the exodus of all Russians. The other realized that this was hardly possible in the real world and bet instead on conciliation and integration given enough time.

That is why the first steps of the Estonian state were at times controversial. On the one hand, the Constitution provided that Estonia was a nation state where Estonian language and culture are preferred, while it also stipulated that everyone was equal in the eyes of the law irrespective of their background.

The Citizenship Act de facto created a Russian-speaking population group that was sent the message they were not loved here. It is likely that no serious bets were made on the group's desire to integrate into Estonian society.

At the same time, Estonia retained a number of Soviet monuments, separate Russian school, Russian newspapers etc. As time went by, the integration strategy seemed to be working.

Integration reports showed how the number of non-Estonians who picked Estonian citizenship, studied in Estonian schools etc. was steadily growing. Tough nationalist policies were relaxed and non-citizens given the right to participate in local elections.

The first shock was delivered during the Bronze Night in 2007. Both the Estonian and Russian communities felt victimized. What really stuck with Estonians, however, was how a protest that had started by demanding respect for late granddads turned into something else entirely.

I was in Freedom Square that night and saw aggressive Russian youths chanting, "Rossiya, Rossiya!" Estonian viewers saw it too. This was no longer commemorating the victory over fascism. Instead, we saw that there was a group inside the Russian population for whom everything boils down to the image of imperial Russia.

While there had been Estonians who were reluctant to fight monuments and history during past discussions, the battle-cry of a hostile empire made people think.

Still, the following period needs to be seen as a triumph of integration as the air had been cleared. Peculiar, isn't it? The Estonians had gotten what they wanted and relocated the Bronze Soldier, while they were also increasingly tolerant of their Russian compatriots' peculiarities.

Pop culture is the best example. Suddenly, singers with a Russian background were accepted on stage. When Estonia sends singers who speak Estonian with an accent to represent it at the Eurovision [song contest] twice, it is a sign of mutual adjustment. It would have been impossible 20 years ago for Anton Aleksejev, who speaks with a clear Russian accent, to appear on the Estonian edition of "Aktuaalne kaamera" and be loved by many Estonian viewers. Not to mention Russian athletes in national sports teams.

The shift in politics was the most unexpected, when even the most patriotic nationalists suddenly found the nation state was no longer paramount and started emulating their Russian and American counterparts in fighting same-sex marriage, Muslims etc. Indeed, Estonia's Russian population tends to be more conservative than the average Estonian.

Sociological polls

Sociological polls also reflected the two communities coming together, even when a clear divide still existed in the superficiality of public opinion. Let us look at the defense ministry's regular national defense poll. It includes the question of how proud the respondent is to be living in Estonia.

In 2022, just 4 percent of Russians took absolutely no pride in living in Estonia, while 11 percent said they rather feel no pride. 15 percent said they do not feel either way. This means that, hopefully, we share our future with 70 percent of our Russians. Reversely, 4 percent sport a hostile attitude. ("Avalik arvamus riigikaitsest" [Public Opinion on National Defense]. Commissioned by the Ministry of Defense, carried out by Eesti Uuringukeskus OÜ, spring 2022).

Moving on. Scanning for attitudes that could prove hostile in a conflict, the poll reveals that 7 percent of non-Estonians do not believe it necessary to put up armed resistance in case of an attack, while 16 percent believe that it would rather not be necessary.

This ratio has remained largely unchanged over the last eight years and shows that, depending on crisis development, Estonia is home to 4-25 percent of unfriendly non-Estonians.

Let it be said, in the interests of balance, that around 14 percent of Estonians were skeptical of armed resistance as recently as last year, while it dropped to 5 percent after the start of the war in Ukraine.

These figures are rather similar to general trends in other Western countries, except that Estonia's "native population" exhibits an above-average defensive will as the potential threat is constantly high, while no Western European country imagines that it faces an existential threat. The attitudes of migrants and their offspring are similar.

For example, the loyalty of French people with a Muslim background to republican and secular values is similar to the attitudes of our Russians. Most are trying to find a place in their new home country, while pressure from communal culture has radicalized between 5 and 10 percent.

A security policy question: "What to do to keep the number of people sporting hostile attitudes from growing in Estonia?" And it really is the million-dollar question as there will come a point when we will have to decide which values are beyond compromise.

Estonia dependent on foreign developments

Concurrently with real integration, polls reveal another anxiety-inducing trend. Every time Russia launches a military operation abroad, the friendly attitudes of Russians living in Estonia wane.

Clear downward spikes can be seen looking at statistics during the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and again following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. That is also when striped ribbons of St. George make an appearance in Estonia. Markers of Russian imperialist ideology are old acquaintances here.

Maks Reva, former leader of the camp that defended the Bronze Soldier, wrote on Facebook around the time of the Maidan events (quote from memory), "The chaos in Kyiv tells us that the 1968 invasion of Prague was entirely justified." A sign that for this radicalized minority in the Russian community, everything boils down to imperialist policy.

I can even understand them in a way, as no matter how developed and wealthy Estonia becomes, it cannot rival a narrative of several hundred years of military triumph. It is true. This is also why we can understand Russian youths in Estonia who perceive that giving up their imperialist identity is the price they have to pay for a better future in Estonia. However, I believe this price needs to remain unchanged.

Ukraine and the tank

And then, on February 24, the masks were torn off. Russia very much holds on to its imperial ambitions, which fact is a threat for all its neighbors. We can no longer hope this threatening stance will go away in time. Rather, we may end up dying first.

Once again, we must recall that the Narva tank has more than one meaning. And attitudes toward these meanings reflect attitudes toward those who protect them.

I understand that Russians had no other grandfathers than those who fought the occupying Nazis in the ranks of the Red Army. And of course they have the right to remember them. But I am also the grandchild of a Red Army fighter mobilized from Narva, and I do not want to remember by grandfather through a tank.

When I say "grandfather," I mean that he met my grandmother just a few years before the war. Their love was only given those few years before the war broke out and grandpa was killed on the second day after reaching the front. I would like a monument to that brief love story so tragically cut shot. A tank cannot symbolize that.

I would like a monument for those Narva residents who escaped the city. In February of 1944, my grandmother put a two-year-old boy wrapped in blankets on a sled to flee the approaching war machine through the snow on foot. That boy was my father.

No one from that family returned to Narva because the city was destroyed. The triumphant tank does not symbolize this tragedy. Many Red Army soldiers fell under Narva, but does that tank best symbolize their mothers' grief? No.

A Soviet tank put on a pedestal symbolizes lack of empathy for the whole of Eastern Europe. In this form, it constitutes a warning that those who support it are capable of approving a similar war today and tomorrow...

Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces Lt Gen. Martin Herem told me in an interview a few days ago that if Bucha seemed terrible to Spanish and French soldiers, their compassion lined it up next to Darfur and other far-away tragedies, in Africa, for example. But for Herem, Bucha is a message from what could be our future. It means that things are no longer just about compassion.

Listening to those words, I realized how the unfortunate choices of 1939 continue to haunt us on a deeper level of Estonianness. No matter what Konstantin Päts' considerations were, they did not deliver us from tragedy. But he also filled our soul with shame that we didn't even try to demonstrate our will. That we ended up fighting in foreign uniforms. That we suffered a wound we have not forgotten even after the restoration of our independence.

Through all the new manifestations of Russian imperialism, a defiant idea has been forming in the minds of many Estonians: this time, we will fight back. I am reminded of what I felt when reading about native Americans' struggle against the better-armed white man back in my youth.

The colonizers had guns but the natives had their honor. In 1987, my friends from the Valhalla poetry theater read out a native American chief's text on television that said this is the only land we have been given. The Russian empire may still be stronger than us, and war is never pretty. But we have nothing to lose and we will fight back no matter what. The removal of the tank is only a small part of that same preparedness.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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