The removal of the Narva tank was the right thing to do. Those who say it destroyed the fruits of integration are wrong. Those who believe that displays of decisiveness can somehow change the self-stories of the people of Narva are equally wrong, former President Kersti Kaljulaid writes.
The removal of the Narva tank did not create a new situation in the Republic of Estonia. In fact, it changed nothing about Estonians' attitude toward Russians' different treatment of history. It also changed nothing in terms of how many and how often Russian-speaking people really want to think about the fact that a large part of their family history was tied to Estonia by the Soviet occupation and the Soviet occupation alone.
The tank's removal was the right thing to do. Removing Soviet monuments from public places is the right thing to do. Because we live in the Republic of Estonia and have not been given another country where our language, culture, customs and treatment of history can be safeguarded.
Those who say it destroyed the fruits of integration are wrong. Those who believe that displays of decisiveness can somehow change the personal stories of the people of Narva are equally wrong. The only thing that really happened is that these stories resurfaced. We will compare our historical treatments, find them to be different and put them away again.
My uncle grew up in pre-war Narva. Soviet Narva was and remained alien to him. Those who grew up in Soviet Narva feel at home in the city today. And, inevitably, felt even more at home back when Narva was tied to the Soviet industrial complex, manufacturing and supplying a sixth of the planet and far outgrowing its pre-war version.
My grandmother was in the gulag. For other people, those years were spent in apartments given to diligent party members and domesticated artists that were allegedly (I have no first-hand experience) furnished with the belongings of those evicted beforehand. The personal stories of myself and the grandchildren of those others are also quite different.
These opposite but mutually dependent stories will stay with us always. However, what we need to keep in mind is that current and future generations do not need to try and render the decisions and turning points in their family stories morally acceptable as they were not the ones who made the call.
No one bears responsibility for whether their forebears were on the right or wrong side of history. And if there is no such responsibility, it is unnecessary to justify or give an account now.
My grandfather held important offices in the Republic of Estonia, helping establish censorship and limit journalistic and freedom of opinion in the [Konstantin] Päts era. I do not have to make that fact palatable for myself through claims that democracies were different in the 1930s and that my grandfather did so in the best interests of Estonia – at least in his own mind.
I am neither vindicating nor condemning my grandfather's choices. They were his choices, his life and his time. I am me, amid the difficult times we are living today, and my decisions are my own, based on personal convictions, knowledge and traits. I will not keep silent when our security and freedoms are threatened or when the weakest are being bullied.
Am I honoring the memory of my grandfather or demonstrating a lack of respect when I defend a very different Estonia from what he supported to the best of my knowledge? Neither. My grandfather's story is a part of my family story and largely determined our fate during the occupation and in exile. And that's all. The story is and will continue to be, nor will it change as a result of vindication or condemnation on my part.
It seems to me that is what we can offer one another: we can accept that our stories are different. And assure one another that they are firmly in the past. They have led to us but they do not have to affect our future.
Of course, there will always be those for whom that story of the past is also a dream of the future. The Russian empire, whether in the form of the Soviet Union or one of its earlier manifestations, for many is a source of pride and a future dream. We have no common path with them in the Republic of Estonia as most of us choose freedom, human rights and democracy. Luckily, we don't have to convince them and can let them go. Russia is still there.
Every person, Estonian or Russian, in Narva or Lasnamäe, Pärnu or Haapsalu is free. Because that is what the Republic of Estonia is. One is under no obligation to like this country built according to the wishes of Estonian citizens and the vast majority of people living here.
If one dislikes the country, they can participate in democratic processes to render it more similar to their dream of the Republic of Estonia. They can also choose to leave. And they can simply accept that the Republic of Estonia is unacceptable for them in certain aspects – for instance by not supporting a story that matters to their family – and still go on living here.
All of these choices are deeply personal. Usually, we just live our lives and pay these value judgments no mind. At other times, history forces all of these currents to resurface. But personal choices are just that – personal. The policies of the state support them during some periods and fail to do so at others. But a free country neither controls nor demands these choices. That is both the beauty and the pain of liberty.
Every decision we make is ours, our own responsibility and comes with corresponding consequences. In free countries, these decisions also affect the fate of the country as a whole. This is what takes us through time and into the future, whereas we will only realize which moments were truly breaking points once we get there.
The comment was originally published on Kersti Kaljulaid's Facebook page.
Editor: Marcus Turovski