State to re-inter twenty-two Soviet-era military cemeteries

Soviet-era war memorial and graves in the village of Emmaste, Hiiumaa. The monument has now been removed.
Soviet-era war memorial and graves in the village of Emmaste, Hiiumaa. The monument has now been removed. Source: Mait Ots / ERR

The state has decided to re-inter graves from twenty-two Soviet military cemeteries to locations elsewhere in Estonia, and will also be replacing headstones and other grave markers which bear Soviet insignia, with more neutral edifices.

The War Graves Commission (Sõjahaudade komisjon) made the decision, while the War Museum (Eesti sõjamuuseum), responsible for the actual work, has already exhumed remains from five of the 22 sites, with a view to relocating them in what is seen as a more appropriate location, given the current security situation and Russia's war on Ukraine.

This process is likely to take years, however.

Hellar Lill, director of the Estonian War Museum, told ERR that: "Graves in unsuitable locations mean primarily those which are to be found in parks, green areas, city squares, and more densely populated areas. Those places where the public moves about, and where it is not reasonable for human remains to be buried outside of cemeteries,"

Meanwhile Priit Talv strategic communication advisor at the government office, said that grave markers in cemeteries remaining in place but which bear Soviet iconography will also be replaced by more neutral headstones.

Talv said: "The task of the government office working group is to proactively replace these headstones with neutral ones," adding that the commission has mapped 200 relevant memorials, most of them containing graves.

Talv added that at the end of June, when the commission was created, 130 memorials were known about, with the job forecast to be complete by year-end, but since which time more graves have been found.

"We still don't have a complete overview of whether there are 200, 300 or 400," Talv added.

"Another thing that can change our schedule is the weather. When it comes to removal, moving, the weather will affect it a bit. Today, we still have the end of the year as our goal," he said. 

Cemeteries with graves the commission has adjudged to require re-interring are in: Otepää municipality, Rakvere, Lai tn, Haljala municipality, the village of Nõo parish, Pärnu city, Emmaste village on Hiiumaa (pictured), four villages in Järva municipality, the town of Elva, Anija parish, three sites in Viljandi municipality, the Raadi cemetery in Tartu city, three sites in North Sakala (Põhja-Sakala) Municipality, and three sites in Viru-Nigula Municipality.

In some cases, sites thought to contain human remains turn out not to – this was the case in Otepää (see above), for instance.

Raadi is the largest site, with around 250 graves, while the number may turn out to be even higher once work, set for autumn, commences, Lill added.

The work is also quite skilled, and must come to a halt during the winter months, when the frozen earth would render it impractical.

While the re-interring may take years, the replacement of headstones is forecast to be finished before year-end.

Current Estonian law has it that Soviet war memorial sites with war graves located nearby as a part of the same facility are a matter for the state, while those without are a matter for local government - the highest-profile exception to this rule being the Narva tank, relocated by the state to the war museum earlier this week.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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