Feature: We need to talk about Narva

Narva's Peetri Square memorial, August 18, 2022
Narva's Peetri Square memorial, August 18, 2022 Source: Michael Cole

Change isn't easy, even if, in the end, it's what more and more people in Narva want, Michael Cole writes.

Like many people in Narva, Anna spent the night of Tuesday, August 16 in tears. That morning, following weeks of speculation, the Estonian authorities closed off part of the highway connecting the city with the coastal town Narva-Jõesuu, and finally removed the infamous Soviet era T-34 tank monument from its roadside plinth. "When the tank thing happened, I was destroyed," Anna tells me, as we chat two days later in a park, a stone's throw from the official checkpoint marking Estonia's border with neighboring Russia.

While "the tank" was being swiftly relocated to a new home at the National War Museum in Viimsi, back in Narva, emotions were running high. Locals congregated at the now vacant spot, where the T-34 had stood for the last 52 years, as well as by other Soviet war memorials in the city, six of which were also removed the same day.

"Some were very angry, they were swearing and saying things I can't repeat about (Estonian Prime Minister) Kaja Kallas," says Katya, a student at Tartu University's Narva College, who saw the commemorative plaques being taken down from the city's most central war memorial on Peetri Square (Peetri plats). "There were some mentions of the 'Bronze Night' (when riots erupted in Tallinn in April 2007, after a Soviet World War II memorial was moved from the city center to a cemetery on the outskirts of town), but no one wanted a repeat of that," she adds.

While a few minor incidents led to arrests that day, most of those gathered simply laid flowers and lit candles, replicating rituals usually reserved for May 9, the date Russia, and by extension, Estonia's ethnic Russians, commemorate victory, in the "Great Patriotic War." For Estonians, however, World War II is a different story, ending not in glorious victory but a painful Soviet occupation spanning more than five decades. It wasn't until 1991 that they could celebrate, after finally regaining the independence they treasure so deeply today.

At the Peetri Square memorial, "people were taking videos and photos and putting them online straight away to record what was going on," Katya said. It was hard not to be moved when standing amongst the crowds mourning, what they saw as a deeply personal loss, even though she had no strong feelings about the fate of the monuments herself, Katya admitted. "Most just wanted to know why it was happening, and why now," she said. "There were no (Soviet) red stars on there or St. George's ribbons (the orange and black striped symbol worn by Russians on May 9 and now banned in Estonia). They couldn't understand what it had to do with Russian aggression or what's going on in Ukraine," she explained. "A lot of them were just asking, 'Now where will we go on May 9?'"

But for Anna, who was born in nearby Kohtla-Järve and has lived in Narva for the last twelve years, Tuesday's tears weren't falling because a Red Army tank was being moved to a museum, or a plaque was taken down, at least not directly. "I was upset because I was reading the comments in Estonian on an online news site," she said. Like most people in Narva, Anna grew up speaking Russian both at home and at school. Nevertheless, she feels a strong connection to Estonia and speaks Estonian fluently, using the language in both her professional life and with friends. "I'm Russian, but not Russian Russian," like those over the border, she explained.

The distinction is an important one, even more so following Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, which along with the tank's removal, has once again placed the spotlight on Estonia's Russian speakers. "We had a really great discussion about this when we were in Tallinn, drinking and talking with Estonian friends," Anna explains. "We really enjoyed it when one of our Estonian friends didn't refer to us as 'Russians' or 'Estonian Russians,' but called us 'Russian-speaking Estonians.' Maybe for some it makes no difference, but for me it makes sense," she smiles.

Narva's Peetri Square memorial. August 18, 2022 Source: Michael Cole

Like many of her fellow Russian-speaking Estonians, Anna has often felt her identity lies somewhere in-between, and is neither fully Estonian, nor completely Russian. She describes this issue as "the most difficult question" and one she's struggled with throughout her life. "I like Estonian culture and I'm part of the Estonian community and Estonian life," she says, adding that she wished she'd had chance to learn more about Estonia from a younger age, but in the Russian schools that she attended, "there were not such big Estonian cultural models like there are in Estonian schools." One thing is for sure, she doesn't support what Putin is doing in Ukraine, describing it as "just not okay."

On Tuesday evening, caught up in the emotion of the moment and hurt by what she saw online in response to "the tank thing," Anna felt compelled to write to an old Estonian school friend, who she'd recently run into at Station Narva. The annual music and cultural festival is one of several artistic endeavors gradually introducing Narva to international audiences. Perhaps just as importantly, Station Narva is also opening up the city to Estonians from other parts of the country, more and more of whom are starting to discover that deep-rooted preconceptions about Narva as somewhere distant and peripheral, sharing little in common with the rest of Estonia, are in urgent need of re-evaluation.

It was there that Anna's old schoolmate became an instant convert to the city's cause, enjoying the atmosphere so much that he left vowing to actively promote Narva and its showcase festival to all his friends back in Tallinn. But the events of August 16, or more specifically, the way they were being "discussed" online, made it seem to Anna like everything that had been done to nurture bonds between the country's Russian-speakers and the Estonian majority now counted for nothing. "So, I wrote to my Estonian friend, the one I met at the festival (and asked), 'Do you hate me now?'"

His immediate response, an emphatic "No," reminded her that, "there are good people on both sides, who can live peacefully and happily here together in Estonia." "Don't read these stupid comments," Anna's friend told her. "Normal people don't post on those sites. Nothing has changed." Reassuring as that may have been, Anna also conceded that the online reactions to "the tank thing" reminded her there are also those on both sides looking for any excuse to stir things up. "It was always like this and always will be unfortunately."


In truth though, a lot has changed in Narva, even in the three or four years that I've been coming here, whether to teach at Tartu University's Narva College, or, most often, just because I like spending time in the city.

When I arrived on the day after the tank's removal, bracing myself for difficult conversations, I realized that it wasn't just Narva's war memorials that were under reconstruction. Roads are being re-laid, new construction projects are shooting up on almost every corner, and the historical town hall building is finally undergoing a long overdue facelift to restore its former beauty. Not to mention a thriving local cultural scene, which continues to grow, challenging deep-rooted stereotypes about Narva simply being stuck in a time warp from the Soviet Union.

And change isn't easy, even if, in the end, it's what more and more people in Narva want. Emotions too, particularly during these fraught times can be difficult to process. "At first, people (in Narva) don't want changes," explains Anna, "but when the changes are small, they say, 'Okay, I like it, maybe we need these changes, but not all of them, just this one.'"

"Narva has a very difficult history," she continues, "it was totally destroyed in the Second World War, and maybe this is why people don't like changes so much, because there were too many of them in the past 100 years."

Katya too thinks that, given time, people in Narva will come to terms with what happened on August 16 and start to move on. She believes that for young people in the city, the tank and other memorials were mostly seen as tourist attractions, rather than containing any deeper meaning. "Remembrance is usually something internal," she reflects. "But, for those (older) people, (the memorial on Peetri Square) was the material representation of their memories. Now it's been taken away, (they feel that) all they have left is what's inside. Some are saying 'the memorial has gone, but the memories will remain.'" And, in the end, maybe that's okay.

War memorial in Gerassimov Park, Narva. August 18, 2022 Source: Michael Cole

After all, to paraphrase what former Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who worked regularly in Narva during her time in office, wrote recently, all that really happened was two different understandings of history came back to the surface, their differences were re-discovered, and before long they will be put away once again.

"You know," says Anna, "It's like if you're in a couple. When you don't talk, you don't understand each other. We need to talk, to understand the problem and how to move forward." Narva's relationship with the rest of Estonia has certainly been complicated over the years, and at times it can seem like "everyone is just arguing," and "nobody is listening to each other," says Anna. But that doesn't mean things can't get better through dialogue, "people to people, government to people, people to government."

As for the tank, while it may be true that, in the words of a friend I run into, "some people do love the actual lump of metal," I think more people in Narva are like the elderly woman sat on a bench in Park Gerassimov, opposite one of the city's World War II memorials that survived August 16 intact. "I cried and cried last night," I overhear her say to a friend, as I photograph the remaining monument. Then she sighs and breaks into a laugh, "And I don't even really know why."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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