Stalnuhhin sees no fertile soil for Russian party in Estonia

Mihhail Stalnuhhin.
Mihhail Stalnuhhin. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Narva City Council member Mihhail Stalnuhhin tells ERR in an interview that he can continue teaching should the Center Party expel him over recent comments. He does not wish to run as an independent at Riigikogu elections. Stalnuhhin sees no potential political force capable of bringing together, for example, the people who were against the recent removal of the Soviet tank monument in Narva.

It is some time now after the removal of the Soviet monuments in Narva. It took place on August 16. Your emotional outburst where you referred to the government as fascists... Was it just picking up momentum? Did it come as a shock to you, or do you feel you should have reacted sooner?

We had no such chance. The government seemed to want to let Narva decide, which is what we were planning on doing on August 15. And what we proposed was a compromise. That without rushing, we would assume the obligation to prepare a concept for a war museum in Narva and agree on the technical details. That was the amendment proposal we made to the city council, while the mayor (Katri Raik – ed.) realized the option would not even fly in her own coalition.

Today, we know that the government had everything ready to go. The equipment was on standby, police officers had been put up at the Kesklinna High School that is undergoing renovation. People know that the workers had already been moved in, were staying in Narva-Jõesuu, and even the new granite slabs to replace the pillaged monuments had been finished. This means that all the preparations for August 16 had been done weeks before. Just as things were done before holidays during the "fun" Soviet times, the reds in Narva needed to be put in their place by August 20 (Estonia's Day of Restoration of Independence – ed.) as it would make it possible [for politicians] to go on about how they are solving the most important problems in Estonia. I suppose it was hoped people would then forget to ask about colossal inflation, why their utility bills have grown manyfold or why companies are grinding to a halt.

Therefore, we had a compromise proposal for how to solve that problem of the utmost importance, while the government had other plans.

Did the removal of two other monuments in Peetri Square come as a surprise?

It was a shock for the entire city as only the tank had been discussed before. In the end, five monuments were removed in Narva and two in Narva-Jõesuu. There was a rock next to the river designating where Lt. Grafov fell. The rock was vandalized so that people burst into tears when they watched the video. I looked on as they removed the plaques in Peetri Square. Everything they took down –there is no communist propaganda, no ideology. It is about the people who fell in the war.

I would recall the monuments to fallen SS members in nearby Vaivara –Wallonians, Belgians, the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS. There is still a so-called German cemetery in Narva that is well kept etc. We are talking about people who died the vast majority of whom never wanted the war and were forced to fight in it as a matter of survival.

That six other monuments were targeted came as a cold shower. And we know the government is not content to stop there. As far as I know, there are a further 20 locations in Narva where they want to remove plaques from buildings or something along those lines.

Finally, I did not attend the meeting in question, but members of the council heard from a gentleman who said that Estonia would very much like to replace 11 Narva street names. I pulled up our streets register and counted a total of 13 streets named after someone.

People did not display that wave of emotions and refrained from doing what the government desperately wanted to happen, for there to be resistance and blood so that medals for bravery could be handed out later etc. But people remember, and those emotions are and will remain with us.

And what is your message to the majority of Estonian people who did not want to see that tank standing there when driving past? We also have a completely different interpretation of history. Why leave the tank standing there, what would have been the solution? It is not a question just for the citizens of Narva but people everywhere in Estonia.

First of all, I do not agree that our interpretations of history differ. There was a war that clearly had two sides. On the one were Hitler's Germany, Italy, Japan and a few others. On the other, a coalition, and I would recall how Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met in person on several occasions, meaning that all of this military activity was coordinated. You can talk about Soviet monuments, while my point is that they were allied forces. What can anyone have against that? When it was a world war, and the civilized world we see around us today opposed Hitler.

The debate is over whether we live in Estonia or whether we live inside some larger community where certain cliches have been maintained since Soviet times, notions long since overturned in the West. But we should also tell the people of Narva about what happened in Estonia in 1945-1948. Up until 1991 really. The things that were done here.

Were they done by fallen soldiers?

They were done by the people who put that tank there.

Can you really not tell the difference between those who executed terror and those who fought and died fighting fascism? How can one be so confused? There is war in Ukraine today. What types of tanks are the Ukrainians using?

That T-34 (the relocated monument – ed.) has a red star on it under which banner a lot of evil has been done in Estonia.

Painting over the star in dark green does not require stealing the tank and dismantling the base on which it stood. Come out with it and say you don't like the red star and we'll paint it green. It's gone. Or let us paint it white. I'm sure you don't have anything against a white star. After all, there are 50 of them on the American flag.

The problem is that no one wanted to consult the city on municipal matters. Everything was quiet for 30 years, while suddenly such a pogrom was needed. But I get it. A government unable to address economic and social issues wanted a small victorious war. So they organized one.

Do you think this would have happened had Russia not invaded Ukraine? Would the so-called victory column in Riga been blown up in that case? That all of this would not have happened?

Stop trying to saddle someone else with the blame. As someone who reads the news, I could give you dozens upon dozens of reasons for all kinds of things.

It seems we will not be agreeing on history.

There is no chance. You are clearly living inside a single narrative.

I'm living inside the predominant narrative in the West. I am a citizen of the Western world, while those defending the tank seem to be from the East. That is the core conflict.

It is self-deception to try and refer to the Western world as a whole. I apologize. I strayed over the lines of courtesy there. But it was very interesting to tune in live to what was happening in Prague on Saturday. There were 70,000-100,000 people in the streets, lamenting their troubles. Sporting demands. Is this a manifestation of togetherness? Isn't it a crack in the picture of the Western world being united?

I'm more than convinced that there will be protests against high electricity and gas prices this fall/winter in democratic Estonia. People are having trouble coping, and it is a normal part of the democratic world. People can come out and protest. Something that does not exist on the other side of the River Narva. We haven't seen a single major protest against the killing going on in Ukraine.

They have their own vision probably. They have their view, Europe has its and China yet another one.

Let me ask you a simple question. Are members of the government really fascists in your eyes?

Those who spoke up on the matter definitely are. Things have not yet gone as far as in Latvia where an MP proposed setting up camps. I believe that everyone living here, in this territory should be one united people. But some do not want to speak to one part of that whole, give any explanation. Everything comes down as an imperative. How to feel about that?

Do you see these events and ensuing tensions in society as an opportunity for people who opposed the Narva events, including yourself, to establish a new political force? It is clear there are tens of thousands of people in Estonia who do not agree with what is being done in Narva.

No, I do not. In a democratic society, the ordinary citizen has a say once every four years when they either cast their vote or choose not to at elections.

Elections are coming up next spring.

Yes, but we seem to lack political forces willing to tackle fundamental rights and this whole subject matter. There simply isn't one. We have a spectrum running from the right fringe all the way to the middle, but we have no left-wing parties.

It seemed to me Center did a rather good job maneuvering the Narva events. The good old system of party leader Jüri Ratas saying the tank needs to be removed, while Center's pro-Russian politicians publish fiery criticism was dusted off again. Perhaps it could have been a chance for Center to reclaim its Russian-speaking voters.

Look, it is in my nature to seek out compromise. I have done my utmost to look for that compromise during the toughest of times, doing everything I can not to split society. I was abroad when I was told the government wanted to move the tank. I knew nothing about the other monuments at the time. Eesti Päevaleht interviewed while there. I said that everything needs to be done in a civilized matter, that I'm sure the city and the government can agree. Let us open a war museum. A closed exhibition etc. I said those things and they were received quite favorably. But once I returned to Estonia, we started hearing news that the machinery was already there, as were policemen and workers, and people began to realize that no one had any intention of discussing the matter. It is to say that while the chance was there, the government nipped it in the bud. They held all the cards and they played them. They had the opportunity to launch the process and did. They were never going to seek an agreement with a local government in such matters. They did not want it and needed something else. Honestly, knowing that their plans go beyond what has been done, I don't know what ought to be done about it.

As concerns what Center members have written, I believe that any group with more than ten members is going to have differences of opinion. People are different and can take different views. It is my party, too, and I have for years been appreciative of the fact that while we are all fans of the ideology of a successful middle class, we understand people can think differently about different things.

Can those differences really be that radical? We can see you are emotionally distraught, and in a situation where your chairman has said the tank needs to be removed, why didn't you write a letter of resignation right away and are instead content to be very likely thrown out tomorrow?

Because we have collegial decision-making. I fear parties where the chairman says something and the only reply is that it will be done. There needs to be a chance to discuss and debate. I would recall once again how I basically supported the very thing in the Eesti Päevaleht interview. With all due respect, let us take it [the tank] down and move it to a place that could become the grounds for the city's new war museum. I was practically suggesting the same thing, only the government had other plans and we were not allowed to do it. To handle it nice and quiet.

What comes next? If you are thrown out of Center, and considering how popular you have been in Narva, you could probably make the Riigikogu as an independent.

I have not thought that far ahead. I know that if I tried to do something like that, the entire Estonian media would be against me. That has always been the case when I have found myself in difficulty. There are specific cases I could highlight here.

I have a profession. I have written several Estonian textbooks. One of them is unique in Estonia, I believe, with the print run now exceeding 32,000, I believe. I have complied several dictionaries, and believe you me, I am a very good teacher. I will find a job and one that is not as nerve-wrecking and intense as being an MP. For me, the end of every road affords an opportunity to choose a new job.

And I will consider it should the Center Party cast me out. But as long as that decisions has not been made, I remain a centrist thinking about how to achieve elections victory.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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