Draft bill would lead to removal of Soviet motifs within three months

Soviet monuments in Lääneranna (now removed).
Soviet monuments in Lääneranna (now removed). Source: Juhan Hepner/ERR

A draft bill will expedite the removal of Soviet-era symbolism, if it enters into law.

The bill was ordered by the government and drafted by the Ministry of Justice, in the wake of an episode in the eastern city of Narva in which the state had to step in to remove a World War Two-era tank and several other totems, after local government had failed to do so.

However, one critic has said that the bill is too general, and may lead to the removal of genuinely culturally or aesthetically relevant installations, or, at the opposite end of the scale, relatively trivial features to be found on buildings.

Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) said: "Up to the present, there had been no general regulation which would prohibit such monuments in public space, along with their installation, display but which would also legislate for their removal.

"We know what happened with the Narva tank, and other monuments in the Narva region. These were removed from on the basis of government order," she added.

The draft bill does not directly define what would constitute a hostile symbol and so should therefore be removed, which is left to the municipality, though the right for the state to intervene, as was the case in Narva, is also provided for.

Danilson-Järg noted that this did not mean that every single Soviet symbol, such as the five-pointed star, should have to be removed at all times.

She said "We have also discussed the fact that we have Soviet-era houses, buildings with five-pointed stars on top and similar things. The idea of ​​this bill is not that now these stars have to be taken down everywhere, but rather that any monument-like item that glorifies the occupying regime [should be removed]

"If a municipality fails to reach an agreement on what these structures are which should be removed from the public space, then it is viable for a government committee to intervene and give its assessment as to whether this particular object should be removed or not. If the commission has decided [that it should], then in accordance with the bill, the Ministry of Justice has the right to intervene and remove this monument or facility itself," the minister went on.

In the case of buildings, the bill would supplement the existing Building Code and would stipulate that no building, sculpture, or statue can contain features which could incite hatred, or publicly display any symbol of aggression. 

The draft also sets out a three-month period during which the necessary work must be done, which indicates its degree of urgency, the minister said, though exceptions have been made in the case of properties owned by a museum, and also those located in designated heritage protection areas.

Mihkel Kaevats, head of the culture ministry's department of cultural heritage, noted that not all traces of history should be removed, including those left by the Soviet regime, lest society forget or not learn from history.

A concrete example he gave was a 1947 ceiling painting by Evald Okas inside the Estonia Theater in central Tallinn. The theater was restored after World War Two, during which it was heavily bombed, while the painting itself is an example of the Socialist Realist style, and as such a long way from a crude representation of a "Z" symbol or one of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Estonia had also suffered other occupations in addition to the Soviet one, which lasted from 1940-1941 and again from 1944 to 1991, but leftovers from these are not consistently treated in the context of the bill, Kaevats argued.

Kaevats also noted that there was no reason for an independent Estonia to behave in the way that the Soviet occupiers had in their fanatical drive to remove supposed symbols of the "bourgeoisie".

Danilson Järg said that leeway would be provided for in the case of such potentially culturally-valuable items

Other symbols in stone, or other durable materials, relict from the Soviet era in Tallinn alone include the Stalinist apartment block on the corner of Liivalaia and Tartu mnt., the Sõprus Cinema in the Old Town, and the Russian Cultural Center on Mere pst.

The justice ministry was tasked by the government with drafting the bill.

The bill would need to be processed at Riigikogu committee-level and then pass three readings, before being given assent by the head of state and entering into law.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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