Maarja Vaino: Removal of communist symbolism not cancel culture

Maarja Vaino.
Maarja Vaino. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

I suppose it is true that while we restored our independence de jure in 1991, the Soviet period has continued mentally. People who are truly free would not develop such anxiety disorders and twitch whenever painful topics are mentioned, Maarja Vaino writes.

ERR portals recently ran an opinion piece by Eero Epner strikingly titled "Sweep the Square!" In it, the author points to an elections slogan from the past and ties it to the ongoing debate over Soviet monuments and the voting rights of Russian citizens in Estonia.

Epner takes a step further and also associates the debate with cancel culture and the woke movement. And this is where things start to come undone. Firstly, I have not observed crowds submerging statues in ponds or simply destroying them a la woke.

Secondly, "cancel culture" stands for calls to condemn/boycott/shame someone on a massive scale that causes them to lose their reputation, influence and social status.

I'm not sure a five-pointed star or monument could lose their job, income and friends... nor have I seen appeals for major shaming campaigns.

It is a separate question how cancel culture has suddenly taken on a negative connotation, while it was only recently regarded as an entirely suitable way to restore historical justice by a lot of progressively inclined people. And there is hardly reason to worry: research grants – fear of losing which also makes an appearance in Epner's work – will likely continue to elude people who tend to leave globally-ideologically appropriate keywords out of their projects.

Removing communist symbols from our public space does not amount to cancellation. As put by Krista Kodres in her opinion piece: "Erasing the material past does not render the Soviet era nonexistent."

Indeed, the Soviet era has been rather immovably carved into our consciousness, subconscious and public space. Mustamäe and Lasnamäe, a host of kolkhoz-era settlement centers (many of which are unfortunately dilapidated), countless reminders in art and literate are just a few examples.

This [part of] memory is the subject matter of several museums, not least of which the Estonian National Museum, not to mention history books and generational trauma in people's life's stories. By the way, a study was recently published on the consequences major collective trauma has for the individual and their offspring.

It found that wars, genocide, torture and other cruelty perpetrated by political regimes leave the first generation gravely wounded, with symptoms transferred to the second and third generations if the causes of the trauma have not been properly examined and treated. We are that third generation. Epner and yours truly.

Steamrolling, condemning and cancelling one another on the personal level that is so quick to happen in our society – perhaps generation – is a symptom of this untreated trauma, denial of what happened, a simple attempt to convince ourselves we have gotten over it.

And that very phenomenon is proof that we haven't gotten over anything. Honestly addressing the legacy of the occupation should be a part of treatment. This requires referring to things as they are, instead of emotional grandstanding – which reacting a la "Sweep the square!" certainly is.

I suppose it is true that while we restored our independence de jure in 1991, the Soviet period has continued mentally. People who are truly free would not develop such anxiety disorders and twitch whenever painful topics are mentioned.

Discussing the removal (not destruction) of symbols of occupation is not revenge, but memory work left undone. Nor can it be done without interruption today if the victim, the occupied, is put back where they were for the span of the occupation, branded as the culprit who must not call into question the invader's regalia. You mustn't say that you do not want to see a red five-pointed star in the heart of your city after Estonia has been independent again for 31 years. Suddenly, you are the one resorting to violence!

Such a reaction is Stockholm syndrome pure and simple and shows that the debate comes way too late, while it is all the more necessary. It should not be stifled with talk of cancel culture that comes off as just such an attempt to cancel opinions and people who do not navigate some sort of a mysterious paradigm of those with "correct thought" who have now rushed to the defense of five-pointed stars.

Curiously, they are often the same people who furiously fought against the War of Independence Victory Column as it allegedly bears an out-of-place symbol that shames us in the eyes of Europe.

But again, removing or dismantling some monuments, pentagons or kolkhoz centers will not result in oblivion, cancellation or erasure. It is indeed impossible as signs of the Soviet era are everywhere in our public space and culture.

Dialing back some of the insignia will simply help restore a semblance of order to our own national collective psyche in a situation where symbols of violence are with us on a daily basis. A rape victim does not keep their attacker's portrait on the wall. The image has been carved into their soul in the form of trauma. And who knows when and whether it will ever heal.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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