Justice, culture ministers reach compromise on Soviet-era culture artifacts

Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa).
Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Justice Minister Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) says removing or relocating Soviet-era monuments and structures which are adjudged to have cultural value will be easier than before, thanks to a compromise with the Ministry of Culture and rewording of an under-process bill to address the issue.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has seen a renewed drive towards removing Soviet-era statues, war memorials etc., relocating them in museums in some cases, and sensitively re-interring human remains where present.

However, the problem arose on what to do with Soviet installations which have some aesthetic dimension, while at the same time balancing this with the realities of the security situation.

A government committee will be set up which will have the final say in the matter and will consult with experts, Danilson-Järg said, while its work can begin as soon as early 2023.

Danilson-Järg said Thursday that: "The Russian regime led by Putin, which was declared terrorist by the Riigikogu a few days ago, clearly relies on Soviet heritage, but we certainly cannot talk about the red monuments solely in the context of history, as at the moment these monuments are being used to undermine Estonia's security and promote a false approach to history. The state must definitely act decisively on this."

"For this reason, I am especially glad that the Minister of Culture has now taken a position in support of the removal of red monuments, and he has also stopped working against a bill that was passed by the Ministry of Justice a month ago, one which allows for the removal of Soviet paraphernalia from public spaces. So I'm very happy that the Minister of Culture has also understood this need and is ready to think along," she continued.

The justice minister says she hopes that the process of taking away the current objects which need to be removed ​​will gain momentum soon. "I would still see this happening as soon as possible given the current situation. This draft has been waiting in line for a month now, and I really hope that the addition to the draft that we agreed with the Minister of Culture will be written by us this week and sent to them for perusal. As early as next next week, it will be viable to take the bill to the government and from there to the Riigikogu. This Riigikogu procedure will also take time, but hopefully, at least by the end of the year, we will still have this legal framework, and at the beginning of the new year, we will be able to act according to the framework."

Local governments are already removing the monuments themselves and in parallel, she added.

Danilson-Järg said her meeting with Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE) Thursday had beenn constructive, adding that one of the main stikcing points, namely those edifices which were under heritage protection or otherwise had some kind of heritage value, had been resolved.

She said: "In order for an object protected as a cultural value to be removed or changed, this same change must be coordinated with the heritage protection board (Muinsuskaitseamet). If the objects are to be removed wholesale, then the heritage protection board should first remove them from protection."

Such objects number around 30, she added.

In the event of a dispute, there is a government committee on the matter to be put into place, she said, while the Minister of Culture must then proceed from this body's ruling on the matter.

This would avoid procrastination on such matters, she added, and could also involve experts and take in the bigger picture and the tension between cultural heritage and national security.

On specific objects which will be affected by the development, such as ornamentation on a well-known Stalinist-era residential building on the corner of Liivalaia and Tartu mnt in Tallinn, the minister would not be drawn, noting that the committee's raison d'etre was to resolve such issues.

Hartman: We consider both security and heritage protection

The Minister of Culture, Piret Hartman, said it was important that the meeting found agreement on experts from the state heritage protection board must make an initial assessment of the appearance of objects under heritage protection.

Hartman said: "Whereas up until now, local governments or the Minister of Justice had the right to remove the appearance of objects under heritage protection without involving heritage experts, in the future, heritage protection specialists must be included in the assessment of the desire to move cultural objects."

Minister of Culture Piret Hartmann (SDE). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The bill in question will be reworded to strike a balance between security and heritage protection and to grant experts more say, Hartman added.

Until now, the law has had it that Soviet monuments with no human remains in situ can be removed by local government order, whereas if there are graves as an integral part of the site, the matter is one for national government. In one high-profile case, the local government, in Narva, prevaricated on the status of a T-34 tank monument, and ultimately the state had to step in, transferring it to the national war museum.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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