Minister: Soviet symbols which do not glorify occupation might remain

A red star, symbol of the Soviet armed forces and the Soviet Union more broadly.
A red star, symbol of the Soviet armed forces and the Soviet Union more broadly. Source: Rene Kundla/ERR

Soviet-era decorations or those which resemble Soviet iconography need not necessarily be removed from a building's facade or roof if they do not overtly support the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) says.

Speaking to ETV current affairs show "Ringvaade" Friday, Danilson-Järg said that the main point of disturbance came when any symbol or other decoration which appeared to glorify or justify the Soviet occupation of Estonia, from the 1940s to 1991; such iconography will by law have to be removed.

However, the minister said: "My personal opinion is that if there is a pentagon (see cover image - ed.) anywhere but which is simply a symbol of its era, and does not directly justify or support the occupation regime that existed in Estonia, then this can continue to be situated there freely. What bothers me the most is coats of arms and state symbols of the Soviet Union."

"There are such on buildings in Sillamäe, and also in Tallinn - for example, the Russian cultural center, which bears quite a lot of such symbols," she added.

The government approved Thursday amendments to the legislation dealing with building codes which will permit the removal of such objects, following a drive nationwide to remove larger Soviet-era edifices such as memorials and war graves, in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

A special committee will be set up to decide in cases of dispute and will include cultural and heritage representatives, bearing in mind the gray area between triumphalist items and those with some aesthetic value.

One example of the latter is the internal ceiling painting in the Estonian Opera (Rahvusooper) and Ballet house, a part of the Estonia Theater, in Tallinn.

Danilson-Järg said that this could stay put.

She said: "My personal opinion is that it still disturbs me that this is on the ceiling. But to go as far as removing it? That wouldn't be a good idea, since it's still a work of art. As the current theater director (Ott Maaten – ed.) has said, they would prefer to cover it over in such a way that it perhaps wouldn't be visible to audiences and visitors normally, but if people specifically wanted to see the painting from a historical perspective, it would also be perfectly viable to open it up for viewing."

"In the case of the ceiling painting, it could also be said that it has an artistic element to it. When talking about statues, however, then these definitely bear, in addition to an aesthetic dimension, important symbolism in terms of of power, one which justifies the regime that erected them. In this case, perhaps, approaches should be bolder, " she added.

A concrete, to some extent literally, example of the latter is the Maarjmäe Soviet-era memorial, located close to a much newer memorial to the victims of communism, bear Pirita, in the east of the capital.

The minister said that this area could be re-categorized as a cemetery zone, given that, according to the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory (Eesti Mälu Instituut), there are unmarked graves in the area which were disturbed in the course of the building of the now-dilapidated installation.

The best option here would be to leave the area as a designated cemetery, rather than risk any further desecration of graves over and above that already engaged in by Soviet authorities when the monstrosity was constructed.

Any overtly Soviet symbolism at the site should be removed, the minister added.

Overall, symbols, icons, frescos, paintings, statues, monuments, slogans etc. which clearly justify, support or glorify the Soviet occupation of Estonia are not suitable in public areas in Estonia, the minister added, noting they also present a false narrative of history.

The issue has also seen a difference of opinion between Danilson-Järg's justice ministry, and the Ministry of Culture, mostly over the latter's concerns over items with some inherent heritage value being removed under the new law.

While applications can be made to place objects under heritage protection which are not already under that status, the new law will give a three-month deadline for the owners of the building in question to remove the offending installations.

The justice minister said that, as a matter of national security, the culture ministry and its subordinate agencies and other cultural bodies, were unqualified to speak on such matters.

Most of the conversation so far has tended to focus on purely artistic merit rather than the ironic, Soviet-kitsch dimension, in the light of which some traces of the former occupation, such as those in and near the Ülemiste Tehnopolis are of Tallinn.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: Ringvaade

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