Historian: Justice minister's Soviet symbols crusade the real security risk

Soviet symbolism in Estonia and Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg.
Soviet symbolism in Estonia and Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg. Source: Ken Mürk/Mait Ots/Siim Lõvi/ERR

The justice minister going after Soviet symbols as part of a political campaign constitutes a far greater security risk than the Estonia Theater's ceiling mural, Tallinn University professor of cultural history Marek Tamm said on the "Terevisioon" morning show.

The government on Monday entered into Riigikogu proceedings the so-called Soviet symbols bill that stands to obligate local governments to remove Soviet monuments and symbols inside three months. Which symbols will be deemed unsuitable will be decided by a committee that will have ministers as members.

"I believe that the nature of the problem is clear and all societies reassess their relationship with the past and material cultural heritage from time to time. It is also clear that Russia's war in Ukraine has forced us to take another look at our public space and critically evaluate Soviet symbolism therein. The question is whether we are going about it the right way. And I would suggest that we're not. Draft legislation in question rather constitutes a political campaign with very short deadlines aimed at the next general elections instead of fundamental goals," Tamm commented.

The historian said that the problem the bill aims to solve is questionable to start with. "If the focus of the bill is on ridding Estonian public space of Soviet symbolism that supports or promotes the occupation regime, there is no such problem in public today. I dare say the problem has been largely manufactured. It is being solved in the interests of a particular group of voters, not the Estonian state and society."

Rather, Tamm described efforts to tie Estonia's cultural legacy to national security as a problem.

Soviet symbols as a security risk

Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) has said that Soviet symbols constitute a security risk and the Estonian government is responsible for security.

"I find that it requires quite a vivid fantasy to imagine that a single five-pointed star on a roof or wall of a building could pose a security risk. Rather, I perceive the justice minister looking to please her voters as a greater security risk than the Officer's House, the Sõprus Movie Theater or the Estonia Theater's ceiling mural," Tamm said.

"If we remove important topics from public debate simply by stating we would otherwise be undermining security, that would constitute a different type of state that lacks the courage to publicly talk about its own past and decide, in the course of critical discourse, how best to treat its symbols," the historian added.

Tamm said that Estonia has been building a different type of state for the last 30 years. "The kind of country where professionals decide matters that fall in their jurisdiction. Estonia lacks an official treatment of history. It is rather galling to listen to the justice minister's claims of there being a right and wrong treatment of history. Will we have a committee decide over what is the right or wrong way to treat history? It is a sign of approaching the kind of society that we should not seek. Politicization of the past and history is one trend we would do well to avoid," he offered.

Government committee's competence questioned

Estonian Academy of Arts docent and heritage conservation expert Riin Alatalu doubted the competence of the committee to be attached to the government in terms of its ability to evaluate the artistic worth of the objects in question.

"Considering how the bill has been prepared, I harbor doubts as to the makeup of that committee. Such committees should be manned before we get to the police state-like amendments like what is being proposed today," Alatalu said.

"The proposed amendment is quite rare in that it allows the state to invade people's private yards. I also suspect it could lead to people informing on others," she added.

Alatalu remarked that even if the committee was made up exclusively of historians and artists, it would still not be capable of deciding what incites hatred and what doesn't.

"It is the task of heritage conservation to preserve memory. That is why we maintain legacy from different periods, if only to have it there like an open textbook. We need to give it meaning in that we do not worship these pentagrams but know why they have been put there. People my age know very well how memory used to be erased during the Soviet period," Alatalu said.

The docent emphasized that amendments to the Building Code will end up muzzling the Heritage Protection Board as the latter has two possibilities, according to the bill's explanatory memo – to either make sure buildings comply with the new conditions or strip them of their monument status. It constitutes a relatively severe breach of the board's jurisdiction.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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