Minister: Soviet iconography in public space is weapon of information war

Lea Danilson-Järg and Mart Kalm on Wednesday's edition of 'Esimene stuudio'.
Lea Danilson-Järg and Mart Kalm on Wednesday's edition of 'Esimene stuudio'. Source: ERR

All and any Soviet symbolism found in public places and which appears to justify or glorify the Soviet occupation of Estonia presents a threat to national security, Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) says.

Since these installations, no matter how long they have been in place up until now, form part of the Russian Federation's information war, they should be removed, the minister told ETV politics head-to-head show "Esimene stuudio" Wednesday.

Also appearing on "Esimene stuudio" was art historian and director of the Estonian Academy of Art (EKA) was Mart Kalm, who said the purge of Soviet-era monuments, symbols, architectural details etc., even if they may have some subjective aesthetic value, has divided society.

It also constitutes the censorship of history, he said.

The justice ministry earlier this week put forward the bill to require the removal of Soviet-era symbols and decorations on buildings, should those items be construed as normalizing or glorifying the Soviet occupation of Estonia.

This removal would need to be carried out within a three-month period of the order to do so.

In the case of disputes, a government committee is to be set up to adjudicate. The extent to which this committee would include representatives from the cultural sphere is not yet clear, though a member of the state heritage board (Muinsuskaitseamet) will certainly take part.

In a discussion which could fairly be described as "heated", Danilson-Järg said that the aesthetic value of any installation was not the sole criterion on which it should be judged.

She said: "No monument is ever simply an object of art; a monument has many other aspects to it, including the very aspect of security."

"In this sense, it is important that people involved in national security must also be involved in deciding what can remain and what must disappear. It is clear that the government is responsible for security in this country. And if the government were not involved in [the Soviet monument question], it would be very difficult for the government to fulfill that role," Danilson-Järg sent on.

As to "Esimene stuudio" host Johannes Tralla's question on whether politicians should get to decide on the fate of cultural monuments, the minister said: "We had not really been paying much attention to it before the war in Ukraine, that such a security threat exists here on the ground [in Estonia]."

"This security threat consists in the fact that now, where such a 'kinetic' war is taking place in Ukraine, we have come to realize that there is an information war taking place in tandem," she went on.

"This information war didn't start at all with the war in Ukraine, but far earlier. However, we didn't deal with this at the time. It's the same with those Russian TV channels that have been beaming Moscow's propaganda to our people all along. Only now have we taken the step of shutting down those channels. Before that, we had allowed our people to be influenced by them, and it is in exactly the same way that these red monuments have also formed part of the influencing activities that Russia is carrying on against Estonia," Danilson-Järg went on.

The minister rejected the claim of censorship, also. I think [removing Soviet-era monuments etc.] is a perfectly sane thing to do if we don't want to allow symbols of a terrorist regime into our public space."

Mart Kalm had said: "The major problem is that we are dealing with the censorship of history. If we engage in a censorship campaign, this is not something which is democratic in nature."

Kalm also disagreed with the minister's estimation of the extent to which the Ukraine war had changed things.

He said: "In my opinion, that Soviet heritage should be treated in a hugely different way due to the war in Ukraine is something I don't really understand. In my opinion, nothing should be done."

"I like history in its many, complex layers. I don't want to have a black-and-white, overly simplistic concept of history," he went on, adding that security depends on coherent unity – something which the bill the minister has proposed would, threaten, if it passed into law.

Removing, for instance, a single five-pointed Soviet-era star from the roof of a Stalinist-era apartment block, across the street from the Stockmann department store, would not change much or protect anything, he added.

 I really don't think a kid is going to look at the star on the building across the street from Stockmann and 'go red', I really don't," Kalm said.

Minister Danilson-Järg disagreed with the inference that the Soviet-era legacy was just that, a legacy which does not affect the present and had no connection with the current conflict.

The information war aspect of the Ukraine invasion affects Estonia too, making the timing right to remove the Soviet symbolism from public places, she said.

"[Former prime minister and former leader of Isamaa's forerunner] Mart Laar has written that these are monuments to a lie. That's exactly what this is. This lie is being used to keep parts of our populace in their own sphere of influence, to promote a false approach to history. We cannot integrate these people if we do not say clearly that this is wrong and must not be something which can be seen in the urban space," Danilson-Järg went on.

Integration would thus be speeded up thanks to the proposed new law, while in specific cases – Kalm mentioned the Russian Cultural Centre (Vene Kultuurikeskus) in Tallinn, housed in a building also known as the Officers' House (Ohvitseride maja) – the experts would be able reasonably to say what could stay and what could go.

The government submitted the bill, which would amend the  Building Code and Planning Act, to the Riigikogu on Monday.

The removal of larger monuments and, where present, war graves, has been on-going since the spring in any case, though is a matter for local government and not the state, if no human remains are known to be buried at a site.

The new law would both deal with smaller details such as decorations on a building, and would also get round intransigence on the part of local government, as happened with the "Narva tank" saga in the summer.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov

Source: Esimene stuudio

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