Meelis Maripuu: Lessons from coup attempts December 1924 and February 2022

Meelis Maripuu.
Meelis Maripuu. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Units of the Red Army were stationed along the Estonian border and its fleet in the Gulf of Finland under the guise of exercises 98 years ago, on December 1, 1924. Just like it happened on the borders of Ukraine almost a year ago. In both cases, Russia's leaders had to decide whether to launch an invasion. We now know that developments differed, Meelis Maripuu writes.

Soviet Russia, built on the ruins of the Russian Empire after World War I, launched attempts to restore the empire as soon as it had achieved initial inner stability. This time, under the slogans of communist ideology.

Underground communists were preparing for a coup in Estonia, relying on funding and instructions from Moscow. The revolution was to start the night of December 1, while Moscow had learned that Estonian security forces were on to the plan and found local communists' preparations insufficient.

This had to lead to the conclusion that a coup could only be successful if backed by a direct military invasion. Were the local communists to fail in seizing power, the Soviet Union could be drawn into a prolonged military conflict with Estonia and its allies. This would have undermined the USSR's attempts to break out of international isolation as the first communist regime to do so. The Russian command ordered the coup preparations paused at the last moment.

But this did not stop communist goons that had infiltrated Estonia, and strategic objects were attacked at the agreed upon time. Because the precise start time of the attack was unknown to Estonian authorities, the rebels found initial success, while the situation was contained by morning. By then, the remaining perpetrators were being pursued and neutralized. Attacks had resulted in the deaths of 21 people, with 16 soldiers and 25 civilians injured. Twelve communist goons were killed.

Had the rebels been successful and managed to declare having seized power, units stationed on the border could still have invaded and started a war.

The people of Ukraine managed to secure their independence in 1991 when the communist empire under Russian domination, the Soviet Union, collapsed. But Russia was not about to settle for the loss of its influence. The now discredited communist ideology was discarded and Russian imperialism began constructing a new ideological framework for itself. We now know it as Rashism.

For years, attempts were made to bring Ukraine back to Russia's sphere of influence, but political tools failed. Local Russian minions and "little green men" crossing the border managed to seize power and launch a war. This gave Russia control of the first pieces of Ukraine: Crimea and a part of eastern Ukraine.

The international public did not take it seriously enough. Millions were spent on information operations, and local minions probably succeeded in convincing rulers that enough people in Ukraine were longing for Moscow to "liberate" them.

This was a bluff, but on February 24, Russia launched a new active military offensive against Ukraine. The West's rather mild reaction to recent steps in pursuit of Russia's imperial goals had lent the Kremlin confidence.

The bluff was called quickly as no one welcomed "Russian liberators" or wanted to join the Russian world (Russkiy Mir). Ukraine set about defending itself with confidence, with the price of war now in thousands upon thousands of innocent lives. Just as it happened under the rule of the communists.

Full-blown war is raging in Ukraine and people continue to be killed. Daily reports from the front are becoming alarmingly habitual background information for other countries' audiences, which will dilute the perception of the true extent of the tragedy.

To keep alive the perception of this war's "human" side, the Ukrainian National Memory Institute State Archives and the Estonian Memory Institute in Tallinn will open a documentary photography exhibition "KOMMUNISM = RAŠISM" (COMMUNISM = RASHISM) opposite the Writer's House on Harju tänav. The exhibition features the stories of individuals who fell victim to Russian terror in 1930-1940 and in the ongoing war.

The look at two attempts to seize power by Russia from different periods highlights the persistence and unchanged modus operandi of Russia's imperial aspirations. It also works to emphasize the importance of information, whether true or fabricated, in the offset and management of crises. Underestimating signs of danger and failing to be proactive leads to tragic consequences.


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Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Marcus Turovski

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