Hent Kalmo: Cold War on the River Narva

Crowds gather to watch the concert in Ivangorod, Russia on May 9, 2023.
Crowds gather to watch the concert in Ivangorod, Russia on May 9, 2023. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

There are countries near Russia that function as test polygons for democracy and the economic success of which is bound to affect political mentality east of their borders, Hent Kalmo writes in an article originally published in Sirp magazine.

Rumor has it that the residents of Ivangorod [Russia] feel they have an advantage over their neighbors in Narva. They can admire Narva's beautified embankment, while the view from the other side is of a messy tangle of undergrowth surrounding the Ivangorod Fortress. But Narva was offered a different sight the week before last.

The brush was cleared and a stage, complete with a massive screen, erected. Rumors again suggest these preparations were keenly observed from the Estonian side of the River Narva, sparking active discussions on what to display in return. Narva Mayor Katri Raik said of the [Russian] Victory Day spectacle that the situation was reminiscent of North Korea that sets up loudspeakers pointed at South Korea, praising life in the north and urging people to defect. "We are also in a border to border situation," Raik said. "The River Narva is a border between two worlds, West and East. A very exciting place for a theater stage."

The idea that the River Narva constitutes a border between civilizations can perhaps be heard too often. Historians, in an attempt to refute the claim, have recalled how the river crossing has always seen busy trade, and that Narva and Ivangorod have been a single city on many occasions in history. The two shores have been linked by the Friendship Bridge (Sõpruse sild) since the 1950s.

Yet, we also cannot ignore centuries of mutual mistrust. Narva aldermen found back in 1492 that they're sitting like "a mouse facing a bear" next to their imposing eastern neighbor. When work to construct the Ivangorod Fortress began in 1492, it was viewed with great interest and no small concern from the opposing bank. An eye was kept on the other side's progress and a preemptive strike mulled.

While the Estonia-Russia border following the Treaty of Tartu lied further eastward, it did not do away with such symbolic confrontations. The Russians renamed the border city of Jamburg as Kingisepp after Viktor Kingisepp's execution.

In 1932, immediately before the October Revolution celebrations, Russia erected a new border gate and a statue of Kingisepp next to it, with an inscription that read, "Executed based on a decision by the democratic court of Estonia." The inscription irritated Estonian military figures who proposed countering it with a public list of the revolutionary's victims. The idea was killed by diplomats who suggested, among other things, that the statue was facing the railroad and not Estonia.

The recent symbolic confrontation [in Narva and Ivangorod] was so grand that it reminded me of tricks used in warfare of old. It was customary in medieval times to stage all manner of humiliating rituals around besieged castles and cities, which were characterized by such a level of choreography as to give rise to treatments of a policy of insults.

Indeed, there had to be a deeper reason behind spending time and resources on dressing up a herd of cows as the enemy's leaders, hang them and then catapulting the carcasses over the city walls in an attempt to infect the defenders, but not just that – to show that the enemy was not in control of its territory.

Achieving similar goals was attempted using different means later on. The inventions of World War I include the "agitation shell," which was fired over enemy lines where it burst and scattered a parcel of fliers. It was possible to cover a square kilometer of ground with propaganda this way, depending on the wind.

Radio proved an even more powerful weapon, and it was possible for almost everyone to tune into the enemy's stations in Nazi Germany during the war. Because it was difficult to block radio waves, it was decided that the struggle would be won by the side people believed more. "A true German closes his ears to the nonsense of Jews," (E. Kris, H. Speier, German Radio Propaganda. Report on Home Broadcasts during the War, Oxford University Press, 1944, 93.) the Nazis declared.

The Germans had been taught that the English were a brother nation, attacked only because a hostile clique of plutogarchs was in power. Whereas the fact that this was not the case dawned on the German population not because of British journalism, but the "brother nation's" persistent resistance that eventually caused the Germans to start doubting their own country's information channels.

The lessons of denazification

One might think that a military defeat is the most convincing. Historian Timothy Snyder recently claimed that everyone who loves Russia should root for its quick and decisive defeat as a country with an imperialist legacy can only heal when it loses its last colonial war.

But what is there to guarantee that a war ending in defeat sparks convalescence as opposed to a desire for revenge? Why wasn't World War I Germany's last colonial war? We cannot say there weren't attempts to teach them a lesson. Even though it proved impossible to put the emperor on trial, an innovative attempt was made to convict the former head of state of war crimes.

It was clear after World War II that Germany's healing will not be that simple. Another attempt was made to get to the roots of the "German problem." Because the conviction that the history of Germany had doomed the German people to perpetual imperialism had gotten even stronger, it was decided to neutralize them by splitting up the country and destroying its heavy industry.

Now, we are facing the Russian problem, and the attitude seems similar. Just as historians brought their erudition to bear to demonstrate Germans' deep tendency for militarism, there are attempts to explain what is happening in Russia today by looking far into the past (the "Mongol yoke" and the like).

But there have also been different attitudes. The Americans tried to execute a program in post-war Germany based on the optimistic viewpoint that history is not decisive because Man is good by nature and can therefore change. It was hoped to reeducate Germans as democrats on a mass scale. The Nuremberg trials were a part of that attempt. And it did prove successful as a pedagogic trick – most Germans approved of the convictions and though they were deserved.

But finding leaders to be war criminals is not enough to boost faith in democracy. At best, it is just the beginning. Public support for more general processes of denazification quickly waned in Germany, and the whole undertaking was soon described as a fiasco. But how then to explain the fact that Germany was a democratic country just a few years after the war?

True, there were still those in the early 1960s who thought the outlook was not good. An American observer remarked that the Germans' superficial understanding of democracy covered soda, chewing gum and anti-communist sentiment, which is why militarism and Nazism were expected to make a comeback. (J. F. Tent, Mission on the Rhine. Reeducation and Denazification in American-Occupied Germany. The University of Chicago Press, 1982, 13.)

These discussions betray an erroneous treatment of how political ideas work. Democracy took root in Germany precisely because people saw its material fruits. The Nuremberg trials were important morally and legally, while the Marshall Plan contributed far more to Germany's denazification in the end.

Socialist struggle

This is not to say that sausage is more important than ideals ("Grub first, then ethics," Bertold Brecht wrote). Rather we see the reaffirmation of an idea presented in one of history's most brilliant propaganda pieces: Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 14th century fresco "The Allegory of Good and Bad Governance." It depicts a prosperous city ruled by freedom opposite one of fear and wretchedness ruled by a tyrant. The viewer is left to conclude that ideals can be judged based on their fruits.

The example of Narva and Ivangorod in a way achieves the same. Both cities secured European subsidies for fixing up their riverbanks. (The 2012 project for the development of the "unique Narva-Ivangorod cross-border ensemble as a shared cultural and tourism object.") The results were less than stellar on the eastern bank, with the mayor of Ivangorod – a former FSB operative – explaining that the reason was not corruption, but more difficult terrain and other obstacles.

That ideals really are judged based on their fruits serves as a more general lesson from the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was erected after East Germany failed in a major project to demonstrate that socialism can ensure at least the same standard of living as what people enjoy in the West. It was declared in 1958 that East Germany would soon overtake the West.

While grocery stores packed with various goods did appear in East Berlin for a time, the shelves were soon empty again, with shortages even of such prosaic items as screws, buttons and shoelaces. The collectivization of farming made matters worse. The westward rush intensified, and even erecting the wall in 1961 failed to solve the problems of East Germany's leaders. Walter Ulbricht complained that even after the wall was put up, the western neighbor's prosperity continued to affect the population's political mentality.

It was later noted how the desire to consume drove political resistance especially in those Eastern Bloc countries that neighbored wealthier western counterparts. Naturally, this was not the only thing that drove people to protest, but failing to make good on promises of prosperity delivered the most serious blow to the communist ideology. New justification had to be found for the Soviet authority, with conquering the space frontier and defeating Nazi Germany taking center stage. Remembering the "Great Patriotic War" only became a cult occurrence during Brezhnev's day.

In the late 1980s, when the failure of the Soviet experiment had become obvious, this cult seemed to be on its way out too. The mood is summed up by these lines from a newspaper of the time: "I feel ashamed for those who stole our victory –who handed out commemorative processions instead of apartments, trifling gifts in place of food, medals instead of a dignified existence."

However, it seems that the "Great Patriotic War" is too mesmerizing of a myth to simply disappear. It serves the same purpose in [modern] Russia as it did in Brezhnev's day – helps win hearts and minds in the conditions of deepening stagnation. The war has sparked patriotic optimism for the living standard improving in Russia, but even local experts admit that the most optimistic scenarios suggest the pre-war real wage will be only a little higher than it was before the war by 2030.

But economic stagnation might not lead to the same level of disappointment in the powers that be that we saw in the 1980s. Reactions to a possible military defeat may also run the gamut, and if the "West" ends up being blamed for all troubles, militant rhetoric might even gain ground.

New Cold War

In other words, the main thing is how people will end up interpreting the difficult situation that has befallen their country. The reeducation theory, as practiced in post-war Germany, suggests mental enlightenment can change how people think.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky proposed something similar for Russia in his latest book. He believes a historical chance to finally "normalize" Russia is dawning for which promoting an open society through training programs, as was done in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, is the best way.

Still, it remains questionable whether liberal democracy is in the doghouse in Russia because people have not had the chance to get to know its virtues. Rather, Putin's regime has been held up by the Russian people's conviction that they know all too well what Western democracy spells for them – chaos and being robbed of mineral resources.

However, it should be seen as a historic opportunity that Russia's borders are up against countries that function as test polygons for democracy and the economic success of which also affects political moods further east.

Serhii Plokhy has compared today's Ukraine to Germany in the Cold War, located between two feuding camps. The new Cold War is again between two sides, while they are now USA and China, with Russia simply hitching a ride in the latter's wake.

Indeed, wherever the battles stop in Ukraine, we can speculate that it will become the new dividing line in the ideological struggle. Moscow has realized this. Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, said that in order to neutralize hostile foreign influence, attention needs to be paid to the socioeconomic development of areas close to the border. Sure enough, efforts to beautify occupied Mariupol have begun using marble imported from Turkey.

It is possible that relevant efforts will soon reach Ivangorod as well. This would once again raise the question of what we could display in turn on the Estonian side. A question relevant not just for Narva, but in the context of the whole new Cold War.

Let us recall that Huntington spoke not just about the River Narva being the border between civilizations, but also of countries permeated by the civilizational divide. He gave the example of Ukraine.

And yet, Russia's invasion managed to spark unprecedented unity in Ukraine. Therefore, it remains quite unclear what is meant by "civilization" here. The term has been used in Russia to try and prove that democracy is not a good fit for local culture and history. Strangely enough, this theory – conjured up by Russian conservatives in the 19th century – is widespread in the West.

What could winning the new Cold War mean where it goes beyond warding off threats? It could be interpreted as a victory of sorts that while the residents of Narva were very interested to see the Ivangorod spectacle, they are less keen on moving to the opposite bank of the river. While it comes off as a lean kind of loyalty, it could have more of an effect than efforts at explanation in the long run.

Those in Russia do not have the luxury of being mesmerized by the Victory Day enchantment while also escaping the regime that's supplying it. What Narva can do in reply is offer proof that separating the two is even possible – that having respect for fallen soldiers might not have to mean endorsing every war the authorities choose to unleash. The difficulty of propaganda is not convincing people to love their country. That's easy. It is much more difficult to cause an otherwise sensible person to miss the logical error in the claim that if you love your country, you need to support what its rulers justify through its defense.

Western neighbors can help Russians believe that they could live in an even prettier, more successful and heroic Russia – if they just stop believing those who maintain that heroism needs proof in mass murder.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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