Number of reburied Red Army soldiers nears 2,000 in Estonia

Ceremony at Rahumäe cemetery in Tartu, Thursday, October 13 2022.
Ceremony at Rahumäe cemetery in Tartu, Thursday, October 13 2022. Source: Ove Maidla/Tartu City Government

The process of reburying Red Army soldiers who died in Estonia during World War II and were buried near Soviet monuments or other unsuitable locations will take a few more years. During the last two years, the remains of around 1,700 Red Army soldiers have been reburied.

"We found the remains of 830 people in war graces last year, and we have found roughly 850 this year. The exact number is not known at this time because incomplete remains of several people have at times been put in mass graves, which are still being sorted into coffins," said Hellar Lill, director of the Estonian War Museum that is handling the reburying effort.

Last year, remains found in 20 war graves outside cemeteries were reburied, while such locations number 35 for this year. Remains found in a single local government's territory are usually reburied at the same cemetery.

"Our unearthing efforts have not yet been concluded for this year," Lill said, adding that the entire reburying effort will likely take another two years.

Graves have held fewer remains than initially believed

The museum director said that fewer remains have been discovered in graves than occupation-era official data suggests.

He gave the example of a suspected mass grave in Otepää that did not yield any remains. There have only been a few examples where burial sites have given up the remains of more people than what records suggested.

"The same pattern we saw last year has persisted. We have also come across empty graves, most have fewer remains than records suggest, while only a few match official figures," Lill remarked.

Red Army soldiers from the days of the Estonian War of Independence also reburied

Lill said that a mass grave of Red Army soldiers from the War of Independence era was found in Uueveski, Viljandi.

"We found the remains of 43 people there, 38 of whom likely from the War of Independence era."

He said it was the site of a propaganda burial organized in 1940, after the start of the Soviet occupation. This means the Red Army soldiers were reburied there from somewhere else. There is surviving video evidence of the reburial.

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An alleged War of Independence-era Red Army mass grave in Vapramäe, near the city of Elva turned out to be empty. No one was buried under the memorial stone erected there in 1960.

"WWII burial sites or mass graves of war victims are also usually secondary, meaning they have been created after the war for ideological reasons, with the bodies brought in from battle sites or even cemeteries," the director of the museum said.

The removal of Soviet monuments and the reburial of the remains of soldiers who fought in the Red Army made the limelight again last year when Russia, still using its Soviet legacy for propaganda purposes, launched a full-scale war in Ukraine.

Lill has written in the Estonian Defense Forces yearbook that thousands of soldiers who died in WWII, fighting on the side of the Soviet Union or Germany, have been reburied in the last decades.


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Editor: Mait Ots, Marcus Turovski

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