Reflecting on the controversial opening production of Tallinn's Old Town Days, director and screenwriter Ilmar Raag, who is taking over as Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Tartu on Thursday, found that it's time Estonians made peace with their past, including its difficult chapters.
"When I saw the clip of part of the [Tuesday] rehearsal, my first reaction was almost similar to that expressed in the social media post," Raag said on Vikerraadio's morning show on Thursday, referring to Reform MP Kristen Michal's sharing of the clip on Facebook on Wednesday. "But taking a closer look at the clip, even taken out of context, elements of it don't fit with Soviet propaganda."
Raag noted that footage of Soviet tanks entering Tallinn was played in the background of a "cheerful Young Pioneer recitation," and that not all of the children were dressed in nice clothes, although during that time, children attended festive events in white blouses and red neckerchiefs.
"In other words, had the same thing been onstage 30 years ago, it would have been the target of Soviet producers' criticism as well for the propaganda not being conducted stylishly," he explained.
Raag considered it an interesting question, whether propaganda from that time period can be shown without commentary.
"Some films were produced during the Soviet era which showed Nazis, such as 'Seventeen Moments of Spring,'" he recalled. "If we took away the audio altogether and only watched the video, then you would feel as though this were a psychological film about the difficult life of Gestapo workers."
The incoming professor acknowledged that there are still many people who have painful memories of the Soviet era, but also noted that there are those who recall the prevalence of Soviet-era bans, which is why this may prompt painful reactions today.
"But where does the danger lie?" he asked. "That we go so far in our desire to deny that we dare not face the truth. The truth is that Soviet-era agitprop, which tried to hide reality, utilized humane and beautiful rhetoric. Official speeches in Nazi Germany likewise not only spoke of burning Jews in ovens — the focus was on fighting for European culture. In a similar vein, the message in the clip from he Old Town Days production was that we are one big, friendly country and we don't have any strife. Which is the opposite of what reality was. If we forget how this propaganda was done, we run the risk of stepping on the same rake twice."
According to Raag, Estonia is moving toward a stage in which it should be able to make peace with its past in such a way that Estonians can view it neutrally.
"The Soviet era was full of paradoxes," he said. "Let us recall, for example, that some of our film industry's biggest films, such as 'Viimne reliikvia,' 'Kevade' and 'Nipernaadi' were all products of the Soviet era. In other words, things were produced that were not to the liking of the officials and ideologues of the time. We should consider this period as more nuanced. The question is, what context do we put this in? If we are talking about it in the context of the course of history, such as this production, then that is appropriate."
Raag recalled that there has occasionally been talk in Estonia of banning Soviet symbols and songs, similarly to how Nazi symbolism has been banned.
"This brings up the question — are we afraid of songs, then?" he asked. "Do we have doubts that our own values and songs aren't strong enough? Are we seriously so weak that if we hear songs from the past, then they will change us? In that case, the problem isn't the songs from the past, but rather our current values and songs."
Watch the full-length video of Wednesday evening's production about the 20th Century in Estonia here.
Editor: Aili Vahtla