It will be my great joy to visit Estonia next week, having read much and seen many pictures of this ancient, yet modern, place. It is impossible for me to think of Estonia without applying a political context. The long story of conquest and occupation that has occurred on the lands that are now free Estonia is an integral part of what it is to be Estonia – and Estonian. This has been one of the great attractions of my visit.
It has been my intention to make an early visit to the bronze Red Army soldier in central Tallinn. I have only known of its existence for a little more than two years, but have always seen it as a highly disturbing symbol of oppression. I do understand that it honors soldiers who drove the Nazis from Estonia in 1943-44. But it was put there by unwanted occupiers in homage to themselves. It is a perpetual memory of that oppression and an indirect reminder of Estonians who died in Siberia – and to those who did not die there. For 45 years, the soviets stole Estonia’s freedom and liberty. They destroyed significant parts of its ecology and economy. They tried to take away its dignity – but failed in that quest. Of course the soldier must be moved to the occupation museum. I have watched with great interest as people have become energized about the bronze soldier. Protests, articles, meetings, and plenty of political posturing have accompanied a rapid realization that it is never appropriate for free people to honor their former oppressors.
But that is not why I am writing. I am writing to ask how people who have become passionately opposed to a statue symbolizing past oppression can tolerate the loss of 5% of their territory to that oppressor. Of course I refer to the border with Russia. Wanting different treatment of the statue is a necessary part of Estonia’s emergence into visible independence as a free nation. Fifteen years into its newest period of freedom and self-determination, it is appropriate that the citizenry ask why this statue exists and how should it be treated. It is right to ask why Estonia should honor an artifact of oppression as the oppressors intended.
It is even more right to question why modern Estonia would honor its border with Russia, which was set by those same oppressors. The border with Russia that was freely negotiated in 1920 is the true border between the nations. The one that was set by soviet oppressors is yet another artifact of the occupation. To honor it now would be the same as Estonians expressing love and reverence for the statue. Both are symbols of how military and secret police power can be used to imprison a nation.
The difference between the two is important, however. The soldier is a memory, a mere symbol of people and events from the past. The border is a living issue today and for all the future of Estonia. To use the soviet border, to give up 5% of Estonia’s territory, to put the Setu people on the other side of the border against their will – these are terrible mistakes that affect living people today – not just the Setu, but all Estonians.
Estonia is free, dynamic, and growing in political and socio-cultural influence. It is part of the EU and NATO. In light of these facts, it is terribly wrong to honor the soviet border. This is not a matter of political coalitions and realpolitik. It is a matter of right and wrong, fair and unfair. Estonia is free for all of the future. It need not capitulate to its soviet history any longer. It can say No. If the location of statue concerns you, the location of the border should concern you much more.
An Estonia That Can Say “No” (4)