(Moscow Times, Friday May 25, 2007)
Nothing seems to make President Vladimir Putin angrier these days than Estonia.
Once it was Chechnya that inspired blustery speeches and sent sparks flying at news conferences. Journalists who dared to question the war were met with bursts of hostility. One, a French reporter, was famously invited to Moscow to be circumcised.
Criticism of Kremlin policy in Chechnya still makes Putin steam, but Estonia is the new hot-button issue.
During a joint news conference with European Union leaders in Samara on Friday, Putin twice diverged from the question he was asked to return to the issue of Estonia. Both times he talked about the stabbing death of an ethnic Russian during rioting last month over Estonia's decision to move the Bronze Soldier war memorial out of central Tallinn.
Putin did not focus on the stabbing, which may well have been the work of other ethnic Russians. Instead, he complained that the protester had received no medical help and been allowed to bleed to death on the street.
"This constitutes a willful crime, and we demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice," Putin said.
Two days earlier, he had criticized Russian human rights groups for not speaking out against Estonia. "I did not see any flurry of activity coming from rights groups when the remains of Soviet soldiers were being relocated in a neighboring country. Where are our human rights groups?" Putin asked.
Putin seems to have taken personally Estonia's decision to move the memorial to fallen Red Army soldiers. This may be because he sees it not only as an affront to his country but as an affront to the memory of his father. As Putin once told it, his father was betrayed by Estonians during the war.
Before he was first elected in 2000, Putin gave a series of interviews to three Russian journalists for a book called "First Person." In the first chapter, he talks about his father. During the war, he was in an NKVD sabotage battalion operating behind German lines and was sent as part of a group of 28 people to carry out an operation in Estonian territory. They succeeded in blowing up a supply train and were able to hide in the woods, but eventually they ran out of food and turned to the local population. Estonians brought them food but then gave them up to the Germans. Only four people in the group survived, including Putin's father, who hid in a bog, breathing through a reed, to escape detection by Nazi soldiers who were searching for them with dogs.
The story of his father continues with him joining the regular army in Leningrad. He was badly wounded, but saved by a fellow soldier and former neighbor who carried him across the frozen Neva River under enemy fire to a hospital. For Putin's father, the war was defined by moments of contemptible betrayal and unswerving loyalty.
Putin's feelings for Estonians were revealed two years ago at a news conference, again following a meeting with EU leaders. When an Estonian television correspondent asked him a question, he made fun of her by mocking her accent in Russian. Undeterred, she continued with another question, asking why it was so difficult for Russia to apologize for the occupation. If Russia were to apologize, she said, "We would be able to live together very easily."
Putin responded by launching into what in the end amounted to a convoluted defense of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the 1939 agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that divided up Eastern Europe and gave Estonia to Stalin.
Putin first said the Congress of People's Deputies had dealt with the pact in 1989 by saying it did not reflect the view of the Soviet people and was legally invalid. "What else can be said that would be more specific and clear?" he asked the Estonian journalist. "Or do you want us to do this every year? What else do you think has to be said? We consider this question closed. That's it. We will not return to this again. We said it once and that's enough."
He went on to explain that there had been no occupation of Estonia because Germany had given the territory back to the Soviet Union in 1939. "This means that if in 1939 the Baltic countries had joined the Soviet Union, then in 1945 the Soviet Union could not have occupied them, because they were already part of the Soviet Union," he said and then added this colorful note: "I may not have studied very well at university, because I drank a lot of beer in my free time, but even so I still remember something. Something remained in my head. We had good teachers."
One thing his Soviet teachers most likely did not tell him was that before the Estonians had betrayed his father's NKVD-led group, the NKVD had begun arresting the Estonian leadership and anyone else who opposed Soviet rule. Prominent Estonians were being executed or sent to labor camps.
For Putin, history is still the history taught in the Soviet Union. It is the history of the country where he grew up and of the man who survived the war to become his father.
(Lynn Berry is former editor of The Moscow Times.)
Behind Putin's Estonia Complex