Our species has always had a need to mark accomplishments with larger than life man-made structures. The motivations are not always laudable – the Great Pyramids, for example, are still here today because of the massive vanity and ego of a select few – but there is no denying that monuments and memorials focus attention.
Some such may make us wonder as to their meaning. Easter Island and Stonehenge bear witness to the efforts of early civilizations. The modern era is less obviously mysterious, but towering statues and colossal building may, too, mean much more than meets the eye.
Lord knows that we need our attention focused on collective achievement rather than the individual desires of, say, the Pharaohs to be remembered for eternity. Monuments are built to last – unless their message is seen as threatening to others. Monuments convey strong import – and it may not always be the one that all will accept, tolerate or support, depending on belief and value systems.
This last was clearly understood during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, when every possible effort was taken to raze and demolish the visible memories of independence and freedom. But actual memory cannot be destroyed, nor can the principles of freedom. These last were passed on from generation to generation during the Soviet years both home and abroad. While those that fled the occupation were able to erect their own memorials to mark what was lost, those in Estonia had to rely on the hope carried in their bosoms, that one day the memories would once again be reality, that freedom and independence, sovereignty and nationhood would once again be the standard of the land.
The significance of the monuments abroad, at Seedrioru and Kotkajärve for example, cannot be overemphasized. Younger generations, especially those born far from their ancestral land have gathered for well over two generations in front of these built-to-last structures, which carry symbolism in design and a message engraved in the Estonian language. Repetition is a form of reinforcement, a major reason why we mark important dates, achievements annually with solemn words and hopes for the continuation of our convictions long after we are gone.
This respect for what has been achieved cannot be taught. It must be experienced on both a visceral and emotional level to have any hope of a permanence that bridges generations. On a personal level, the reality of the physical existence of restored monuments to those fallen in the War of Independence while Soviets still ruled the land indeed gave hope that one day the occupation would end. To describe standing in the Võru Lutheran cemetery in the summer of 1989, seeing with my own eyes the replica of the memorial to 42 Estonians who had given their ultimate sacrifice for Estonia’s freedom is difficult even today, 20 years later.
Especially knowing that the memorial had been torn down in 1946 by the communists, and that the restoration was led by teenagers, who beginning in 1987 began to pressure for its return to a place of honour. And on June 23rd, Estonian Victory Day (Võidupüha), albeit still under Soviet rule, in 1988, that project was successful. A new memorial was unveiled on that day with 10,000 people in attendance. This achievement was made possible by youth who had never seen the original. Their goal would have been impossible had their parents and grandparents not kept them informed about the truth and the crimes of the past. The Võru Noortekolonn has a special part in our history thanks to their backbone, principles and bravery.
Fast-forward exactly 21 years. While intentions to post a national memorial to mark independence were present between the two World Wars actual plans were never realized. It has taken almost 18 years since Estonian independence was regained, but Estonia now has a national memorial monument that commemorates the incredible efforts taken with weapon in hand. It is human nature: we must fight for what is right. And that was to establish our free nation, our free state, to decide for ourselves.
The new monument was opened in the first minutes of June 23rd, on Võidupüha, thus marking our triumphs against all of Estonia’s occupiers. The location, in the heart of Tallinn, has been used to great effect. And unlike other national monuments – such as the Washington Monument, an obelisk associated with themes, among others, of light and darkness – the new monument is unquestionably unique to Estonia and bedrock values. Those values which are instilled at home, by the family, passed on from generation to generation.
The memorial incorporates the Cross of Liberty, Estonia’s most distinguished award. It is, indeed, the most important symbol of the War of Independence. The cross, as a Christian symbol, exemplifies the values of selflessness and being guided by your heart. It was heart that brought out the valour on the battlefield; it is heart that is at our very Estonian core. The 1st rank II division of the Cross of Liberty tops the memorial. That rank – the highest recognition possible for personal bravery on the battlefield has never been conferred on anyone. Now, ever so appropriately, considering the struggles of the centuries, it symbolically honours Estonia and all Estonians.
The glass-topped monument combines the effect hoped for by those who erected stone memorials after the War of Independence all over Estonia with twenty-first century technology. A computerized lighting system built into the base of the column enables the cross atop to be lit up at night. And in the internet age, viewers the world over were able to see the opening live.
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said in his Victory Day speech at the Laiuse cemetery at the local memorial to the War of Independence, once Estonia’s largest, that the nation has paid of a debt of honour with the new national monument to those who gave their lives or health for a free Estonia.
While honouring the past the future is equally important. Estonians today have a lasting national monument to show to our progeny. So that they, too, know how important it is to love, honour and defend our native land. No one can ever tear that love down. That is the most monumental achievement of all.