27 April 2007

Monumental dispute

In recent weeks, tensions between Russia and Estonia have been escalating over the issue of the "Bronze Soldier", a statue built in Soviet times in the main square of Tallinn (Estonia's capital city) to honor the Red Army soldiers who defeated Nazi Germany during World War II. The site also includes an "unknown soldier" tomb containing the remains of 13 to 15 (accounts vary) Soviet soldiers of the period. The Estonians, for whom 1945 meant not liberation but forcible annexation by the USSR and a period of Stalinist rule hardly less brutal than that of the Nazis, have been planning to relocate the statue and tomb to a less prominent location at a cemetery. The Russians consider such a move an insult to their war dead, and have objected vehemently. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, even threatened Estonia with "serious consequences" should the Bronze Soldier be moved -- which leads one to wonder whether he quite realizes that Estonia is now an independent country and member of NATO, and no longer a province of the Soviet Empire. The situation is complicated by the fact that more than one-quarter of Estonia's population consists of ethnic Russians, many of whom take the Russian view of the situation.

The situation has now come to a head. The Estonian government, perhaps alarmed by belligerent ethnic-Russian protests in the square, has dismantled and removed the Bronze Soldier. The Russian government is furious, and the removal led to violent ethnic rioting in Tallinn in which at least one person was killed and hundreds arrested. BBC report here, RIA Novosti report in English here, both with links to earlier articles on the crisis; pictures of the rioting here; for Estonian views, see various postings here.

To me, the most alarming aspect of the dispute is summed up in one of Lavrov's comments: "I cannot understand attempts to equate Communism with Nazism." To anyone with real knowledge of Estonia's historical experience, it would be impossible not to understand that Estonians would consider Nazism and Soviet Communism to be roughly-equivalent disasters, and that they cannot be expected to regard the Red Army as liberators.

The Russian refusal to understand the feelings of Estonians (and many other eastern Europeans) on this issue, or to recognize the historical reality of the atrocities committed by Stalin's regime against the subjugated countries, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the attitude adopted by Japan after World War II -- systematically minimizing or flat-out denying the horrors inflicted by Japanese troops in the territories under Japanese occupation. The Russians would be wise to consider the decades of suspicion and hostility Japan has faced from its neighbors as a result of this attitude -- something which Germany, which has always fully acknowledged the reality and magnitude of its wartime crimes, has not suffered to anything like the same degree.

Worse, this is not an isolated problem. After 1945 the victorious Soviets built similar monuments in several occupied eastern European capitals. If the modern Russians cannot acknowledge the real historical experience of their former subject states, which are now independent and mostly Western-oriented, the stage will be set for any number of angry confrontations which will further damage Russia's relationship with the West.

I am also struck by the fact that, as bad as French-American relations have been in recent years, I have never heard of any move by the French government to express that hostility against the numerous graves of American World War II soldiers in France. If the US after 1945 had occupied the western European countries, imposed puppet regimes, and deported or killed large percentages of those countries' populations, the psychological situation today would obviously be very different.

As for the Estonians, they are now left with an unnerving increase in tensions both with their giant eastern neighbor and with their numerous internal ethnic minority. Some might say it would have been better to let sleeping statues lie. But a nation that submits to threats and blackmail is not truly independent, and no one should be expected to let historical lies stand unchallenged.

Update: It turns out that the one person who was killed was a Russian citizen. The rioting is spreading across Estonia.

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