Friday, May 11, 2007

The Bronze Soldier of Tallinn and Geographic Politics

The Bronze Soldier of Tallinn once stood in the middle of the Estonian capital city. The monument has long been a contested idol and people's thoughts on it reveal deep geopolitical divides.

To know about the controversy of the memorial one needs to know the geography and history of Estonia. Estonia as we now know it was formed by Teutonic Knights. These knights left a Germanic imprint on a Finnic people. Throughout its history Estonia passed between many hands including the Swedes, who helped convert the people to Lutheranism, and eventually to Imperial Russia. The Russians attempted to culturally convert Estonians to be more like them but this only led to the rise of an intense period of Estonian nationalism. After the fall Imperial Russia, Estonia managed to defeat invading Soviets and ethnic Germans and obtained independence. It was not until 1940 that Stalinist Russia managed to annex Estonia.

Estonia then was quickly captured by Germany and was occupied by Nazis until 1944. Many Estonians fought with the Germans or fled rather than return to Soviet rule. Under Soviet control until 1991, tens of thousands of Estonians were killed or removed from their homeland. The country was also subject to Russification. A culture war was launched against Estonians. This dark time greatly shaped the modern politics of Estonia. This past has given Estonians a fierce pride they take in their country and a special resentment towards Russia.

In 1947, on the third anniversary of the Red Army entering Tallinn, the Soviet Union erected the "Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn." The monument had graves, an eternal flame, and a statue to the Red Army veterans. The Russians saw the monument as honoring Mother Russia and Soviet ideals. Many Estonians saw it as a reminder of being owned by a foreign power.

After independence Estonia retooled the monument to honor those who died in World War II. The powerful word of "liberators" was dropped. Nothing changed though. Many Estonians thought of it as a reminder of the Soviet days while ethnic Russians continued to have Soviet-style celebrations around it.

In early 2007 the Estonian government decided to move the statue from the prominent position in a public place to a military graveyard. This would make it a historic monument rather than part of daily public life. It would go from a location of power to the land of the dead.

Many ethnic Russians were furious with the decision to move the statue. They claimed it was an effort by the Estonians to ignore history. They saw it as yet another effort by Estonians to erase the Russian influence off the landscape. Previous steps included efforts to curb Russian language in daily life and modification of school curriculum. When the government started the process of moving the statue some ethnic Russians began a full scale riot in the capital.

News of rioting spread around the world. At the same speed the news traveled the world came political opinions from various countries.

Most European governments, the European Union, and the United States either announced support of Estonia's actions or declared it an internal matter. Countries like Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland have been most vocal in their support. These four either remember Soviet occupation well or, as in the case of Georgia, are currently the victims of Russian-backed insurgents.

On the other side Russia, Serbia, and Belarus have condemned the move. The last two are Russia's two biggest supporters in Europe. Russian supermarkets are boycotting Estonian goods and the mayor of Moscow has called for a full boycott of Estonia. It is clear that Russia cares about its ethnic nationals outside Russia proper (twenty-five percent of all Estonians are ethnic Russians). What also matters deeply to Russians is their legacy and influence in other countries.

The sides reveal much about the state of European geopolitics. There are two poles: one side is a connected Europe and the other side revolves around Moscow. Russia has gone to extremes like attempted assassination on political candidates in an effort to keep countries away from Europe. It is said the Cold War ended in 1991. While the odds of a hot war have gone down greatly, the shadowy games that countries play continues at full force. From elections to simple monuments, geographical thought is important in analyzing the battle between Europe and Russia.

1 comment:

mina said...

"Estonia as we now know it was formed by Teutonic Knights"

Estonia as a modern nationality was formed during 19th century - like many other modern European nationalities. The language and culture of Estonia dates back many thousands of years.

Otherwise nice summary.