Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on May 11th, 2007
Facebook group supporting Estonia

Facebook group supporting Estonia.

After a day spent learning about 20th Century German history, my friends and I decided to lighten things up with a jaunt through the Tiergarten in Berlin, on our way to the Reichstag building in the summer of 2003. Rather surprisingly, while cutting across the heavily wooded space, we came upon a two Red Army tanks and artillery, flanking a huge stone space, guarded (if not crushed) by the overbearing presence of a larger than life Soviet soldier. Hand outstreched in an inverted Nazi salute, he seemed to be drowning something.

What was this space? We were in what was once West Berlin, after all. Why was this part of the Tiergarten so done up? And, more importantly, why did the huge golden inscription under the soldier explain, in Russian that this area was for the “Eternal glory to the heroes, fallen in battle with the German fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of the Soviet Union” (Вечная слава героям павшим в боях с немецко-фашистскими захватчиками за свободу у независимость Советского Союза)? After all, only a few meters away was Marcks’sDer Rufer,” who stares toward the Brandenburger Tor and shouts, as though at the Iron Curtain, “I go around the world and shout, ‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’” (Ich gehe durch die Welt und rufe Friede Friede Friede)

Once we approached, we found a small, informative display. We had stumbled upon the Sowjetisches Ehrenmal, a cenotaph constructed (from stone, apparently, from the Reichskanzlei) in the deforested park in 1945 (with the destroyed Reichstag still in view) to commemorate precisely what is written under the soldier, specifically the 20k or so Soviet soldiers who perished in April and May of 1945 defeating the Nazis. That the cenotaph was in West Berlin seems to have been an fluke of history—borders drawn post facto—and, during the split in the city, apparently Soviet troops would still stand on patrol by their obsolete artillery, in the middle of the Tiergarten.

I can understand the eagerness with which the Red Army wanted to construct a memorial to their fallen comrades in the middle of the capital of their now vanquished enemy. What surprised me was the astonishing condition in which the monument remained, despite being in West Berlin and despite being now totally under the control of the government of Berlin in the fancy, new Bundesrepublik.

Every time I read yet another article about the current situation in Tallinn, I recall this Ehrenmal. It strikes me that neither side of the conflict is doing a particularly good job of being intellectually (or historically) honest, and that both the Estonian and Russian governments should take a page out of the “nie wieder” form of historical memory present throughout Berlin—from the Jüdisches Museum to the new roof of the Reichstag building that forever reminds the viewed of its torching to help Hitler’s rise to power on the backs of communists. I can’t, in good conscience, say I support either side of the conflict; I can only hope that a sensible middle ground can be found, if not in the actions of the governments, then at least in the minds of those agitating on one side or the other.

In 1947, to commemorate three years since the Red Army marched into Tallinn, thereby ending German occupation of the city, the Soviet government constructed, in the center of the city, the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, or, as he was known then, the Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn (Монумент освободителям Таллина). Some of the “liberators” of Tallinn were buried under the soldier and the stone background, and the area is known as the “Liberators’ Square.” Upon Estonian independence, the eternal flame burning in front of the monument was extinguished, and the site was rebranded to commemorate all of those who had fallen in World War II, not just the Soviet “Liberators” of Tallinn.

Last month, however, the Estonian government decided to move the monument and reinter the remains at a military cemetery a few miles from the square. This decision was made right before May 9, Victory Day, the Soviet analogue to V-E Day. Hell broke loose, Tallinn suffered two nights of rioting, and since then Russia has threatened Estonia, which meant that the EU came back and threatened Russia, and so on. It’s a mess, and it’s been very difficult to keep track of every bit of he-said/she-said going on between the two governments and what ends up being the two warring interest groups: ethnic Estonians (backed by the other Baltic ethnic groups, the Estonian government, and the EU) and ethnic Russian Estonians (backed by Russia).

Three slippages, all of crucial import, should be immediately obvious. Fascist vs. Communist becomes Estonian (statist) vs. Soviet. That, in turn, becomes Estonian Estonian vs. Russian Estonian, which finally becomes Estonia (EU) vs. Russia. What begins as an ideological struggle becomes a self-determination struggle becomes an ethnic (national) struggle which then, again, becomes a state (political entity) struggle. As the terms and foundations slip, so does the sense of the conflict, and you end up with competing factions using different vocabularies to describe the conflict. Immanent disingenuousness grows like a fungus, poisoning every discussion of the topic.

There is, however, something especially peculiar about these Stalin-era cenotaphs, as, after a fashion, they don’t make much sense. Tombs of unknown soldiers are supposed to celebrate, precisely, the national subject who died in service to (most likely) his nation burned to his national essences. “What else,” asks Benedict Anderson about the dead soldiers in these monuments, “could they be but Germans, Americans, Argentinians…?” For Anderson, the tombs of the Unknown Soldier and cenotaphs are at the top of “arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism.” As such, it doesn’t make sense for there to be cenotaphs celebrating ideological (that is, anti-fascist) soldiers. Anderson even, weirdly, predicts the impossibility of the current situation in Estonia by declaring that “The cultural significance of such monuments becomes even clearer if one tries to imagine, say, a Tomb of the Unknown Marxist or a cenotaph for fallen Liberals… The reason is that neither Marxism nor Liberalism are much concerned with death and immortality. If the nationalist imagining is so concerned, this suggests a strong affinity with religious imaginings.” Anderson then takes this opening in the second chapter of Imagined Communities to move into his discussion of how nationalism grew out of religious senses of identification.

So if a “cenotaph for fallen Liberals” makes no sense, what are we to make of the cenotaph “павшим героям”? Is this a marker of a Stalin-styled Soviet nationalism, then? It could be… Anderson carefully uses the word “Marxist” in lieu of Soviet. Furthermore, the inscription of the Berlin cenotaph does carry nationalist overtones, talking of battle with “немецко-фашистскими захватчиками.” They are not simply fascist invaders, but fascist German invaders. Similarly, the monument celebrates both the integrity of the borders of the USSR, when the German Army marched into them, and, perversely, the Soviet invasion of Nazi Germany. The efforts to cast the situation as simply “fascist vs. communist” seem unsatisfying because of the nationalist undercurrent. The same mentality probably carries over to the Bronze Soldier. What should be a testament to an ideology becomes polluted with nationalist thinking, and the first slippage (fascist becomes Estonian collaborator, and communist becomes Soviet) is accounted for.

Cynical chauvinism.

Cynical chauvinism.

So, that one I can pin on Stalin. The second slippage, in which “Soviet” gets rebranded as “Russian” is the work of loathsome Baltic nationalists. Anyone who has ever sung the “modified” lyrics to “Augo sode klevelis” has engaged in this move from a state-based complaint to an ethnic complaint, one that stinks of the worst kind of chauvinism. And that’s the problem with the way the story is percolating through the Baltic press. Say what you will about how it’s a mistake to call the Bronze Soldier a monument to the “liberators of Tallinn” (освободителям Таллина)—considering that Tallinn was liberated only to fall under the control of a different totalitarian régime—but the second slippage is still coming from the other side: it’s offensive also to create, for example, this montage of photos that imagine the rioting as expressions of an ingrained Russian character, to try and reduce the other side of the argument to a murky mess of hypocrisy.

This is an important distinction, because in order to see it, one has to escape from pervasive Baltic victimology, where somehow Soviet occupation gives carte blanche to any sort of subsequent mistreatment of ethnic (Russian) minorities or to a politics of chauvinism more broadly. No amount of cultural extermination via the GULag at the hands of the Soviet Union makes singing “viens, du, trys, graži Lietuva (be rusų!)” appropriate, yet that is precisely the stance that is remanufactured in the MasterCard spoofs that Lietuvos rytas reprints.

The victimology then also develops a manichean approach to the crisis in Estonia, in which the gestures of the Estonian government to date become compromise enough. Discussion of multiple perspectives immediately becomes, solely, competing claims by opposed outlets of propaganda. Basically, you get a completely useless stalemate, in which the two sides use different terminology, engage in nauseous politics, and leave the rather crisp and clear answers off in some different plane entirely.

What is the obvious answer? The government of Estonia fucked up by moving the Soldier. They knew that the cenotaph was a flashpoint, but they decided to monkey with it, precisely as the monument’s 60th anniversary was arriving. What should they have done? They should have followed the German example and let the monument stand, precisely as an implicit testament to what should be the overarching theme of any monument to World War II: “nie wieder.”

This was, perhaps, why my trip to Berlin struck me so. The German capital is awash in direct engagements with an appalling history. Libeskind’s design for the Jüdisches Museum pulls absolutely no punches, and when I was there (and at all the other mentioned tourist destinations in Berlin), it struck me that nearly everyone was speaking German. I expected the museum to attract, say, Jews from the US, or well meaning types like myself. Instead, the demographic was wholly illegible yet still almost exclusively German-speaking. What’s more, people wore stickers with the logo of the museum around all day, as a badge of familiarty with both the long and rich history of the German Jews as well as the horrors (brilliantly captured) of the Holocaust.

Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie.

The experience continued at the “Topographie des Terrors” open-air exhibit, built out of the old SS headquarters, and at Checkpoint Charlie, which, despite being a legitimate tourist trap, also features a two-sided photo installation of scared, young border guards. The trip ended with the Ehrenmal mentioned above and a tour of the Reichstag building, which notes the sickening irony that the families of metalworkers who installed the giant dedication across the front of the building were killed by the Nazis: “Die Inschrift über dem Westportal des Reichtstagsgebäudes »DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE« wurde Ende 1916 von der Berliner Bronzegießerei Albert und Siegfried Loevy … angebracht. Deren Familien wurden — weil sie Juden waren — Opfer des Nationalsozialismus. Sie wurden verfolgt, enteignet und in Plötzensee, Theresienstadt und Auschwitz ermordet.”

For the time we were in Berlin, we could not escape the memory of the Second World War. It almost feels like everywhere we turned, we were actively reminded of the terror of those times. And the Soviet cenotaph fits in of a piece. Why tear it down, when it stands, alone in the Tiergarten, as a silent reminder both of Nazi atrocities and then of the Soviet sequel? Leave the monument in the center of Berlin, as a constant testament to both periods of (East) German history?This, in my opinion, is the path the Estonian government should have taken. Let the Bronze Soldier stand, insulting as it may be, as a reminder of the historical excesses of both totalitarianism and (to assume Anderson is right) nationalism. Removing that soldier only reframes the memory of the war and the subsequent occupation, without any engagement other than to induce again more antagonism. The grotesque rightist politics swarming through Europe seem to indicate that the lessons of the Second World War have not yet been learned and that we need to be reminded, again:


As a postscript, today’s Lietuvos rytas mentions a poll taken by the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita that announces that two-thirds of Poles believe that Soviet-era monuments should either remain where they are or that knocking them over would be a mistake. This is despite recent Polish pronouncements to give localities the power to destroy any Soviet-era monuments they should choose to. I still can’t tell what LR’s attitude is toward Poland, but it is interesting that it is the people who suffered under communist rule the longest who are least inclined to remove the monuments to their suffering.

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One Response to “Middle-ground in Tallinn”

  1. Ausra Di Raimondo
    June 1st, 2007 at 3:51 am


    The Sowjetisches Ehrenmal was taken care of by Red Army veterans (I lived in Berlin for 13 years beginning in 1981 and still visit family there and keep up with the news) until 2004 when it was renovated by the German government which considers it a tourist attraction. It is a component of the “nie wieder” policy. This policy is very important for Germany in view of the fact that neo-nazism has grown in Germany since the re-unification.

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