May 9 in Tartu is a splendid day because it’s just like any other day. From your laptop you can watch the hysterics of Tallinn light up the pages of Postimees or Eesti Päevaleht, and yet it seems so far away.
In Moscow, though, it’s the major national holiday and I have come to see the Russian rulers’ saber-rattling Victory Day speeches less as aimed at troublesome neighboring nations, but for internal consumption.
Russia is like most post-communist states, Germany included, in that it had to rewrite its history to serve redefined national purposes after 1991. In salvaging pieces of the past to serve the new regime, Putin revived Victory Day to recall some of his favorite themes: encirclement by hostile nations; personal sacrifice to benevolent despots; the moral imperative of intervention abroad; and the fusion of material and metaphysical faith in one person, the national leader, namely himself.
Now it is Dmitri “Jesus Kerensky” Medvedev who stands to command Russia’s armies of tanks, missiles, and goosestepping soldiers, and his party, United Russia, is about to serve up some post-Soviet identity-building desserts, a new law that will ban criticism of its victory in the Second World War.
From my perspective, as an American, a law signed by Medvedev will make him look especially unlike the hard rock-loving Gazpromite we all wanted him to be. In my 9th grade social studies class, we debated the merits of dropping those bombs on Japan and, perhaps, internalized a degree of national guilt. Reflection on the manner in which the victory was achieved was part of the curriculum. But I shouldn’t worry too much about myself, because Russia’s new law isn’t aimed at me. It is aimed at states existing on the former territory of the USSR.
From where Moscow derives the authority to prosecute Ukrainians but not Poles or Finns is beyond me. But it is not like the bill is anything but arbitrary. The law will “criminalize statements and acts that deny the Soviets won World War II, or claim it used poor tactics in battle or did not liberate Eastern Europe.” So, basically, if you are from Estonia and they do not like you, you could face a fine of up to around $9,200 or up to three years in prison.
Ostensibly, this is just another arrow in Moscow’s quiver to reduce the status of politicians in neighboring countries who it sees as not espousing views in line with its interests. Of course, the most NATO-friendly politicians are the ones who are most keen to develop a culture of resistance within their home countries. But there is another reason why Moscow can only target former citizens of the USSR: under the terms of the law, few modern Western historians or journalists who have written about the Second World War could enter the Russian Federation without fear of arrest or fine.
For example, I hold before me Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, a bestseller called “superb” and “magnificent” by British media. In his book, he details the widespread rape of women in former Axis territory on the Eastern Front by the Red Army in 1945. He notes that the Baltic countries were “occupied three times” between 1940 and 1945. Would this esteemed Western author be eligible for a fine or imprisonment at the hands of Russian authorities if the draft law is passed? Yes, but only if he were not British, but a citizen of one of the “newly independent” states.
While such circumstances are depressing and foolish, ultimately, the dilemma is Russia’s, not ours in the West. As their economy slips and Putin and Medvedev’s approval ratings decline — a trend that is understandable when Putin has held power now for almost a decade — they have to put battle armor on their ideology to protect it, unless such questions spread to Russia proper, and it seems they already have.
According to Time, the catalyst for the new law supposedly came not from Tallinn’s relocated Bronze Soldier or Ukrainian endeavors to resurrect the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but after Russian television channel NTV broadcast a documentary about the Battles of Rzhev. The documentary exposed the number of Soviet soldiers killed, around a million compared to around 500,000 on the Nazi side, and presented a “negative interpretation of Soviet tactics by, for example, showing how shocked German soldiers who had fought in the battles were at the way Soviet troops were thrown into the fight with little regard for their lives.”
So, the nature of the questions are actually less about ideology and more about reform. Then, as now, Russia’s military is in desperate need of modernization. Questions about its performance in the sacred victory against Nazi Germany dredge up questions about equipment and training and even respect for the lives of average Russian soldiers.
Russia lost around 25 million soldiers and civilians in the Second World War. The question naturally follows, did the casualty rate have to be so high? Or were so many lives lost due to Soviet-style mismanagement of the armed forces? Does such mismanagement continue to this day? Is it wise to trust the national leader with your life? Such questions are no doubt bad for morale in the Russian military, and dangerous for a regime that wishes to maintain its access to power for as long as possible.
Meantime, the Estonian narrative continues to devolve occasionally into mindless squabbling and invocation of symbols that now seem comical rather than shocking. Swastika? Hammer and sickle? Each now carries the political weight of the sign at the local McDonalds.
Just years ago the monument at Tõnismägi was considered sacred to some. Now its image is about as sacred as a golden calf, or at least a paper mache replica painted gold by a local artist. The false idol was erected briefly on the grassy knoll by the national library, but quickly removed by the politsei.
Outside the Russian embassy in Tallinn’s Old Town local Estonian nationalists picketed with dreadfully predictable signs and slogans. The sign above reads “Occupants out and down with collaborators!” But who are these collaborators? On closer inspection, it appears to be Social Democrat Urve Palo, Minister of Population and Ethnic Affairs, and Tallinn Mayor and Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar.
While the Estonian nationalists outside the Russian embassy are afforded the same level of respect in mainstream national discourse as fellows like Johan Bäckman or Dmitri Linter (with the obvious discrepancy that Tiit Madisson, author of Holocaust: the 20th Century’s Most Depressing Zionist Lie, actually went to jail while the latter didn’t), their digs at other Estonians are somewhat representative of the status of Estonia’s current postwar discussion on WWII.
It’s gone from blaming outsiders to thinking about the roles of Estonians in the services of foreign states, be it the USSR or Nazi Germany. I noticed that in the recent television series, Tuulepealne Maa, which aired last fall, most of the “bad guys” — Reds during the war of independence, Soviets in 1940 and ’41 — were Estonians. When one of the main female characters was violated and murdered at the end of the series, it wasn’t Germans or Russians who did it; it was Estonians in the local destruction battalions.
What to make of the “collaborator/resister” meme in domestic Estonian politics? Unfortunately, it is all too common an undercurrent in contemporary European politics. People try to turn one continental crisis into a Biblical story containing universal messages. It’s history as religion, and it’s actually quite scary. Good thing I don’t believe.