The Last Soviet in Tallinn:Saga of the 'Bronze Soldier'


After months of debate, trash-talking, mudslinging, demonstrations and delays - the Bronze Soldier was finally removed from his post in central Tallinn in the dark early hours of April 27th, 2007.

The fate of the monument had been a hotly contested issue between Estonia and Russia since legislation regarding its removal was introduced into the Estonian Parliament months ago. Since then, the so-called 'Monument of the Soldier-Liberator' - which pays tribute to those Soviet soldiers who perished at the hands of the Nazis in Estonia - has become the figurehead of the complicated, worsening relationship between Estonia and Russia.

Tallinn's ethnic Estonian community has long regarded the monument to be an unwelcome reminder of 50 years of Soviet oppression. Estonia's ethnic Russian community, which comprises a significant third of the country's entire population, regards the monument as a symbol of Russia's sacrifice during World War II and a tribute to the Russian soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany. At the crux of the matter are two contrasting interpretations of history: For Russia, the years 1941-45 call to mind the 'Great Patriotic War', wherein the Soviet Union defeated Germany for the good of all Europe (an act they feel they've received little thanks for). For Estonia, alongside Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, the Second World War began two years earlier in August 1939, when Stalin and Hitler divided Europe in half with the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Ethnic Estonians view Russia's re-entry into Estonia in 1944 as an act of occupation - a regime change from one oppressive occupying force to another. Russians continue to view their re-entry into Estonia as an act of liberation, freeing Estonia from the terror of fascism.

For Estonians, it is this refusal on the part of Russia to acknowledge or confront the hardships the Soviet Union inflicted on the Baltic peoples that continues to aggravate them and will continue to strain relations between the two countries. The presence of an overtly Soviet monument - particularly one touted as a symbol of 'liberation' and sacrifice - in their city centre is regarded as nothing short of insulting. With a soaring economy, booming tourist industry and pioneering technological advances, Estonia has become one of the darlings of the EU since ascension in 2004, giving rise to an increased sense of pride within the small Baltic nation and a slight tendency toward nationalist indulgences - the dismantling of the Bronze Soldier being a perfect example. Backed by Europe, Estonia is feeling good enough about themselves to get brazen. They won't be bullied by Russia anymore, and unlike other former Soviet satellites, they won't cater to Moscow in the interest of the national economy. They've got some new friends and they're doing just fine financially, thank you.

Estonia overwhelmingly passed legislation banning Soviet symbols like the hammer and sickle, and in early 2007 put The War Graves Protection Act into effect, requiring that the remains of soldiers be respectfully interned in proper military cemeteries. This act gave grounds for the desired removal of the Bronze Soldier from central Tallinn and the unknown remains beneath it to be identified and reburied with the monument elsewhere. Predictably, Moscow lost its shit, taking offense at the forthrightness of a tiny country they have had their hand in for so long. Amidst the media outrage in Russia, the fact that Estonia is a sovereign country and that this was a matter of Estonian internal affairs seemed to be overlooked. Anti-Estonian statements became political tools of public-image improvement for Russian politicians, and accusations of Estonia fostering fascism flew. Vague threats from Russian officials abounded, including the description of plans to move the monument as an "ultra-nationalist and very short-sighted policy" coming from Putin himself. Calls for economic sanctions followed and politicians urged the Russian people to boycott Estonian goods. Russian nationalist groups in Estonia and Russia vowed to defend the monument by whatever means necessary; should it be removed, ethnic Russians in Tallinn vowed to stand in its place. Flag-waving demonstrations took place around the monument for weeks. Sensing the tension was boiling to a head, Tallinn authorities 'soldiered' forward with their plans for the monument's relocation, hoping to get the job done before May 9th - 'Victory Day' - when the Bronze Soldier has yearly been the rallying point for brawling nationalists on both sides of the issue and the site of violence.

The removal of the monument was not without unprecedented protest and violence in the Estonian capital. During the events of the monuments overnight removal on April 27th, 2007, frenzied demonstrators hurled rocks and molotov-cocktails at police, overturned cars, lit several buildings on fire, and looted liquor stores in what became a full-on riot in the streets of Tallinn that persisted for two days and involved over 3000 participants. By Saturday, police had detained over 1000 people, most of whom were drunken Russian-speaking teenagers hell-bent on defending a memorial to fallen soldiers from a war they didn't experience and likely know little about. Provoked by the sensationalist, censored and one-sided journalism coming out of the Kremlin, Russian nationalists from all over Estonia rallied to Tallinn, inciting the worst violence in the country since Soviet tanks attempted to crush the independence movement (ironic, no?). One ethnic Russian was stabbed to death - presumably by other rioters - and 153 others were injured as police employed tear gas, rubber batons, light and noise shells and water jet cannons to suppress crowds and stop looters. Several police were also hospitalised during the shocking violence, which seemed to have lost momentum by Sunday morning after alcohol sales were banned in the capital.

Rioting also occurred in the primarily Russian towns of Johvi, Kohtla-Jarve and Narva, where the violence was not as extreme, but nonetheless troubling for Estonian-Russian relations in the small country. As Russia and Estonia continue to spar politically, the daily street-level relations between ethnic Russian and ethnic Estonian residents in Estonia has certainly reached an all-time low, stirred up by Estonian officials' stubborn insistence to carry out the unpopular decision to move the Bronze Soldier and provoked by Moscow officials' outraged reaction to the decision, including propaganda campaigns with slogans like, "Hitler is the hero of Estonia." Certainly the Estonian government could and should have been more diplomatic, creating a discussion with the Russian government about how best to approach the issue with respect to both sides. Not that Russia would have heard them amidst their immediate over-the-top condemnation at the first utterance.

Estonia's Russian population - imported in large numbers during occupation in an effort to 'Russify' the country as tens of thousands of native Estonians were massacred or deported - faces many challenges today due to both their voluntary failure to integrate or 'Estonianise' themselves, and discriminatory Estonian national policies. Take the fact that though half the country's population speaks Russian, Estonian is the only official national language, for example. Amnesty International has been adamant about pressuring Estonia to change its policy requiring Estonian language fluency for citizenship, which has resulted in half of Estonia's enormous Russian population not having the full rights and benefits of proper citizenship. With diplomatic relations between Russia and Estonia being severed, the onus lies on the Estonian government to find a way to better incorporate its Russian population; it may be necessary if the country wishes to continue currying favour in the EU. Yet, the political influence of the heaps of praise and attention the country has garnered since EU ascension hasn't lead policy in that direction thus far...

The Bronze Instigator, for his part, has been restored and relocated - along with 12 graves revealed during the police-protected excavations at his former standing place in Tonismagi - to a quiet military cemetery beyond Tallinn's city centre.

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Eduard Vaht from United States Reply Sep 6th, 2010

Sorry Albert must be foolish:)

Eduard Vaht from United States Reply Sep 6th, 2010

Dear Albert, Before to make yourself look fulish please read the Interner resources and then please visit libraries and find some good books. I'm researching this subject since 2000.

Albert from Canada Reply Jul 30th, 2010

To Edward in the US who says that Estonians fought along with the Germans against the Jews. get your facts straight before you make idiotic comments. The Estonians were forced into serving with the Nazis. Anyone who resisted was executed.

Nat from Switzerland Reply Jun 13th, 2010

I was born in Estonia and lived there until of age 22.Then I left because I didn't see any future for myself and felt like I am a second sort of habitant. Its really sad what is still happening there. The politicians are very stupid. The force of one country depends on reunion of the population inside of the country. At the moment whoever wants to conquer Estonia can do it, because only a few people will truly defend the country. Politicians instead of building together a strong prospering country, play the political games in order to be elected by the nationalists...This is very sad. Since I left in 2000, nothing has changed, only has worsened. Russians are not really integrated. Many of them would like to learn Estonian and to be accepted as citizens but its difficult. For the moment they still have a so called Alien Passport, meaning you have no citezenship. My brotheris one of them, despite the fact that he was born and lived there all his life.Everybody who speaks a foreign language knows, that to be able to speak it you need to practice it. With who in Estonia, if all your friends are Russian? Russians leaving in their own community and Estonians are very hostile towards them; like those Russians personally participated in killing Estonians 60 years ago. And let me remind you, that at Stalin's time not only Estonians were killed and been sent to Siberia but the other nationalities as well, among of them mostly were Russians. At that time it wasn't about the Estonian nationality but about enemy status, politics and much more. There is a lot more to say and I agree with a previous commen that people who never experienced it can't judge. Good day to everyone!

LH from United States Reply Jun 2nd, 2010

Can I ask what you want from the Estonian people? Considering that the Soviet Union invaded Estonia and murdered tens of thousands of Estonians in the 1940's, what exactly do you want from the Estonian people? The Russian government under Putin is in total denial of that the Soviet Union did the to Baltic States. I agree, it would be nice if the Estonians and Russians could "shake hands and forgive", but wouldn't a first step be for the Russian government to admit its atrocities against the Estonian people and at least apologize?

from Estonia Reply May 7th, 2010

It is so upsetting when people from other countries who have no clue about your country bablig stupid things like " OOO if Russians don't like estonian rules or do not what to learn the language let them go back to Russia ". Do U PEOPLE even know what you are saying!!! So now every black or how U call them now African Americans do not like something in US , so why don't you suggest them as well to get out of your country back to Africa !! Does it make any sense??? Same here this people (Russian population) majority of them were born in Estonia and so did they parents. It is they home!!! Non of you, who makes the comment here, been in Tallinn when the monument was taken down. It was shameful. Yes estonians hate russians and it is sad. But all this could be dun properly without upsetting the crowds. Do u know how it was done? I'll tell you how... The government didn't give the date for monument movement , they didn't give people a chance to go and say goodbye to it. Instead they draged the monument in the night time like something shameful. Smart government with two nationalities shouldn't do it that way. It was like a slap in to the all russina-estonian's faces. We should integrate and not degraded !!! I love my country , but it saddens me that estonians don't want to move on and forget what happened during soviet times. And I am not saying that russians shouldn't put effort into it. What I am saying that government could help people. One guy refers to France, but isn't the french government who offers free language courses?? Why estonians can't do the same? Instead of making it harder. Do you know how many native estonians can fluently speak and write in they own language, not too many. If I go to US and try to speak with my broken english people won't reject me, neglect me or laugth at me. They actually are pleased that I am trying. Try to speak broken estonian to this snobs, they are like french will look at you like you are an idiot ruining the beautiful language. I never had language barrier or complex speaking english as I do in estonian. One thing I could never understand. Estnia is such a small country it's ALWAYS been under somebody , Dutch, Germans and so on , but no, only thing they remember is bad russians. Do you know that during Dutch and German governing estonians were slaves and had now estonian speaking schools ! And during russian time they had all this . By all means I am not defending Russia , but it is time to let go. We should really shake hands Estonians and Russians. I think only that way the country can prosper. Isn't what we(russian and estonians) all want?

Mark Heithaus from United States Jan 2nd, 2015

Currently in Tallinn, and living in St Petersburg as an English teacher, and learning the history. I am in agreement with you. It would be best for all to move on, forgive, and cooperate.

PETER from Australia Reply Feb 20th, 2010

I READ YOUR ARTICLE WITH GREAT CONCERN.IT DISTURBS ME THAT BOTH THE RUSSIAN AND ESTONIAN PEOPLE CAN NOT FIND A SOLUTION TO THIER DIFFERANCES.THERE IS A VERY EASY SOLUTION SHAKE HANDS ,BE ONE NATION AND SMILE..IF THE JEWISH NATION CAN FORGIVE ( BUT NOT FORGET) WHT CAN THESE TWO CULTURES DO THE SAME,,COME TRY IT YOU WILL FIND IT WORKS..REMEMBER ""THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS ONLY SOLUTIONS""

L.H. from United States Reply Nov 19th, 2009

As long as Russia claims that it was a "liberator" of Estonia during World War II when, in fact, it was just as evil an agressor as Nazi Germany (just ask Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland as well. If Germany had not invaded the USSR in 1941, the USSR would have remained an agressor), the problem will remain. Placing rose colored glasses on history by the Russian leaders makes them the real villains here, not the Estonians. Insisting on placing a Red Army soldier in the middle of Tallinn is no different than placing an SS soldier on the streets of Tel Aviv. Estonia is a soveriegn nation that has had a victimized past from her huge neighbor. Estonia is not the aggressor here. If the ethnic Russians are unhappy in Estonia, they can go back to Russia. If they wish to become Estonian citizens, they need to learn the Estonian language and customs. If France can insist on citizens in that country learning French language and customs, Estonia has the same right. Thousands of Estonians were murdered and deported by the Soviets, and their country was invaded and raped by the Red Army during World War II. What in the hell does Putin expect from the Estonian people

Piret from Australia Reply Nov 10th, 2008

I can't believe the nasty comments!!!! As for someone from the United Kingdom telling people in Estonia to get along!!! And using India as an example, where they kill their politicians!!! I have visited Estonia a number of times while it was forcibly part of the USSR. I don't have space here to detail how the Russians treated Estonians in their own country. And may I add that many of the Russians in Estonia have chosen not to take out Estonian citizenship. I'm sure Putin is just waiting to go marching in to "save" these Russian citizens as he did in Georgia. Find out the facts, please, including the cyber terrorism that took place against Estonian web sites after the statue was moved to a war graves site.

Percy from United Kingdom Reply Sep 12th, 2008

Well let me say something to all Estonians citizens. This world of ours is already suffering lots of more important problems than having to live next to each other. Both the peoples of your country need to learn to live in peace and integraty with one-another. The Russians stayed back in Estonia because I guess they too were fed up with the Soviet regime. The Estonians treat them as second class citizens and that is the reason of their acting pro-russian. This is a small country with not many people then why the devide between its citizens? Look at one of the worlds biggest democracies like India, where people of god knows how many religions, sects, cultures and beliefs live in peace and harmony(except when there are some external interests or some selfish political propaganda). Come on All you Estonians life is very short so why not live it to the fullest and the best way possible. You have a very butiful country so keep it that way and lovely people too. For the people outside of Estonia if you cannot help in uniting the people of this country, do not try and blackmail them. Best would be to mind your own business in which ever country you live. Before you try and solve your neighbours problems try and solve the ones in your own house. Let it be known that all Estonian citizens be it the Estonians or the Russians ARE FIRST PROUD CITIZENS OF ESTONIA.

Glenn from Canada Reply Sep 7th, 2007

why should Estonia have discussed it with the Russians? last time I checked they were a soveirgn nation and can make their own decisions about their country. I applaud Estonia for having the courage to make the move. Too bad they didn't do it sooner. And if the Russians living in Estonia don't like it, they can always move back to Russia. But of course they won't because they all know they have a much better life in Estonia.

Kevin from United States Reply Jun 28th, 2007

Unfortunately, Russia spoiled the significance of the sttatue by shifting from liberator to occupier. Can anyone say Iraq?

Hubert from United States Reply Jun 12th, 2007

When will Estonia finally get rid of all the neo-Stalinist Communist pigs in the country?

Tallinn Life from Estonia Reply May 18th, 2007

Anonymous:This article was written as the riots were occurring and the monument was yet to be re-erected where it stands today; hence the use of the words "removed" and "dismantled." The ethnic Russian who was murdered was indeed killed during violence or a "skirmish" between rioters. The ethnicity of his killer is not known and may never be. We will change this sentence to not suggest ethnicity, but it would be naive to think that ethnic Estonians were not also involved in the violence, whether voluntarily or otherwise...

Eduard Vaht from United States Reply May 17th, 2007

Unfortunately Estonian government acting as a 3rd Reih after 1935. After nazi passed the Nurnberg Law in 1935, then holocaust start step by step. Also Estonian troops fight side by side with nazi against "World Jews" Is very sad that Estonia following the same direction. Was very cozy and cute country.

Anonymous from United States Reply May 12th, 2007

The Bronze Soldier was relocated to more appropriate surroundings, as opposed to "removed" or "dismantled". Previously, I read that the stabbing death was a result of violence between rioters. This article has a different take. What is the reason for the discrepancy ?

Helaine from United States Reply May 10th, 2007

This is a horrible piece of info. Estonians are considered on one level with Nazi... make your own deductions