The latest bad news to come from Vladimir Putin's Russia is the standoff between Russia and Estonia over the relocation of a monument to Soviet soldiers in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. The diplomatic crisis reflects several troubling issues, from the Putin government's neo-imperial mentality toward the former Soviet republics, to its alliance with freelance extremist thugs, to its embrace of Russia's Soviet past.
The "Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn"—a bronze statue of a solider in a Soviet uniform with his helmet off and his head inclined in sorrow, against the backdrop of a stone wall with a hammer-and-sickle emblem carved into it—was erected in Tallinn in 1947 to commemorate the three-year anniversary of the Soviet Army's entrance into the city. The remains of about a dozen fallen Soviet soldiers were buried on the grounds of the memorial.
The monument, known as "the Bronze Soldier," has been a source of controversy in Estonia ever since the country regained its independence in 1991—controversy both between Estonia and Russia and between Estonia and its ethnic Russian population. Estonians, unsurprisingly, view the memorial as a monument not to liberation but to a brutal occupation, and its presence on a central square in their capital as an insult. Earlier this year, the Estonian government made the decision to relocate the memorial and the remains to a military cemetery in Tallinn. The Russian government reacted angrily; first deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov called for a boycott of Estonia.
As the planned relocation neared, tensions escalated between the Estonian government and the movement in defense of the monument, Nochnoi Dozor ("Night Patrol"), composed almost entirely of ethnic Russians. The relentless propaganda campaign on Russia's state-owned television networks, which are broadcast into the Baltics and are a primary source of news for Estonia's Russian community, almost certainly aggravated the situation. The International Center for Defense Studies, a Tallinn-based think tank, reports that on April 26, the Russian TV channel RTR repeatedly broadcast an interview with Nochnoi Dozor activist Dmitri Linter, who warned that Estonia was facing civil war and that the present government would fall from power. That evening, the protests turned into riots accompanied by vandalism and looting.
On April 27, the memorial was removed. Meanwhile, tensions continued in Moscow, where activists from the "Nashi" movement—a "patriot" youth group with very public ties to the Putin government—blockaded the Estonian embassy. ("Nashi," literally translated as "Ours," means something like "Our own.") The Russian police took little if any action to stop vandalism and violence at the embassy, which included attacks on diplomatic cars. Estonian government websites have also been bombarded, and in some cases temporarily shut down, by coordinated hacker attacks. Estonia's foreign minister Urmas Paet has said that some of those attacks have been traced to computers in the offices of the Putin administration. If true, this gives credence to longtime suspicions by Putin critics that the current Russian government uses Internet thugs to promote its agenda.
Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Finnish policy analyst Risto Pentilla suggests one reason for the anti-Estonian backlash in Russia: "The Kremlin wants to salvage the last moral justification for the existence of the Soviet Union—that its brave people played a crucial role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Without this justification, the whole Soviet era appears a sorry experiment, an absurd period of history." Another likely reason is simply that Putin's Russia, like all authoritarian governments, needs to whip up hysteria against external enemies.
Some liberal Russian commentators critical of the Putin government have nonetheless voiced disapproval of the Estonian government's relocation of the monument and the graves. However, one such critic, EJ.ru columnist Alexander Ryklin, also deplores the cynicism of the Russian government's manufactured outrage over the fate of the Tallinn memorial. This cynicism, Ryklin notes, is particularly blatant in view of a recent domestic incident in Russia itself. In the town of Khimki, just a few miles away from Moscow, the authorities decided to relocate the graves of six Russian pilots killed in World War II in order to clear space for a new office complex. After the exhumation, the remains were lost.
The best summary of the crisis comes from Elena Bonner, the widow of the great Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov and a noted human rights activist in her own right as well as a World War II veteran. On May 9, the day Russia commemorates its victory over Germany—an occasion that Putin used to take a public swipe at those who "desecrate monuments to war heroes"—Bonner issued a holiday greeting that dealt largely with the drama over the Bronze Soldier.
"I am not insulted by the relocation of the remains and the monument," Bonner wrote. "It is far more honorable to have one's final resting place on a cemetery than at a bustling, noisy bus stop. What did and still does insult me is the inscription on the monument. What it should say, in Estonia or in any other country, is not 'To the soldier-liberator,' but 'To the fallen soldiers.'
Soviet soldiers, Bonner writes, liberated no one—not even themselves, though many hoped that after the war things would be different. That hope, she concludes, didn't come true in 1945—or, for Russians, in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to reason.