November 4, 2008

The War without Stalin

If memories of the Second World War were de-Stalinised, the different interpretations of history in Russia and Estonia could, to a large extent, be united and harmonised.

If memories of the Second World War were de-Stalinised, the different interpretations of history in Russia and Estonia could, to a large extent, be united and harmonised.


Kadri Liik

The War without Stalin

If memories of the Second World War were de-Stalinised, the different interpretations of history in Russia and Estonia could, to a large extent, be united and harmonised.

When I used to work in Moscow, and occasionally afterwards, I would argue with Russian politicians about history. Obviously, the key question was whether Estonia was occupied or not. As disputes escalated, we often reached the point when my opponent finally claimed that, “we did not occupy your country, but the Bolsheviks occupied both our countries. They inflicted more harm on Russians than on anyone else. We were fellow sufferers, so stop blaming us!”
At first glance, this argument might seem more unconvincing to Estonians than it actually is. Its only flaw is the fact that politicians in Moscow employ it exclusively in heated debates with East European journalists. In real life, they do not assume the status of victims. Moreover, at present Moscow is officially and actively promoting the use of Soviet symbols and rhetoric.
Such an attitude is most regrettable because, if they sincerely considered themselves to be victims, Estonia and Russia might have developed an understanding of all the painful problems they are facing at the present moment.
Let us consider, for example, the interpretation of the experiences of the Second World War. If Moscow did not currently condone the Stalinist politics of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Tallinn would treat their history in a more or less similar manner and the controversy over the statue of the Bronze Soldier, which was relocated from central Tallinn to the military cemetery in the spring of 2007, would in all likelihood have been avoided.
In such a situation, it would be common knowledge that at the time Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the two had actually been allies for almost two years (from August 23, 1939 to June 22, 1941). After the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Germany could be confident that the USSR would not attack it; so Germany could wage war on the Western front without being disturbed. That is why this period was all the more exhausting for the democratic Western countries.
The Soviet Union did not side with the good guys from the start and even later did not do so voluntarily: it had no other options after it was attacked. In the meantime, Stalin was busy pursuing his policy of subjugation and gathering new enemies in Poland, the Baltic countries and Finland. In addition, he occupied himself with shooting the best part of the Soviet officer corps.
As a result of Stalin’s policies, the Soviet nation and army were, by the time of the Nazi invasion, in far worse condition than they otherwise would have been. If the USSR had been a friendly, democratic country, the quality of its army would have been higher and the Baltic countries together with Finland might have been its willing and devoted brothers-in-arms. Alas, that was not the case. Moreover, the price for these political mistakes was paid with the lives of ordinary Russian – and not only Russian – soldiers.
In today’s Russia there are two prevailing attitudes that could not exist if it really felt it were a victim of Bolshevism. Firstly, when people talk about Stalin, including those who otherwise consider him a criminal, they often point out that “despite everything, he won the war.” Whatever else he might have done, he did win it and for this remarkable feat he can be rehabilitated to a certain extent.
Secondly, people tend to emphasise the fact that the Soviet Union – or Russia – lost the most men during the Second World War; as if this makes Russia the most eminent Ally and its victory the most glorious.
If Russia considered itself a victim of Bolshevism, it would put these facts in a different light. Russians would see that the war was won not because of, but in spite of Stalin. A soldier defending his country was, in fact, fighting two dictators, one of whom happened to be the leader of his homeland and who insisted that his efforts to protect his country should be much more strenuous and his sacrifices much greater than they ought to have been. It does not make sense to be proud of the great human losses. A wise commander would keep his soldiers alive! Yet, Stalin’s attitude towards his soldiers was one of intentional cruelty and indifference.
It is unfortunate that a de-Stalinised treatment of the war did not attract Russians during Yeltsin’s era. It would have been instrumental in more ways than one: they could have sustained their cult of triumph because the accomplishments of the nation were extensive, the more so as the soldiers had to protect their home against two dictators. On the other hand, such an outlook would have relieved Russians of the impossible task of justifying the crimes committed by the Soviet Union and freed them from the ludicrous rhetoric, which no-one in Europe can understand or share, which has by now caused numerous conflicts and which successfully poisons their minds with xenophobia.
They would have retained their victory, brave deeds and many heroic veterans and even gained several new heroes (I wonder why Moscow has not transformed the anti-Soviet dissidents into heroes). Furthermore, they would have known the historical truth supported – not subverted – by facts. Their world view would have been compatible, not in bitter conflict, with that of Europe.
Fifteen years ago Yeltsin could have endorsed such an interpretation. However, it is too late now; not only because of the Soviet nostalgia disseminated by Putin, but for other, more practical reasons. Namely, when liberated, a victimised nation usually feels the need to seek justice for its oppression. Of course, Lenin and Stalin were dead by 1991, but various individuals responsible for jailing dissidents during Brezhnev’s era were still very much alive.
They should have been dragged into court, rather than given positions of power as has happened in present-day Russia. This is why it is futile to anticipate any changes in Moscow’s historical interpretation before the downfall and demise of the current Putinist authoritarianism, which will happen eventually and give Russians a second chance.
Yet, the things that can no longer be done in Russia can still be done in Estonia. We should aim to de-Stalinise the war memories of all the people who live in Estonia. We should be able to do this and, what is more, we need to.
Since the frightening and alarming April nights when riots erupted in Tallinn, people have wondered what to do next. Some have suggested that the Russian schools should be made more effective in teaching history.
As such, it is probably a good idea, but it should be promoted wisely. It would be useless to tell young Russians to memorise books full of facts about the sufferings of Estonians, if at home they were given a different account of the past. If all war memories were de-Stalinised, these interpretations could, to a large extent, be united and harmonised, or at least made comprehensible to both Russians and Estonians.
Then again, why did the Bronze Soldier constitute a problem? Because its surroundings were transformed into a platform for Soviet propaganda, insulting the majority of the members of society. At the same time, it is very easy to understand and sympathise with the Russians who claim that they visited and still visit the Bronze Soldier to mourn their dead and to pay respect to their relatives whose bones are buried far away or have even been lost.
Many Estonians have relatives who are buried in Siberia, but whose names are inscribed on tombstones here in Estonia – a very similar situation to that of Russians. No, there is nothing wrong with honouring the dead. If only the fallen soldiers were not treated as Stalin’s champions, but as fighters opposing one dictator and suffering at the same time under another, then the whole story would resemble the accounts of Estonians quite closely. Furthermore, the Estonian interpretation should be explained to Russians, so that they could understand that the same dictator who unnecessarily increased their suffering caused huge losses to the Estonian nation.
The de-Stalinisation process should not involve the adoption of a transformed approach by the Russian community alone; it also concerns Estonians, who have dismissed practically every positive statement ever uttered about the Red Army as Soviet propaganda. This means that Estonians should also be much more empathetic.
People should bear in mind that armies, including the Red Army, comprise ordinary folk who want to protect their homes, despite the fact that the leader of their army might be just another dictator. The Red Army soldiers did not have a choice. As a consequence, their children grieve for them.
The events in Tallinn in April, however gruesome they were, have cleared the air and created new opportunities. Everybody is somewhat distressed. Everybody is more curious than usual about the ideas others might have. Everybody is willing to slightly adjust their attitudes.
Let us seize this opportunity to formulate such a history for Estonia that could be shared by everyone living here! The option is still open to us, which cannot be said for the people living in Russia. And we could do it without disinheriting anyone of their stories, memories and sacred symbols.
Translated by Marju Randlane

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