Fellow Russian immigrant Cathy Young has an excellent column on the controversy over Estonia's decision to move a monument to the Soviet "Liberators of Tallin" to a less prominent location in the nation's capital. The statue commemorated the Soviet army for "liberating" Estonia from the Germans in 1944. As Young points out, Estonians rightly regard the Soviet conquest and annexation of their country as a "brutal occupation" rather than as "liberation." She also notes that the current Russian government has cynically used this incident to try to whitewash the wrongs of communism and whip up nationalist sentiment in Russia. Russian President and former KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin, of course, claims that the collapse of communism was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."
However, perhaps due to space constraints, Young does not mention the full scope of Soviet crimes in Estonia, and therefore does not fully explain why the Estonians viewed the presence of a monument to the Red Army in the center of their capital as "an insult." Along with Latvia, Lithuania, and eastern Poland, Estonia was annexed by the USSR in 1940 pursuant to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which carved up much of Eastern Europe between the USSR and the Nazis. During the period of Soviet rule in Estonia, some 30,000 Estonians were executed by the Soviet authorities or died in detention for "political offenses." 80,000 were imprisoned or deported to Gulag slave labor camps for such "crimes." Most - but not all - of these atrocities were carried out in the first few years of Soviet rule (1940-41, 1944-51). I have not counted the thousands of Estonians killed or imprisoned for taking part in armed resistance to Soviet rule, though in truth the Soviets had no right to kill these people either; I have also discounted thousands forcibly conscripted into the Soviet military, many of whom died in service; and 21,000 Baltic Germans forcibly deported to Germany in accordance with various Nazi-Soviet agreements. For a detailed breakdown of the data from which these figures are taken, see here.
To put these figures in perspective, it is important to note that the total population of Estonia in 1939 was only about 1.1 million. The 30,000 Estonians killed by the Soviet authorities for political reasons amount to almost 3 percent of the population. Some 10% of all Estonians were either killed or imprisoned. A comparable proportional population loss for the United States today would leave some 9 million dead and another 20 million imprisoned or deported out of our population of 300 million.
In and of itself, the controversy over the Tallin monument is unimportant. But it does provide a disturbing indication of Putin's efforts to whitewash the Soviet past. On the positive side of the ledger, it is a good opportunity to educate ourselves about at least a few of the crimes of communism - horrors that too many remain ignorant of even today.
UPDATE: To avoid confusion, I am not denying that the Soviet military had the right to engage in combat operations in Estonia in 1944, at a time when the country was occupied by the Germans (who had seized it from the Soviets in 1941). I do, however, deny that the USSR had the right to forcibly annex Estonia in 1940 or to reannex it in 1944. And it goes without saying that, even if the USSR had a right to annex the country, it did not have the right to kill and imprison thousands of Estonians because of their political views or (in many cases) membership in the wrong social "classes."
UPDATE #2: As a commenter points out, I accidentally miscounted the number of dead and imprisoned that today's US would have to suffer in order to equal the proportional losses inflicted on Estonia by the USSR. I have now changed the figures in the post to the correct numbers.
Related Posts (on one page):
- A Dubious Reunion for the Russian Orthodox Church:
- Estonia and the Legacy of Soviet "Liberation":
- A May Day Proposal: