It was in the centre of Tallinn that the famous bronze statue commemorating Soviet soldiers who died defending Estonia stood – differing interpretations of that history is at the heart of the conflict. When the Soviets first entered Estonia in 1940 it was the result of an alliance between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. During that brief occupation they deported some 10 000 native Estonians to Siberia.
Then came the Nazi invasion, which provoked atrocities, particularly against the Jewish population. The Russians took back control in 1944 and integration into the Soviet Union followed. Fast forward to independence in 1991 and the attitude of many Estonians was a “plague on both your houses”.
But this reassertion of national identity left isolated the 30 per cent of the population that is native Russian: some 120 000 don’t even have a national identity – knowledge of the Estonian language is a criteria of citizenship. Tensions with Moscow increased with Estonia’s adhesion to Nato and the alliance’s willingness to back Tallinn over the monument dispute has displeased today’s assertive Russia.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims the removal of symbols of Soviet resistance to Hitler’s Germany is historical revisionism, and accused NATO and the EU of collusion. The underlying message from many Russian demonstrators is that attempts to minimise the Soviet sacrifice is a form of crypto fascism.
But Estonian president Tomas Hendrik Ilves denies the allegation, claiming the dispute has arisen because of Russian domestic political concerns. Estonians accuse Moscow of stirring up the conflict with the use of virulent nationalistic language on official state media, the chief source of information for Estonia’s Russian-speaking population.