Briefs

Revisiting Soviet monuments

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trolling Estonia. Since CEPA’s last brief on the future of the Soviet war memorial in Tallinn, Putin named the Russian 23rd fighter aviation regiment after Estonia's capital, Tallinn, in memory of Air Force Regiment 404, which bombed Tallinn in 1944. This regiment, along with other Soviet regiments named after Tallinn, has a plaque at the same Soviet memorial in Tallinn. Clearly, the memorial—known as Maarjamäe—creates tensions in both Russia and Estonia.
 
In January, CEPA analyzed Russian media reactions to an interview with Estonian Justice Minister Urmas Reinsalu on the future of this war memorial. It was clear then that, while Reinsalu talked about possibly restoring Maarjamäe to make it safer for visitors, several Russian media outlets instead reported that the Estonian government had decided to demolish the memorial.
 
This disinformation attack was remarkable not only because of its quantity—at least 10 articles appeared on the same topic—but also because of how these articles were distributed. It was started not by local channels as usual, but by TASS, a leading news agency that is wholly owned and operated by the Russian government. Using the ping-pong technique, it exaggerated the original statement on possible restoration work to Estonia’s alleged plan to demolish the memorial as a sign of Russophobic behavior.

On January 29, Putin signed a decree naming Russia’s 23rd fighter aviation regiment the “Tallinn” regiment in order to “preserve glorious military traditions” and “raise the spirit of military duty.”
 
Those “glorious military traditions” refer to Soviet Air Force Regiment 404—also called the “Tallinn regiment.” This unit helped bomb Tallinn in 1944, destroying one-fifth of the city’s buildings, killing 600 people, wounding another 500 and leaving 20,000 homeless.
 
Putin’s decision is significant, not only because Russia—known for its aggression against neighboring Georgia and Ukraine—decided to use the name of Estonia’s capital for a military unit whose predecessor bombed Tallinn during World War II. It is also because the “Tallinn regiment” has a direct connection to the Maarjamäe war memorial.
 
Excerpts of the interview confirm that Reinsalu said the following: 

  • The memorial is in a bad shape and needs renovation.
  • The ministry has already begun calculating renovation costs and hopes the next state budget will allocate money for this.
  • The complex, which includes both the Soviet memorial and the planned memorial to Victims of Communism, should be managed jointly.
  • The Soviet memorial would need information panels explaining its meaning.
  • Asked if the memorial should be demolished, Reinsalu said he has no opinion.
  • The ideological issue (whether Russia would use the memorial for propaganda purposes) is separate from safety and technical issues.
  • No decisions have been made.
  • Before making any decisions, everyone involved, including architects, should reach a common understanding on how to make the area safer.
  • If some parties think elements of the memorial should be removed, this needs to be considered, and should be discussed publicly without fear.

Russian media coverage showed it differently. Reinsalu talked about possible restoration works and a plan to consult specialists; Russian media presented it as a decision already made by the Estonian government to demolish the monument, and as proof of Estonia’s Russophobic behavior. Russian media outlets either failed to understand that in democracy, discussion and decision are two separate things, or they intentionally misread the interview.