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WWII narrative impacts local election in Estonia

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The successful use of historical memories about World War II in Estonia’s local elections shows that the narrative of the victorious Soviet nation over fascism continues to shape the voting behavior of many ethnic Russians.

In early November, a few weeks after the 15 October local elections, the Estonian-language news portal published an overview of articles in Tallinn’s Russian-language newspaper Stolitsa on Mihhail Kõlvart, the Estonian Center Party (ECP) candidate for Tallinn City Council. The survey showed that during the City Council campaign from May to October, Stolitsa published 11 articles on Kõlvart organizing financial support for Tallinn-based veterans who fought on the Russian side in World War II. In the subsequent election, Kõlvart gathered 24,668 votes—almost five times more than the runner-up, Raimond Kaljulaid.

The ECP, with 27 seats in Estonia’s 101-seat Parliament, is supported by 77 percent of Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority; it also has formal ties to the Kremlin’s ruling United Russia party. As the ruling party of Tallinn’s city government, the ECP also owns Stolitsa, which is distributed free of charge to all Tallinn inhabitants. Supporting Soviet Red Army veterans as part of the election campaign is consistent with voting behavior in local elections where, unlike in general elections, all Estonian inhabitants regardless of their citizenship have the right to vote.

It may seem odd that memories of an event that happened 75 years ago could still influence election results. But for Russians, World War II remains an important pillar of national identity. The story of the Soviet nation’s glorious victory over the Nazis was used to unify the Soviet people after the country’s postwar expansion; today, the Kremlin uses it as a source of legitimacy for the regime.

However, this vision of World War II—the Great Patriotic War—differs from that of the West. For Russia, the war started not in 1939, when Nazi Germany and the USSR invaded Poland, but on 22 June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa. Likewise, for Russia the war ended not on 2 September 1945 with Japan’s surrender, but on May 9 with the surrender of Nazi Germany.

As these dates show, the USSR—and now Russia—sees the conflict exclusively as a defensive war against the Nazis. This view excludes the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed on 23 August 1939 and its secret protocol, by which the USSR and Germany agreed to divide Eastern Europe. Also, in Moscow’s view, the USSR defeated Nazi Germany without Allied help. It was, as Leonid Brezhnev said in 1965, “the victory of the Soviet nation”—a necessary myth to consolidate support for the Soviet regime. 

Thus the myth of the Great Patriotic War as a key pillar of Soviet identity was created from many elements: it was defensive war against Nazi Germany, the Red Army fought it with no significant help from allies and without committing any war crimes, and it ended with the USSR liberating the world from Nazism.

This was the “correct image” of the war, according to the Kremlin, and as a part of national identity, this image came to have a sacred character that excluded public debate over the interpretation of history. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s policy of “bringing Russia up from its knees” also involved reviving this myth of the glorious nation that rid the world of Nazismm. But since the myth was not completely in agreement with facts, in 2012 Russia established the Presidential Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests to “defend Russia against falsifiers of history and those who would deny the Soviet contribution to the victory in World War II.” In 2014, the country adopted a law that made distorting the Soviet Union’s role in World War II a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in jail. That year, the independent Russian TV channel DozhdTV was excluded from cable TV packages after it questioned Soviet actions during the siege of Leningrad. Tikhon Dzyadko, the channel’s deputy editor, said President Vladimir Putin was using the war for propaganda because it’s the best memory Russia has.

It is clear that Stolitsa’s coverage alone during the pre-election period was not the only reason for Mihhail Kõlvart’s 24,668 votes. Several other factors were at play. For example, these were also the first elections where the previous leader of the ECP, Edgar Savisaar, did not run as a member of that party, making Kõlvart the ECP’s new star. But the fact that the war narrative created in the Soviet Union is still used—and still effective—warrants attention. How this narrative helps Russia’s widening connections with Western Europe’s far-right parties is another question.

Photo: “Tallinn Town Hall and Town Hall Square” by Jorge Láscar under CC BY 2.0