A Soviet Memorial — and Mind-Set

The Washington Post
Fred Hiatt
May 7, 2007

In 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Estonian counterpart, the polymath Lennart Meri, chummily drank together in a Kremlin chamber as their foreign ministers labored nearby to complete a historic treaty to withdraw all Russian troops from the tiny Baltic state.

When it was time to celebrate the finished draft, Yeltsin mocked his own foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, for his weak drinking skills — “Bring the boy some ice cream,” he roared to an attendant — but approved the agreement. That may have been the high-water mark of Russia’s willingness to face its imperialist history and allow its neighbors to live in peace.

How far Russia has regressed since then became shockingly evident last week when Vladimir Putin’s Russia (population: 143 million) unleashed a barrage against neighboring Estonia (population: 1.34 million) that included Kremlin cyber-attacks on official Estonian Web sites, gangs of Kremlin-sponsored youths menacing Estonian diplomats in Moscow, Russian officials and government-controlled media spewing incendiary propaganda, Russian companies suspending contracts with Estonian firms and, in predictably Putinian fashion, Russian threats to cut off the tiny nation’s energy supplies. (Suddenly, the Russian railway announced, all its coal-carrying railcars were in desperate need of repair.) The onslaught illustrated the dangerous real-world consequences of mythologizing history — of Putin’s glorification of Stalinism — and the link between Russia’s atrophied democracy and its increasingly aggressive foreign policy.

The episode began on April 26 when Estonia began relocating a Soviet-era war memorial and the remains of a dozen Soviet soldiers buried beneath it from a central square in the capital, Tallinn, to a nearby military cemetery. Russian-speaking youth, after meeting with Russian diplomats, rioted in protest. Russia’s foreign minister attacked this “disgusting . . . blasphemy.” The upper house of Russia’s parliament demanded a severing of relations. The Kremlin-controlled press furiously (and inaccurately) assailed the “dismantling” of the statue.

Why such a fuss? To Russians, the statue was a tribute to their overwhelming losses in World War II — which they know as the Great Patriotic War. To Estonians, it was a reminder of a half-century of Soviet occupation during which the Kremlin shot thousands of Balts; sent hundreds of thousands to Siberia; moved hundreds of thousands of Russians in to take their places;
and tried to eradicate their culture, their language and any memory of independence.

The trouble is that Russia has never acknowledged this history, and under Putin it grows less and less willing to do so. The passing of the Soviet Union is mourned, the old KGB is celebrated — imagine if Germans continued to honor the Gestapo — and the current independence of former Soviet states is treated as a transitory error. Neither Putin nor even his foreign minister has deigned to pay a bilateral visit to independent Tallinn. Virtually every neighbor — Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, even Finland — has been subjected to bullying.

“It seems they cannot tolerate any democracy on their borders,” Estonian President Toomas Ilves told me in a phone conversation late Friday night. He sounded weary after a week of crisis, but hopeful that tensions would ease, particularly after Estonia had received support from the West, including an invitation that day from President Bush for Ilves to visit the White House in June.

Democracy in Estonia or Georgia, Ilves suggested, calls into question Kremlin claims that “Western-style” democracy won’t work in that part of the world. An absence of democracy at home, in turn, makes it awkward to face history, “because if you start saying the Soviet Union was bad, well, what was at fault? One-party rule, a lack of human rights?” — it’s all too familiar.

Russian leaders dwell inordinately on the lack of respect paid them — but the more they stifle democracy at home, the less cause others have to show respect and the more the Kremlin ends up having to demand respect in a Soviet way. “Now Germany commands a tremendous amount of respect,” Ilves told me, “not because people any longer are afraid of it, but because it is
a thriving and effective country.

“For Russia, respect is based not on achievement or accomplishment, but intimidation and fear — that was the ‘greatness’ of the Soviet Union.”

Yeltsin, for all his drinking and Siberian gruffness, had at least glimmers of understanding that Russia could become a greater country by withdrawing unwanted troops than by imposing them. Putin, clean-cut and fit, seems the more modern man. But his troops remain in parts of neighboring Georgia and Moldova, and no decisive Kremlin summits to solve those problems, with vodka
or ice cream, seem likely anytime soon.