CT Reporters: Aljoša from Tallinn
A statue of a Soviet soldier towers over hundreds of monuments to fallen soldiers of both World Wars in Tallinn’s military cemetery. Locals intimately call it Alyosha. The monument, which besides Russian flags also bears a message of support for Ukraine, now looks like a place of reconciliation. Until a few years ago, however, it was this statue that revealed enormous tensions in Estonian society.
“The Bronze Soldier was the main Soviet war memorial in the center of Tallinn. It just stood there quietly for many years. But then Putin’s youth movement began to form in Russia, and the monument became a a gathering place for people who came from Russia with Soviet slogans, but the Estonian public didn’t like it very much,” says journalist and analyst Kadri Liiková.
The monument was erected by the Soviets in 1947. For the Estonians, unlike the Russians, it symbolized not only the defeat of Nazism, but above all the occupation of their country by Stalin. “For Estonians, the war ended with the departure of Russian occupation forces in the 1990s. That is why May 9 celebrations have always been a matter of contention between Russians and Estonians,” said explained the editor-in-chief of the Russian program of the Estonian television ERR, Juri Nikolaev.
Russian and Estonian nationalists are increasingly clashing with the statue of Alyosha. For example, they tried to place a wreath with barbed wire and the inscription The Assassins of the Estonian Nation on the memorial. Russian militant youth again organized so-called night patrols with him.
Disinformation and cyberattacks
The riots were not ended by the fence of the memorial, and the Estonian government decided in April 2007 to move it from the center to a safer location. A few days earlier, a photomontage had started circulating on Russian sites, claiming that the Estonians had cut the statue into pieces. The carefully crafted misinformation felt like a detonator. “People thought that the government had completely removed the statue. Clashes started in Tallinn that night, which was quite scary,” says Liiková.
The clashes between Estonian and Russian nationalists lasted several days at the end of April 2007. The police arrested a thousand people. Three hundred people were injured. One person lost their life. The crisis has highlighted not only the neglected tensions between the Russian minority and ethnic Estonians, but also how Russian President Vladimir Putin can manage such potential. “We are talking about a lack of respect not only for our history, but for the history of the world. This is vandalism, this is a fascist action, this is terrible”, commented Russian activist Julia Orlova .
Young Russians demonstrated in front of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow. Almost simultaneously, Estonia was hit by the biggest wave of cyberattacks the country has ever seen. It affected state institutions, the banking system and the media. “I think the Estonian government has since realized that local Russians have their own worldviews and opinions, and if they want them to think more like Estonians, they need to be more accessible, more communicative and better explained. And it started to happen,” Liiková said.
But with the war in Ukraine, old wounds are beginning to reopen. Many Russians would not comment on the war for Czech reporters. But some have shared their concerns. These, as we know, can be well abused in conflicts. For example, false information has already appeared on social networks that people with Russian nationality do not renew their residence permits.
The easternmost town in Estonia is Narva. It is directly on the border with Russia. Of the city’s inhabitants, 97% are Russian. The streets and shops are marked in Estonian, but hardly anyone speaks this language.
Irene Käosaar runs the Integration and Language Center in Narva. Its goal is to teach Estonian to local adults. “Ten percent of the population of other nationalities who don’t speak Estonian still live in Estonia. That’s a pretty good result, because ten or twenty years ago it was a lot more,” he says. .
Linguistic closure does not only imply work restrictions. Without Estonian, one cannot obtain a university degree or work in public administration, the army or the police. But it also leads to cultural closure. “Unfortunately, even in 2022 our education system is bilingual. The curriculum is the same, but around 16% of children study in Russian-language schools,” Käosaar said.
Ekaterina Tabri lived in Narva until she was nineteen. She had Estonian as a compulsory school subject. But she admits she didn’t speak well without practice. The desire to go to university changed that. “It just came to our knowledge at that time. ‘I wish I had studied Estonian since CP,’ she said.
Ekaterina is of Russian origin. She has an Estonian as a husband. She lives in a bilingual household and although she speaks Russian with her son, she has enrolled him in an Estonian school. Not only because of his integration, but also because of his better level. According to Ekaterina, however, not all Russians want to join Estonian society.
Russian propaganda in Estonia
According to Ekaterina, the war in Ukraine has caused a lot of tension in Estonian Russian homes. “I also can’t talk about everything with some of my friends because we would start arguing,” she said.
Russian channels’ propaganda about Russian-speaking Estonians led the government to ban a large number of Russian and Belarusian TV channels from the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many Russians in Estonia are reluctant. “For example, my grandmother, who lives in Narva, doesn’t speak Estonian or English and is now angry that they turned off those Russian programs,” Tabri said.
However, some Russian-speaking viewers have started to watch more Estonian TV in Russian, which has been providing objective news in Russian since 2015. Juri Nikolaev also works for the Russian-speaking channel of Estonian TV ERR in Narva. He sees what propaganda can do to people. “I live among people who have completely different opinions about what is happening in Ukraine. Some say that Putin wants to occupy and take over Ukraine, while others say that is not the case. Conflicts run through society, between colleagues, in families,” he said.
Narva is located in one of the poorest regions of Estonia. Much of the city’s population during the Soviet Union era worked in a huge textile factory. But he did not survive the regime change and many people lost their livelihoods. They like to remember the “good old Soviet times”.
“Unfortunately, we have not been able to properly or successfully reorient ourselves towards small and medium enterprises. This process is not yet complete – it is still ongoing. But in a sense, Narva is saved by our geographical location. That is, we are on the border with Russia,” said deputy mayor and history professor Vladimir Zhavoronkov. He openly admits that many people on the verge of poverty in Narva live off smuggling. They take advantage of price differences. “Now you see that we have two euros of fuel, there it costs 40 cents,” he added.
Cross-border trade is now complicated by the sanctions imposed on Russia. And even this, according to Žavoronkov, is reflected in the mood of the inhabitants of Narva. “If you impose sanctions, you have to be prepared for the black market to thrive. We are fighting against that, yes, we can reduce it, but unfortunately it cannot be stopped. It dramatically changes the way people think – they stop thinking honestly, they stop identifying with the state,” he warned.
Žavoronkov sees this as the greatest danger of the moment, which can further divide society. According to him, improving the standard of living is the best way to integrate Russian-speaking Estonians in the east of the country. “When people feel insecure, inadvertently find themselves in a blurry situation, it’s hard for them to find work. They don’t have a future. Then people look for a firm government. They look for a dictatorship. Of course, they won’t say: we need a dictator, but they will start to admire such regimes,” he said.
According to Käosaar, some Russian-speaking residents of Narva look up to Putin, but they don’t see it as a major problem. “There is no Russian-speaking community here in Estonia like in Donbass or Luhansk. Local Russians have a feeling of being part of Estonia, they are Russian-speaking Estonians. Their home is Estonia, not the Russia,” he notes.
More and more emigrants now come from Russia. They also come from Ukraine. So far, there are only four Ukrainian families in Narva. But other Ukrainians on the run would not be very well received by the locals. They are afraid of possible conflicts. “Such a negative thought prevails – a Ukrainian came and took my work,” describes Zavoronkov.
Despite fears that no one has ventured out in public yet, but rather within families, Tabri believes that if there was a threat to Estonia, local society would hold together. He is afraid to attack Russia. “If you heard what Putin said about Ukraine, that it was not independent, that it was always part of Russia, the same can be said about the Baltic countries. The only thing that can protect us right now is NATO. And that’s why we’re still here. Because I don’t want to live under Putin’s regime,” she said.