Estonia: a Soviet Republic that Made it? The Interplay of Communist and Pre-Communist Legacies in the Transition of a Singing Little Nerd from the Soviet West to the European East
In comparison to other post-Soviet states, Estonia so far has proceeded steadily on her political course of fostering democratic institutions, establishing political stability and integration into "Western" organisations. However, recent developments, the entry of right-wing extremists into the government, seems to threaten this course. Interestingly enough, it was the moment of adopting a legislation on same-sex partnership in 2015 that was crucial for stirring up popular resistance to the “westernizing” agenda, which might seem at least partly motivated by typical post-Communist mentalities. Historically, this success story has a precedent since Estonia already after 1917 belonged to the few countries that realised the democratic promises of the February revolution. During a turbulent interwar period, however, radical parliamentary democracy was substituted with an authoritarian regime in 1934 before Estonia became a Soviet republic until 1991, interrupted by three years of Nazi-occupation from 1941 to 1944. The dominant narrative is still one of resistance and dissent to “foreign rule” (or of adaptation for the sake of the nation), which apparently made the transition to a national state since the late 1980s a seemingly “natural” process that mobilized a large majority (not only) of the ethnic Estonian population for peaceful protest.
It is this moment in history that I shall use as a starting point for a first article. Soviet nationalities policy and the support given to the cultural development of those nations who lived in a separate republic pawed the way to the national solution of the “Baltic question”. But the way how this Soviet nationalities policy was popularly perceived in Estonia – namely, as “Russification” – ethnicized the frontline even further. In consequence, the leeway for political bargaining became increasingly small for those who had to negotiate the process of dissolution from the USSR. To a large extent, these conflicts can be illustrated with the deep antagonism between the leader of the Peoples’ Front Edgar Savisaar and the non-communist activist Mart Laar, a young historian and – as Savisaar – future Prime Minister of Estonia. These conflicts that were taken well into the 1990s and 2000s do not fit into the popular story of a united nation singing the Soviets out of the country. Thus far, the story of the “Singing Revolution” finds its emotional peak in the year 1989. The almost two years separating this period from the stillborn coup in Moscow in August 1991 are conveniently overlooked. A closer investigation of these 19 months between January 1990 and August 1991 might offer a clearer view to what extent the diffuse vision of autonomy (Savisaar) vs. independence (Laar) had become more pronounced in the mind of leading politicians and activists. Lukewarm solidarity with Lithuania that declared full restoration of independence in spring 1990 and the rejection of any kind of negotiations about a new Union treaty with the Kremlin can be seen as test balloons in order to create some leeway for the own agenda.
Interestingly enough, the personal legacy of politicians was rarely used in anti-elite campaigns such as the infamous “Communists into fire” (kommarid ahju) action in 2005 that was directed most prominently against then Prime Minister Andrus Ansip (who had a Komsomol-past) and President Arnold Rüütel (who had been the last Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR). This criminalization of certain personalities has been, as far as I can see, an exception. The elites, “old” and “new” alike, largely shared the western oriented vision of independence as leading ideal for the future after 1991, a consensus that led the country eventually into EU and NATO in 2004. How does this legacy play into current affairs? Does anti-Communism still unify the population?
Today, the discourse on Communism in Estonia is shaped first and foremost by the "Memory Institute" (Mälu instituut), a state-founded organisation that deals primarily with the remembrance of the communist regime. Thus it is mostly regarded to be a part of the state's policy of history. The institute played a leading role in the construction of a monument in Tallinn devoted to the victims of the communist regime that was opened on 23 August 2018, an initiative that owes quite a lot to active participants of the nationalist wing of the perestroika era. In May 2019 the Institute opened a new exhibition in a former prison in Tallinn under the (provocative?) headline “Communism is prison”. I intend to write another article on recent examples of Estonian politics of history that seem to be completely absorbed with largely fostering the anti-communist legacy of the country’s post-1991 agenda. As a contrast (?), I intend to discuss also the renewed exhibitions of the Historical Museum of Estonia and the (private) Museum of Occupations. However, concerning the current front-line between "liberals" and right-wing "populists", it may quite well be that, as Makarychev & Sazonov have shown, it is not “Russia” or "Communism" anymore, but “Europe” as an identity marker that is “perceived as an ‘other’ for most populist narratives”. In this light, the Memory Institute’s exhibition does not address the right topic if it wanted to re-establish some kind of unity among the population with an anti-communist narrative in the nation’s politics of history. In light of current challenges, the anti-communist mainstream increasingly has nothing to say about the present state of affairs anymore.
Während seines Gastaufenthalts am ZZF Potsdam forscht Karsten Brüggemann in Abt. I im Projekt "Legacies of Communism".