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We All Fall Down

Are Estonians selling sheep as a rare breed of poodle to the Japanese? And other post-riot conversations...

In the days following the riots spurred by Estonia's decision to remove a Red Army memorial from the centre of Tallinn at the end of April, a flurry of spoof advertisements travelled the world via email. A Russian-Estonian designer had taken press photos of the riots and brilliantly turned them into satirical ads.

One ad featured a giddy (male) looter making off with a bottle of Sprite and what looks like a package of sanitary pads from a kiosk. Another ad shows an already nicely-clad woman stealing some clothes from the Armani store. What had started as a protest by Russians and Russian-Estonians against the Estonian government’s transfer of a Soviet World War II monument turned into riots involving looting, violent attacks, and the shocking destruction of property, the likes of which Estonia had not experienced since regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

What was at first a domestic issue between the Estonia government and a minority Russian voice escalated into an international political battle. The Russian Federation voted unanimously to withdraw the Russian ambassador from Tallinn and temporarily closed the border. Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland expressed strong support for Estonia, while several Scandinavian countries issued statements indicating it was a domestic issue. The EU and NATO urged Russia to observe the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in regards to the protection of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow (which was under attack for several day by a pro-Kremlin youth movement), and the EU took it a step further in declaring its support for Estonia and adopted a formal resolution criticizing Russia's human rights record in early May. But mainly, Russia and Estonia’s respective foreign ministers duked it out in the press and on the world political stage, while hackers (many with Russian IP addresses) attacked Estonia via the Internet. Though media reports might leave the rest of the world with the impression that Estonia was crippled by these cyber attacks, it quickly became apparent that it is not called E-stonia just because it sounds cute.

Estonia has a bevy of programming geniuses, and though some websites were down temporarily (including that of a major bank and some branches of government) and money was lost, life went on for most Estonians largely unscathed. To date, companies are still completing their multi-million or billion euro mergers and transactions, tourists are visiting Tallinn in the usual droves, apartment rental prices remain high, and so on. Still, there have been subtle changes since April. A few scenes from life since the riots:

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, I saw some Russian teenagers (obviously too young to have been born during Soviet times) holding signs that said, “CCCP 4ever. Fuck Estonia. Fuck Ansip.” (Andrus Ansip is Estonia’s Prime Minister who made the final decision to move the monument.)

Several people tried to post comments on my blogs that included hate speech aimed at both Estonia and Russia.

Until May 9th, the sale of alcohol was banned and then restricted. We ran out of beer at my birthday party around 2pm. I found myself explaining the temporary restriction on alcohol to an Estonian who was eager to make a run to the nearest liquor store. Until then, he was clueless.

I received an email from a relative in Florida that read, “[N]ow I understand that the riots were caused by the Estonians digging up the war monument that commemorated their salvation from the Nazis and trying to cart it off to another lesser accessible part of the city.”

During a dinner that lasted for several hours, shared by three Americans, two Estonians, and one Latvian, the issue of the riots didn’t come up at all. The Latvian, however, perpetuated the urban myth that Estonia has been selling sheep as a rare breed of poodle to the Japanese.

My husband and I were at the market recently where we bought some strawberries and lemons from a very friendly Russian woman who couldn’t say our total cost in Estonian. She typed it out on a calculator. Estonia has a language law that requires anyone with a public-contact job to be able to speak Estonian fluently, but they do almost nothing to enable the learning of the Estonian language.

At a friend’s birthday party, I asked if the Soviet monument on Saaremaa (one of the Estonian islands) was, at 21 meters, the largest in Estonia. The conversation quickly (and for the rest of the occasion) turned to the riots.

The main social change that became apparent immediately after the riots, and continues now into the summer, is the increased and often public debate about recent history, symbolism, and responsibility -- it all goes back to the core meaning of that Bronze Soldier. Did the Red Army liberate Estonia from the Nazis, or not? Was it right to move the monument from the capital of Estonia, or not? I could walk into any home or restaurant in Estonia at this very moment and start a heated argument just by asking what someone thought of the monument issue. And everyone arguing would be equally convinced of their own correctness. But just as the fake ads cloaked a violent and scary event with humor, these circular debates are masking a deeper problem, one that the people and the government of Estonia, it seems, are not yet ready to face.

Estonia has been lauded as a progressive country that has taken great economic and political strides in spite of over half a century of Soviet occupation. Estonia was proud of what it considers a successful ethnic integration with Russians. It seems the country was mistaking peaceful coexistence for integration.

So now Estonia is busy justifying its decision to move the Soviet-era monument, and being self-obsessed, and Russia is busy meddling in the business of other countries. I'd say Russia is wrong in its position, but that does not mean I think Estonia was right to move the monument. Yes, the Soviet occupation is still a fresh, and often painful memory for the Estonians. And as a result, much of what the Estonian government does is in reaction to the words and actions of the Russian government, and to the lingering memory of Soviet occupation. This defensiveness perpetuates Russia's power over Estonia, and hinders progress.

Maybe we are expecting too much of the Estonians and the Russians, too soon? After all, 16-years is a very short time. And though Estonia may continue to do everything in its power to distance itself from the Russian Federation, the fact remains that Russia is right next door, and always will be.

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