International Herald Tribune
May 4th, 2007
Russia is the largest country in the world by area and has 150 million
inhabitants. Estonia is one of the smallest states in Europe with a
population of 1.5 million. Yet Russia’s politicians and media are
spending an awful lot of time, band-width and ink these days bashing the
Why is the elephant so concerned with of the mouse? And why are the
Russian comments so emotionally charged?
The questions are particularly pertinent in the wake of the removal of
an old Soviet statue, the so-called ”Bronze Soldier,” from the center of
Tallinn, the Estonian capital.
Part of the answer is that the statue symbolizes different things for
different people: For the Estonians it is a reminder of Soviet
occupation; for the Russians the statue is a tribute to the role of the
Red Army in defeating Nazi Germany.
Yet something more fundamental is at play here. We are dealing with a
great power that is failing to come to terms with its diminished stature.
For many Russians, Estonia today is Finland in the 1930s – a former
pearl of the empire whose independent existence is a painful reminder of
a glorious past.
Finland became independent in 1917 at a time when Imperial Russia was in
the process of becoming the Soviet Union. Estonia became independent
(for the second time) in 1991, when the Soviet Union was in the process
of becoming Russia.
In the 19th century Finland had been the most modern part of the Russian
empire; in the 20th century Estonia had had the same distinction in the
Being a runaway child is not easy. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union
accused Finland of all sorts of bad things – it was a Nazi stooge, a
fascist sympathizer, an unreliable neighbor.
In the spring of 2007 similar accusations are being made against
Estonia: It mistreats Russians, glorifies fascists and, of course, is
an unreliable neighbor.
One can understand why Stalin’s Russia was so hostile to a capitalist
Finland in the 1930s. But why is Putin’s Russia so hostile to a
democratic Estonia? After all, the Bronze Soldier has to do with the
Soviet Union, not with the Russian Federation.
The answer is simple: The present Russian regime sees itself as an heir
to the Soviet Union.
The contrast to the Yeltsin years is radical – Boris Yeltsin turned
against the Soviet Union and declared Russia independent of the Soviet
empire. Intellectually he was in the same camp with the Estonians,
Latvians and Lithuanians – all wanted to make a clean break with the
A clean break with the past is the last thing President Vladimir Putin
wants. For him, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the biggest
geopolitical mistake of the 20th century. For him, there is no
distinction between Russia of today, the Soviet Union of yesterday and
the Imperial Russia of yore. The history of these three is a continuing
history of Russian greatness.
The Kremlin wants to salvage the last moral justification for the
existence of the Soviet Union – that its brave people played a
crucial role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Without this justification,
the whole Soviet era appears a sorry experiment, an absurd period of
By attacking Estonians for their lack of respect for an old Soviet
statue, the Russian are sending a strong warning to anyone who seeks to
equate the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany.
The stakes are high. For Finland it took two wars and 50 years of
diplomatic tip-toeing to reach a relaxed relationship with Russia.
Nobody is talking about war now, but it is quite clear that the
animosity between Russia and Estonia is not going to go away any time soon.