AH, Baile Á Cliath
I am Estonian migrant who came to Ireland in 1999. My background is mixed, in that I have Estonian citizenship, but like many children born to Soviet families, my ancestry spreads out across Europe; including Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, and Estonian relatives. Their histories are complex and their positions on certain issues were different. Those of my relatives who came from pro-imperial, pro-German backgrounds, tended to view socialism in eastern Europe as an abomination that needed to be resisted, while those who were working class were staunch supporters of socialism, and even the Cheka, NKVD and Red Army soldiers. This difference is of general interest but not the main theme of discussion in this article. The theme of this article focuses on the Museum of Occupation which I went to visit and how it portrays Estonia’s uncomfortable relationship to Fascism.
World War II
The seminal text on this period is Stalin’s Wars by Professor Roberts, which you can still purchase and is in most university libraries. In Stalin’s Wars, Professor Roberts outlines that the Western powers had as far back as 1936 crafted a strategy to isolate the USSR and play their cards in such a way that would force a military confrontation between the USSR and Nazi Germany. This included letting Republican Spain be overrun by Franco and their enabling of the re-arming, rebuilding, and preparing for war of Hitler’s Germany through appeasement. Contrary to popular propaganda in the Western world, the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact was a pact of final resort, designed to delay war and give time for the USSR to move its heavy industry further East into its land and build thousands upon thousands of tanks, planes and artillery pieces.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, contrary to popular propaganda in the West, was also not the first non-aggression pact with Hitler’s Germany. Indeed, before this agreement was made, Germany had signed non-aggression pacts with several other countries in Europe, which also included; Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, France, Denmark. Yet if you type “World War II non-aggression pacts” into Google, the first one that yields multiple results is the one that concerns only one country: the USSR. This is intended to criminalise the USSR and its political decisions, while overlooking the actions of other states. A similar approach is taken by almost every single post-Soviet country in eastern Europe. Museums and tours focus on the alleged horrors perpetrated by the USSR, while omitting significant sections of history.
Before you get to the Museum of Occupation, you walk past Freedom Square, where a giant monument to EESTI LEGION stands. Eesti Legion is the name of the Waffen-SS division that was composed of Estonians and is used today in an all-capturing way to describe the “freedom fighters” who fought the Communists.
This is a very common theme in countries that were collaborative with the Nazi occupation. The current states revise the roles of the collaborators, transforming them from Nazis into freedom fighters. The same approach is taken in the school curriculum and the education system where young people are taught about their history. A clear cut example of this phenomenon is currently in Ukraine, where Stepan Bandera, who oversaw the mass murder of Jews and worked with the Nazi’s, is hailed as a national hero and freedom fighter.
The Museum of Occupation in Estonia
The Museum of Occupation in Estonia is a highly visited location and is central to telling the story about the oppression that was inflicted on the Soviet people. It uses buzzwords like “freedom” and “democracy” regularly, while doing its best to paint the 1944-1991 period as one of the worst in Estonian history. Estonia does not have any museums that speak of the Estonian people who voluntarily joined the Waffen-SS, nor the crimes they perpetrated. The concentration camps that existed in Estonia are off the beaten track and hidden to conceal what one can only hope is a deep sense of shame.
The Museum begins by talking of the Red Army “invasion” in 1944 and of the calamitous bombing campaign over the city that went on and how it destroyed many parts of the city. Although it is sad that buildings of historical value were damaged and destroyed, it is sadder yet that this is the focus of the discussion. Estonia was occupied by Nazis, who, aided by local Waffen-SS volunteers and militias, murdered almost the entire Jewish population.
By focusing on the unfortunate reality that in times of war and great conflict, buildings get destroyed – they deflect from the actual issue.
After you enter, you are shown a panel of four elderly people who tell their story of either migrating or staying. They don’t go into tremendous detail as to why they migrated or what they were arrested for, but a little plaque later specifically comments that the Red Army and the Communist Party targeted the “political and economic elite”, as well as those who supported the Nazi occupation and their wider circles.
This doesn’t seem to be particularly extraordinary. Communists tend not to look too favourably on the parasitic classes of bankers, insurers, aristocratic officers, and landlords. It is curious then that they are painted out to be as some sort of martyred heroes. The other demographic is self-explanatory – what exactly does one suppose would happen to those individuals who chose to join the Waffen-SS or supported a Nazi occupation? In many countries partisans just hanged them trees. You would think that a prison sentence is a big improvement to execution.
The museum then continues to tell the story of the journey to Siberia to the prisons and its difficulty. Again, the purpose is to draw on your heartstrings and make the issue abstract. Don’t think about the fact that those being sent away helped Nazi’s, think of them as human beings who were chained up and sent to prison. If you are completely oblivious to the extent of collaboration, then you very well might accept the illusion being spun.
At one point one enters a room, and the audio guide tells you to look up. On the ceiling is a giant image of Stalin, to which the audio guide says something along the lines of, “He was always watching and everywhere” to reinforce the point of totalitarianism. Of course, no substantive explanation is provided as to how that functioned. No numbers are given for how many people were arrested, put on trial, informed upon, and seized, despite all this information being widely available in the archives. As you continue your journey through the museum, you are bizarrely told about the lives of Estonian migrants abroad and how they settled in other countries. While this is an interesting story to tell, it has absolutely nothing to do with the “occupation” of Estonia, the quality of life, and the issues Estonian people faced. Again, this sad story is spun to deflect from a substantive explanation of what life was really like in Estonia.
The final few rooms are dedicated to telling the story of how Estonia obtained its “freedom” and constituted the contemporary Estonian Republic. Freedom in this museum is used largely in the same manner as it is used by those opposed to wearing masks and getting vaccinations i.e. to denote an abstract idea of freedom of the individual and more concretely, freedom of capital to pillage the country’s resources, industry and infrastructure.
The Museum is a national embarrassment to the people of Estonia and a mockery to Jewish people worldwide. It completely wipes out the Estonian holocaust and Estonian participation in it. It ignores the fact that Tartu and Harku both had concentration camps that exterminated almost every single Estonian Jewish person that stayed, and it conveniently makes no mention of Eesti Legion.
The World Holocaust Remembrance Center has a more detailed piece here about the Holocaust in the Baltic States. It is well worth reading because it puts museums such as the one mentioned above into a more accurate perspective.
What about today?
Given the dramatic revision of history that was just articulated above, one can imagine what sort of Estonian culture has been manufactured today. Anecdotal discussions and evidence from family friends and family members tells me that the goal of the Estonian state and most parliamentary parties is to keep Estonia white, homogenous and hostile to all foreigners.
In the early days of the new Baltic states, hundreds of thousands of people who were born in those countries and had lived there upped and left. The new states introduced mandatory language tests as part of distribution of passports. They knew full well that because Estonian and Russian were both official languages, many people only spoke one or the other. The strategy delivered; those who could not satisfy the new citizenship requirements were given grey passports that literally said ALIEN on them. They legally created an actual status of second-class citizen, all in their drive for ethno-homogenous states.
The degree of hostility varies, but naturally like all racists, the feelings of hostility are more intense towards non-white foreigners. It was only as recently as 2019 that one of the main political parties stated that it would not “accept one asylum seeker” when the program of Syrian asylum seekers was being rolled out. The reasoning? There are too many Ukrainian migrants coming in and they’re merging into the Russian community!
Even The Guardian wrote a lengthy piece about the election in 2019 and government formation where one incoming minister smiled while flashing white power signs. You can read the piece here.
Despite Estonia trying to present itself as a social democratic, Scandinavian-style country open to all, at the heart of the culture and education system is a sympathetic relationship to fascism, stemming from the WWII period. Despite all the talk of freedom and free speech, communist symbols and the communist party are banned and saying something about Communism or the occupation period of the 40s could land you in legal trouble.
There is little online information about Estonia during the USSR, but in our family home there is a detailed photographic book of Estonia, filled with smiling faces, colourful depictions of life, and captions of people doing normal things. Of course, although these images and photographs don’t exist in museums, know that they do exist and that the supposed miserable existence that’s painted out was far from the truth.