Monument Wars

Letter From Tallinn

Estonian flags wave near the Estonian War of Independence Victory Monument in Tallinn, June 16, 2010.
Estonian flags wave near the Estonian War of Independence Victory Monument in Tallinn, June 16, 2010. (Ints Kalnins / Courtesy Reuters)

In Tallinn, Estonia, sixteenth-century knights beckon passersby into their stores, pushing “local” trinkets such as woolen sweaters and forest-animal-meat pies. A spire, which was Europe’s tallest until 1625, still stands out against the petite, gothic townhouses that line the cobblestone streets. Scandinavian tourists flit through the gift shops, and local youths sip coffee at cafés that would fit just as well in Brooklyn.

Today, Tallinn appears to be one of those too-perfect northern European cities where no one jaywalks and everyone is beautiful. It is hard to imagine that nearly seven years ago, in April 2007, this fairyland was a battlefield. Crowds of Estonian nationalists and local Russians scuffled, looted stores, and vandalized property, while the police used force (too much, according to a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights) to quell the violence. In what became known as the Bronze Night, so named because it involved the relocation of a bronze statue of a Soviet soldier, one person was stabbed to death and dozens more were injured.

The street brawl was one episode in Estonia’s “monument wars,” a series of conflicts spanning the last decade over the country’s many remaining Soviet-era statues and what should be erected in their place. The soul-searching was prompted by Estonia’s ascension to the European Union in 2004, for which the nation needed to come to terms with its checkered past and settle unresolved tensions between the ethnic Estonian population and a large Russian minority.

The clashes in Estonia never approached the scale of the volatile protests that have shaken Ukraine in recent weeks, where protesters who support closer ties with the European Union toppled a Lenin statue in central Kiev. But the less-reported conflict in Estonia serves as a reminder that, even in a country whose political future is more settled, monuments still serve as a focal point in debates over national identity.

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