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.

The Soviet Union was known for building massive socialist realist monuments in the places it occupied -- from the Baltics to Central Europe. A means of spreading ideology and consolidating Moscow’s influence over its vast empire, these statues favored communist leaders and symbols such as the hammer and sickle. Estonia tore down the most overt reminders of Soviet control when it gained its re-independence in 1991. Still, a number of monuments were left standing, particularly those championing the Red Army’s role in liberating Estonia from the Nazis during World War II.

But since that liberation led to decades of widely resented Soviet occupation, the lingering monuments riled a population that increasingly identified with Europe and looked toward European Union and NATO membership. “The identity of the state was in flux,” Alexander Astrov, an associate professor of international relations and European studies at the Central European University, told me. Monuments, which serve as “places of memory,” came under fire.

After a series of minor disputes in the countryside, tension spread nationwide. In 2004, Soviet monuments across the nation were vandalized. The most notable example was the Bronze Soldier -- a muscular soldier with his head solemnly bowed, located in the heart of Tallinn at Tõnismägi, or Liberators’ Square, as it was called during Soviet times. The statue was particularly important for the local Russian population, which gathered there every May 9 to commemorate the Soviet victory over the Nazis. In 2005, Arnold Rüütel, who was Estonia’s president at the time, turned down an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin to celebrate this holiday in Moscow. The next year, on the anniversary, protesters hurled red paint at the statute and fought with local Russians who had gathered in celebration.

Andrus Ansip, who was prime minister, quickly tried to remove the monument. It was delicate business: Tallinn’s population is nearly 40 percent ethnic Russian, making this group an influential demographic in city politics. But Russians make up only 25 percent of the population at the national level -- and a number of those Russians are so-called gray passport holders, who are entitled to vote in city elections but not national ones, since they do not possess Estonian citizenship. Ansip’s solution? Transfer authority over the monument from the local to the national government, effectively disempowering its supporters.

Ansip’s legalistic approach worked. Just two weeks before the 2007 anniversary, the national government erected a large tarp over the monument and sent in archaeologists to examine the bodies supposedly buried underneath. Crowds of ethnic Russians and Estonian nationalists quickly merged on the square; violence led to nearly a thousand arrests. As the riots raged, the government carted the Bronze Soldier away. 

The monument was gone, but the controversy was far from over as angry Russians laid siege to the Estonian embassy in Moscow and attempted to assault the Estonian ambassador. The Russian government disrupted gas and trade flows with its much smaller neighbor, and hackers, allegedly connected to the Kremlin, brought down the websites of various Estonian institutions, including its parliament, in what qualifies as the world’s first major cyberattack against a government. Meanwhile, members of the Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi draped themselves in red capes and stood in protest on the soldier’s former ground until they were sent back to Moscow. 

Over the course of the next year, relations between the two countries gradually improved, returning to the nonviolent passive aggression that characterizes Russia’s relationship with many of the former Soviet bloc states. But Estonia’s uneasy and conflicted relationship with its much larger neighbor has left its legacy on Tallinn’s monumental architecture. And if you know where to look, that makes for an intriguing tour. The Bronze Soldier now casts his gaze over a mishmash of graves in the Military Defense Forces Cemetery on Tallinn’s outskirts. Although it long served as the resting place of Estonian soldiers who were killed during the nation’s 1918 war of independence against the young Bolshevik government, the graveyard was later ransacked by the Soviets during World War II, who then used it to bury their own. Consequently, thick Cyrillic engravings line the top of most headstones.

A few elderly members of Tallinn’s Russian community are the only ones who venture through the labyrinth of dirt paths, stone walls, and barbed-wire and metal fences. For the past few years, they have tended to the Bronze Soldier’s resting place, maintaining a mountain of flowers and artificial candles at his feet. And even in this new remote location, the soldier continues to do symbolic battle with powers of the West: NATO’s new cybersecurity facility is just down the street.

Other Soviet-era monuments that once dominated Estonia’s cityscapes have ended up in even less auspicious locations. At Tallinn’s Museum of Occupations, they vie for attention in a cluttered and dim basement, dethroned from the pedestals on which they once stood. Others have been displaced to the Maarjamäe Palace, located a few miles outside the Old Town along the scenic Baltic coast. The building, an impressive pseudo-gothic castle, hosts the branch of the National History Museum’s exhibitions on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Estonian history. The exhibits generally rotate, but there is one “permanent” display that goes unadvertised: the monuments strewn about the palace’s backyard. There, a 13-foot-tall statue of Lenin, still relatively intact, gazes out over a monument graveyard. Vines climb the faces of pained Soviet soldiers, moss chews away at the busts of Estonian politicians who cooperated with the Soviets, some with their faces in the dirt.

Still, it turns out it might be easier to reject the old guard than to define the new. Today, there is not much to see at Tõnismägi Square -- just an overgrown flowerbed, which, not so incidentally, inhibits political gatherings. When the foliage was installed, “most assumed the solution was temporary,” says Marek Tamm, an associate professor of cultural history at Tallinn University. Six years later, the lilacs are thriving and the government has not announced any new plans for the space. But Estonia nevertheless needed a new symbol. For better or worse, the bishop of Estonia’s Lutheran church was put in charge of selecting from 40 entries and settled on a 77-foot-high “Cross of Liberty,” built out of 143 glass panels illuminated by LED lighting.

Unsurprisingly, the structure polarized Tallinn’s citizens, and a new monument controversy was born. Tamm, for one, helped organize a petition to oppose the monument that gathered hundreds of signatures. Most who signed simply deemed the cross “an aesthetic failure.” A few went further, criticizing the statue for its supposed resemblance to the Nazi Iron Cross. Nonetheless, after a number of technical difficulties and eight million euros expended, the monument was unveiled in 2009. Since then, water damage has taken out the lights from time to time and dust has caused the white glass to turn pink. But on a good day, it shimmers against the backdrop of Harjumägi Hill and has become a meeting place for throngs of young Estonians looking to relax in the attached park.

Although Estonia’s monument war may have come to an end, other countries formerly in the Soviet orbit -- and nations across the world, for that matter -- still need to confront the oppressors that loom over their squares. Erecting monuments has been a preferred tactic of dictators spanning cultures and decades. Take Spain, where throughout his 36-year rule, Francisco Franco constructed countless statues in his own image, the last of which was not removed until 2008. The fate of his largest structure, a war memorial complex known as the Valley of the Fallen, is still undecided. Although protesters may shatter these physical symbols of a regime, deconstructing a political system is not so easy. In 2011, for example, demonstrators in the Syrian city of Deraa burned a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Nearly three years later, the conflict has no end in sight. Even after a revolution is complete, another hurdle awaits: In 2003, the world watched as Iraqi civilians and U.S. coalition forces tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein draped in an American flag. Today, the pedestal is empty.

As Estonia learned, and Ukraine is about to, sorting out the competing pulls of Europe and an assertive Russia is a long-term proposition. And the toppling of a Lenin statue is only a start. Deciding what to put in its place may be the harder challenge.

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  • CARA ECKHOLM studies monument politics in Eastern Europe at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
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