Friday, May 11, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Estonia’s Actions Unite Russians -- Around Soviet Values

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 11 – Estonia’s dismantling of the Soviet war memorial in the center of Tallinn in advance of the commemoration of Victory Day on May 9th has united Russians not as a new political nation as some had hoped but rather around Soviet-era values and expectations, according to a leading Russian analyst
Russians overwhelmingly and across all social, economic and political groups, according to polls, indicated that they have been paying close attention to what was going on in Estonia and have very definite opinions about what it means for Russia and Russians (
Indeed, several Russian commentators have suggested that Estonia’s actions and the support Tallinn has garnered among Western governments have had the unintended consequence of promoting national unity among the population of the Russian Federation (see, for example, L. Byzov’s article at, May 7).
Indeed, Byzov wrote, “just as was the case with [President Vladimir] Putin’s speech in Munich, world public opinion, which has been more on the side of Estonia than on the side of Russia,” either has “no importance” or, “the sharper it is, the more it will generate support for [the Kremlin] among Russians.”
But Vadim Shteppa has suggested that it is important to understand the basis of this unity because it reflects not the rise of a new and politically defined Russian nation but rather a continuing confusion between Russian and Soviet the reinforcement of Soviet-era values (
The reasons for this development have deep roots in Russian history, the Russian commentator suggests. In almost all cases, he notes, “any nation as a subject of history begins with civil self-organization and self-administration,” characteristics that were typical of Novgorod the Great in medieval times.
“But,” he continues, “’the Russian Athens’ was defeated by ‘the third Rome’ in which free citizens were transformed into ‘subjects of the state.’ If in Europe after the destruction of the Roman empire arose new nations, then in Russia, this ‘third Rome’ tradition continues even now” and has been reinforced by recent events.
As in the past, so today, “the powers-that-be are very much afraid that the Russians will transform themselves into a nation and perhaps not just one and will become an independent subject of history” rather than an object under the control of those at the top of the political system.
Consequently, Russia’s rulers have an interest in exploiting any event -- and especially those like the Estonian actions and the Victory Day commemorations -- to ensure that “there will not be any independent political nation” but instead a “Soviet-people” population prepared to do what the Kremlin wants.
“’The Soviet people,’” Shteppa notes, “were forced to defend a Marxist state” because “the Bolsheviks … built a Leviathan based on camps and collective farms” and they evaluated every nation positively “only to the degree that it served” the Communist Party.”
Thus, throughout most of Russian history but not the history of other nations, the people have been made to serve the state rather than the state the people. And never has the Kremlin’s effort to maintain this situation been more transparently obvious than in the way it now marks Victory Day and reacts to Estonian actions.
“Only in Russia,” Shteppa writes, “is Victory Day treated not as an occasion for reconciliation but just the reverse – [as an occasion] for standing up against the surrounding world [and issuing] threats against those countries which are brave enough to re-evaluate the role of Soviet ‘liberators.’”
In the West, days marking victories in either international or civil wars typically have been the occasion for the formation of a new national unity. And Shteppa offers the case of Spain in the 1970s as an example of the ways in which such reconciliation can open the way to a new nation and new freedoms.
“But in Russia, unfortunately,” the commentator says, the dominant political players see themselves and their country as “’legal successors’” to the USSR and consequently view “any pan-national reconciliation” as their prelude to their own “political death.”
And because that is so, “the cult of ‘Victory’ firmly rivets ‘the Russian’ to ‘the Soviet’” and thereby pushes off into the future the national reconciliation that would allow Russians to stop viewing other countries as enemies and to start thinking of themselves not as objects of the state but as subjects of their own history.

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