How Russia and Estonia Remember WWII?

Alexandra Yatsyk is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies of Post-Socialism at Kazan Federal University in Russia and a former guest fellow at the Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu (Aurora and Estophilus programmes).

Victory day banner

St. George ribbon on the Victory Day banner in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Image credit: Marco Fleber / Flickr Creative Commons.

This year the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the bloodiest in the history of mankind.[ref]Update from 9 May, 2015: In the initial version of the post, it was misleadingly stated that the world celebrates this anniversary on 9 May.[/ref]  Russia attaches particular importance to this event – around RUB 7 billion is expected to be spent for its commemoration, with the largest chunk of the budget allocated for mass media coverage and advertising. Such generosity against the backdrop of the current economic crisis testifies of the extraordinary salience of Victory Day to the Russian elite. In fact, symbolically the mega-project entitled ‘The Great Patriotic War’ becomes key to on-going Russian nation building.

Yet the high symbolism of 9 May is accompanied by the shrinking public space for debates about the war, with alternative interpretations being emasculated, marginalized, or simply prohibited along the lines of the well-known totalitarian practices. Archive materials are kept classified, human rights NGOs – such as “Memorial” – are declared detrimental to national interests, and monuments attesting to crimes committed by the state against its citizens during the Stalinist repressions vanish from the public gaze.

The discursive production of war memories and its sacralization become a prerogative of the hegemonic state. The only legitimate and accessible forms of commemorating the sacrosanct objects for the population are affective – such as holy awe, mourning and consternation. Being ousted from the sphere of the profane – as represented by war-time routine artefacts, documentary evidences, and oral histories – the war memory in today’s Russian society is pushed to the domain of the sacred. Communication with this domain from the world of the profane is regulated by rigid rituals of commemoration that define loyalty and allegiance to the ‘authentic’ political community. The ritualization of the St. George ribbon is the most obvious example of this.

Within the Russian nation-building project, the ideas of the “holy war” are meant to consolidate the multinational Russian society. Any attempts to contest the hegemonic interpretations and the subsequent forms of communicating with the sacral are treated as punishable sacrilege.


In Estonia, a country with its own complicated history of the Second World War, the anniversary didn’t go unnoticed either. Yet, in contrast with Russia, Estonian memory policy is about its de-sacralization through reflective – as opposed to affective – transformation of its commemorative narratives and rituals.

The movie “1944” by Elmo Nüganen, released quite recently, perfectly illustrates this point. Its high-ranking popularity among more than 100,000 viewers testifies to the acceptance of the key idea represented in it – its focus on the Estonian collective Self as a nation, on its own domestic traumas and losses. “1944” is an example of self-reflection as the main instrument that prevents the slipping into a Russian-style patriotism.

Estonian patriotism is viewed by the filmmaker as a controversial phenomenon, a feeling equally experienced by both parts of the divided nation. Ultimately this sentiment is based on love for the motherland. ‘What are you going to do when the Red Army comes?’ – a soldier asks his junior comrades, only to receive a straightforward answer: ‘I will kill’. Yet this ideological response, as the script shows, doesn’t work that easily in real life.

Nüganen formulates his message through personal stories of two heroes who, by the will of history, found themselves at opposite sides of the barricades. The parents of Karl Tammik were deported to Siberia, which predefined his personal revenge on the Communists. Jüri Jõgi, who is, presumably, a relative of someone who was guilty in the deportation of Karl’s parents, kills Karl in a battle, yet he buries him in one grave with his fallen comrades. Jüri decides to deliver Karl’s unsent letter to his sister Aino, with whom he ultimately falls in love, thus further complicating his personal tragedy. To protect Aino from possible repressions, Jüri has to cooperate with the NKVD, and only afterwards writes a letter to her in which he confessed having killed her brother.

A scene from the film "1944"

A scene from the “1944”. Image credit: Renee Altrov / Taska Film.

Andrey Kuzichkin, an Estonian journalist and actor, rightly claims that the “1944” movie ‘managed to articulate a simple message: there are no winners in a war which pits one brother against another. One can for the sake of political motives re-write history, change pluses to minuses, yet one can’t substitute the love of motherland with hate for other people’.

Nüganen’s movie is short of splashy colours – and this is exactly because it is about a war that brought Estonia only de-facto loss of national sovereignty and provoked a split within the nation. This gives rise to the key question: what to do if you face the challenge of choosing one evil out of two, only due to the bad luck of living at a time in which two gigantic systems are clashing with each other?

This is this civil nature of the war that became a momentous element in the construction of the Estonian nationhood. The war corrupts the society, yet reflections about the war are conducive to its de-sacralization. The contestation of the sanctity of the war is visible, for instance, in the acidic irony that Estonian soldiers in “1944” are afforded in ridiculing the portraits of Hitler that they received as awards for military service.

A scene from the film "1944"

A scene from the “1944”. Photo by Renee Altrov / Taska Film.

A healing performance?

The de-sacralization of the war memory through contesting the rituals of commemoration was a key element in the Holocaust exhibition that was recently hosted by the Tartu Art Museum. Its main task, in the words of its director, Yulia Poluyanenkova, was a healing of tragic memories. Yet the broader public discussion has led the Jewish and Muslim communities of Estonia to call for closure of the exhibit as allegedly insulting to war memories and disrespectful to sufferings of the people. Holocaust must – both physically and symbolically – be perceived with holy awe, and all other profane feelings – such as the joy of survival – are considered redundant and inappropriate.

Recent discussions in Narva on the appropriateness of arranging a city fair (the profane) on Victory Day (the sacred) are also about the boundary between the two, as was the removal of the Bronze Soldier from its sacred place in the Tallinn downtown to the cemetery (the profane) eight years ago.

Recognition of the multiplicity of these fuzzy boundaries and the engendered societal splits is an inherent part of Estonian nation building, which represents a contrast to Russia, with its overwhelming zeal for unification. Each artistic narrative about war is a litmus test for the maturity of the nation, which must sooner or later face war controversies and admit that simplified mechanisms of social solidarity based on Self–Other distinctions fail to work. In this sense Russia and Estonia continue moving along dissimilar pathways.

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One Response to How Russia and Estonia Remember WWII?

  1. Alexander S. Vanetsev says:

    Rather strange and unreasonable comparison, I must say. The meaning of WWII in Russia and in Estonia is very different. There was no notable separation in soviet society on how to treat nazi invaders. At the same time substancial part of estonians were greeting nazis as liberators from soviet occupation. Evidently in Estonia it’s hard to expect unified opinion on the history of WWII, while in Russia it’s much easier. No one wants to see something in their past as trauma, when there’s a possibility to see it as a heroic deed, nothing special about that in Russia.
    In my opinion, it would be relevant and reasonable to compare attitude towards WWII in Russia with the one towards separation from USSR in Estonia or attitude towards WWII in Estonia with attitude towards October revolution in Russia. And in these cases you’ll find much more similarities, I guess. Of course, public management in Russia now is more autocratic than in Estonia and society is more homogenic and intolerant, but one should not overestimate this difference. Both societies (and governments) are very (post)soviet in their core.

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