By Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the international affairs committee of the Russian Duma (THE GUARDIAN, 06/03/07):
The marks of the second world war can be seen all over Europe, in restored buildings, destroyed neighbourhoods, war cemeteries, painful memories and memorials to the millions who died in the war against nazism. In almost all countries the memorials are treated with respect. In Normandy fallen British and German soldiers lie in adjacent cemeteries. Their graves are well kept, so that families may visit their last resting place, and new generations be reminded of the horrors of war.
But in Estonia a new law threatens the very principle of the sanctity of the war dead. The War Graves Protection Act will allow the memorial that stands in the centre of the capital, Tallinn, to be dismantled, and the bodies of unknown soldiers beneath it to be disinterred and reburied elsewhere. While Estonia’s President Toomas Ilves has for now vetoed on technical grounds the part of the act that obliges the government to demolish Soviet war memorials within 30 days, he has waved through another law permitting the reburial of the remains of Soviet soldiers who died fighting the Nazis.
The Russian government is deeply concerned as this plan threatens to upset relations between Estonians and Russians living in the country and hopes of improving our friendship as independent, neighbouring states. The children and grandchildren of men and women who fought fascism will no longer have a place in central Tallinn where they can honour those heroes. Meanwhile in Estonia, as in Latvia, it has become permissible for veterans of the Hitlerite SS not only to form associations, but to hold rallies in city centres.
In other words, it has become politically correct among some EU members to honour those who tried to bury European civilisation and were responsible for a five-year catastrophe on our continent, while they make it more difficult to honour those who gave their lives to stamp out the cancer of fascism.
Estonians argue that the liberation of their country by Soviet soldiers was in fact the beginning of a new occupation. But a distinction must be made between the political realities of the day and the ordinary people who fought in the war. The Stalinist, communist state that according to Estonian radicals occupied Estonia also brought political repression for millions in the rest of the Soviet Union. The secret protocols of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, which assigned the Baltic states to the Soviet sphere of influence, were condemned by the Soviet parliament as long ago as 1989, and declared null and void.
Moreover, the men and women who fought in the Red Army believed they were ridding the world of fascism – and that is what they did. They and their children can’t be held responsible for crimes committed later. It is unforgivable to equate liberators with occupiers.
President Putin has described the plan to demolish the Tallinn war memorial as an «ultra-nationalist and very short-sighted policy». As a response some in Russia advocate sanctions against Estonia. But this should be an ultimate option. If the war-graves laws are not implemented, the opposite should happen: economic and trade links should be strengthened.
Before any attempt to wipe out the memory of the sacrifices that Soviet (and Estonian) citizens made to save Europe from nazism, we need a period of reflection. The second world war still strikes a deeply emotional chord in Russia, as elsewhere in Europe. As a last resort, Russia is willing to rebury the sacred remains of our soldiers in Russian soil. But let us hope that in the interests of friendship between our nations and respect for the war dead, this does not have to happen.