The centenary of the October Revolution: The storming of the tsar’s palace resulted in great suffering, but also initiated progress that had an impact beyond national borders. Events will be held in many countries to celebrate this anniversary, but one chooses to ignore it: Estonia. In this conversation, Estonian journalist Mari Peegel offers insights into a different kind of culture of remembrance.
Throughout Europe, events are being organised for the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. Will this also be done in Estonia?
It’s a little strange how obstinately a little country like Estonia is ignoring such an important historical event. But Estonia isn’t alone. There is a lack of ideas in other former Soviet republics, too, as to how to deal with Soviet history. Enthusiasm and activity is usually reserved for the obliteration of memories of the past: Memorials build during the Soviet period are being dismantled. (This is something that was done already in the early 90s in Germany for many GDR memorials.) The only explanation given for this is that these memorials were erected by a terror regime. But simply ignoring or eliminating traces does nothing to improve historical knowledge, either. I asked the representatives of various museums in Estonia whether they would somehow commemorate the October Revolution in their programme. The answer was an almost shocked: “No, we have nothing that could be associated with that event”. There are no film presentations either – and the historical journals are dedicating themselves to the Year of Luther.
How did the October Revolution influence the history of Estonia?
Politically, economically and culturally, the Revolution had direct or indirect consequences in the 20th century for almost the entire world. Naturally, the Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union affected Russia itself the most. But, situated as it is right beside the cradle of the Revolution – St. Petersburg – and then as part of the Russian empire, Estonia experienced the shock waves of the event up close. Our state won independence in 1918 on the same grounds as the ones the Communists in St. Petersburg managed to grab power: because of the military breakdown of the empire in the First World war. There was some sympathy for the Bolsheviks amongst the people of Estonia. Just like in other states in Eastern Europe and as far as Germany, powers other than the Communists won the upper hand in this time of revolution and, unlike many other nations of the empire, the Estonians were at first able to develop their own independent country. Estonia first became part of the Soviet Union 20 years later as Germany and the Soviet Union divided their spheres of influence under the Hitler-Stalin pact. The October Revolution was only celebrated here after the Soviet invasion of 1940 – up until renewed independence in 1991. To this extent, it is clear that both the first independence and independence now are directly associated with the formation and the end of the Soviet Union. That makes it all the more strange that the significance of the Revolution 100 years ago is barely discussed in a country like Estonia that places such great value on its independent statehood.
Could it be said that the historic events associated with the Soviet Union are taboo in an Estonia that has been free now for 25 years?
On the one hand, the topic is not one that is gladly discussed – it is preferable to maintain silence. Of course discussion of the events is allowed but it can be met with disapproval. The majority of Estonian society sees communism merely as a criminal regime that caused their families harm. And of course that’s true. But it would be good if history could be considered with less emotion. And public institutions of historical thought as well as the press, too, could help with this. On the other hand, the thoughts of a communist anniversary is causing headaches for another reason. It could be described as a historical hangover. And it’s rather understandable.
I was born in 1979 in the Soviet Republic of Estonia, and I can remember the October parades very clearly. For me as a child, they were exciting and interesting. I loved the balloons and the fact that my parents had the day off. At the same time, these parades were obligatory events: They checked who wasn’t in attendance. The entire public space was filled with slogans and watchwords. They pronounced ideas in which no one believed. Against this background, it’s clear why museum directors, who once wore a pioneer scarf around their throats, don’t want to have anything to do with the October Revolution anymore. But I’m convinced that sober consideration in overcoming this long, on-going hangover could help.