SPIEGEL Interview With Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves 'We Want to Re-Write History'

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves discusses the dispute over the Soviet memorial in Tallinn, why the Nazis were not necessarily worse than the Soviets, and the ethnic Russians plotting against the Estonian state.


Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves during his interview with DER SPIEGEL in Berlin.
Nicole Maskus

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves during his interview with DER SPIEGEL in Berlin.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, no other country has drawn the ire of Russia in recent weeks as much as little Estonia. Russian newspapers have called your country the EU's "fascist backyard," and a mob surrounded your embassy in Moscow. And all this because of the removal of a Soviet war memorial in the Estonian capital Tallinn?

Ilves: Sometimes we need someone to hate, a concept of an enemy. A year ago it was Latvia, nine months ago they deported hundreds of Georgians from Moscow and searched for schoolchildren with Georgian names, and now it's our turn. Why? The fear is that true democracies will show the Russians that the philosophy of a "guided" democracy is wrong. If Western democracy, with freedom of the press and the rule of law, functions in Estonia, Ukraine and Georgia, then the argument that it cannot function in Russia, merely because they supposedly have a different culture, simply doesn't hold water.

SPIEGEL: The dispute was triggered by a simple bronze memorial ...

Ilves: I thought it wasn't a good idea to move the statue. The matter was not important enough for Estonia to gamble away political capital. The real issue was public safety, because the monument developed into a place where anti-Estonian demonstrations were held, where Estonian flags were torn out of people's hands and where some people held up slogans calling for the reestablishment of the Soviet Union. This angered Estonians. The Russians, for their part, insisted that this was a holy place and that any change would be blasphemy.

SPIEGEL: What do you envision as a solution?

Ilves: I would have given the monument a new meaning. Berlin has the Neue Wache (New Watchhouse), which was originally built as the royal guardhouse. In 1931 it became a memorial to those killed in World War I, and under Hitler it was called a memorial of the German Reich. In East Germany it was a memorial to victims of fascism, and in 1993 (former German Chancellor Helmut) Kohl made it into a memorial to the victims of war and violence. In short, its meaning changed.

SPIEGEL: The conflict points out a fundamental difference between the Russian and Baltic views of history.

Ilves: Moscow lacks the will to really come to terms with the past. The Russians were prepared to open their archives 10 years ago, but not today. If you wish to build your new self-image solely on the basis of nationalism and glorifying the Soviet Union, then the crimes committed by Soviet troops are not something you want to see integrated into that picture.

SPIEGEL: Is that the reason no one in Russia talks about the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940?

Ilves: Moscow has returned to the old way of looking at things, according to which the Baltic states joined the Soviet Union voluntarily, that is, were not occupied. But this ignores the fact that in 1989 (former Soviet President Mikhail) Gorbachev admitted to the existence of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

SPIEGEL: Putin sees this completely differently. He accuses you of rewriting history and speaks of an "ideology of extremism" comparable to that of the Third Reich.

Ilves: Yes, in fact we do want to rewrite history. We want to rewrite Soviet history books. We want to fill in the gaps. Soviet history books contain just a single line about the Gulags, stating only that the camps were abolished. This means that the deportation of 30,000 Estonians to the Soviet Union on a single day in 1941 is being deliberately suppressed.

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