Here in Narva — the easternmost city in Estonia, on the Russian border — more than 90 per cent of the 60,000 inhabitants are native Russian speakers. Ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and more so since its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February, this sizeable Russian population has been the subject of widespread speculation about whether they will be the next national minority to turn on their home country.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Estonia became more heavy-handed in clearing out the vestiges of the old Soviet occupation, including war graves and monuments to the Red Army. Last Tuesday, a controversial Soviet-era T-34 tank memorial was removed from its plinth, despite overwhelming local popularity and following weeks of debates. Eleven people were detained overnight for “violent” resistance or placing military symbols at its former site, according to Estonian media.
“It is precisely to ensure public order that all of these monuments need to be removed, before tensions or anxiety build,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters in Narva last week. Many younger Russian speakers in Narva seem to have little love for that country. “The Russian world was always toxic but now it’s more toxic than ever,” said Viktor Antipov, a 26-year-old poet.
“The older generation is confused because when the Soviet Union collapsed they needed some kind of hole to fill. They needed to fill it. The Estonian government did not do this. I think probably the younger generation of Narva, they feel too left out to have an identity.” In Narva there is a particular district that seems to be home to a higher concentration of Putin supporters — vatniki, as they are derogatorily known. From Kulgu, a district recently unironically rebranded as the city’s “Venice”, you can see Russia over the river.
It has a certain rustic charm. Waterways are partially covered in dense clusters of lilies and lined with hundreds of old Soviet garages whose owners are understandably suspicious of foreign journalists. One 40-year-old named Pasha is willing to chat while he drinks. He said the Estonian state had “fucked us, they fucked us twice. First in the 1990s [after independence from the USSR] and second, when they closed these Russian schools. What did we do wrong? We are like n****s. Estonia gave me nothing.”
Pasha admits that a war is going on, but refuses to believe that Russia is responsible — instead laying the blame at America’s feet. “Who started it, Ukraine or Russia?” he asked, rhetorically. “Four hundred per cent it was America, because all over the world America puts its nose in.” More broadly, though, there seems to be a tacit understanding among the people of Narva that it is simply safer not to discuss geopolitics so they can co-exist without serious friction. “Only on a few occasions have I had the courage to bring it up and deal with it, it’s such an emotional topic,” said Johanna Rannula, an Estonian who runs the Narva Art Residency.
Yana Toom, an MEP from Narva who was once married to the son of the local KGB chief in Estonia, has spoken out against the war — but still stands firm on her position that Estonia should be catering more to Russian speakers in the region. As discussions surrounding the Soviet tank developed, Toom was one of many local Russians who argued against it being removed. “[The monument] is important to Narva’s people, and should be, and should be preserved,” she said.
The tank was not conspicuously placed in the city, on an isolated stretch of road between the city centre and the beach. Yet the week before its removal, the thoroughfare was packed with cars as locals flocked to visit the T-34. But the government stood firm. “A tank is a murder weapon, it is not a memorial object, and these same tanks are killing people,” Kallas said at the beginning of August. It is being moved to the Estonian War Museum in Viimsi, some 200km from its former home.
The tank may be gone, but tensions remain in these Estonian borderlands.