by Aliide Naylor
Thursday, 25
August 2022
Dispatch
17:57

Tensions mount on the Estonian-Russian border

Life in Narva, Estonia's easternmost city, just got more complicated
by Aliide Naylor
“These same tanks are killing people” (Credit: Aliide Naylor)

Narva, Estonia

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.

Kulgu, Narva’s “Venice” (Credit: Aliide Naylor)

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.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
29 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Adam Perry
Adam Perry
1 month ago

Isn’t it strange how those who pine for mother Russia and it’s old Soviet waves don’t make that journey if you 100m over the border to live there. I am more than happy to live in an advanced Western European nation with the highest standard of living and and low corruption with a good justice system. Probably not but you would find if they crossed the border into Russia.
Maybe the Estonian government could make Narva a nicer place by deporting all those who seem to hate Estonia so much

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam Perry

Most of their views come from Russian TV, especially WRT the elderly. It provides a coherent view of the world, although one we wouldn’t recognize.
But given the increasing use of the internet by the young, it’s a view that wont prevail much longer.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam Perry

After Putin exploited Russian minorities in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to forcefully promote his ‘racial unity’, the Estonians are merely anticipating being his next target, so snuffing out Russian culture pronto is a very sensible move. Tough *hit for the ethnic Russians, but they can always move a couple of miles over the border.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

One does wonder whether the Russian minorities scattered across all these ex-USSR republics are not in fact the remnants of the Russian/Soviet empire and colonisation. To some extent, that must be true. Yet while we condemn British imperialism (where the colonists largely left and went home to Britain), nothing is ever said about Russian imperialism.
A week ago, I was in the former East Germany. Apparently, there were 500K Soviet soldiers garrisoned there during the Cold War. That was around 1 in 15 of the total population. But they at least went home.

Victor Whisky
Victor Whisky
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

There is a film where Hitler read an ultimatum presented to the Germans to leave a territory they just conquered. Hitler noted…this from England who owns India, this from England who own Burma, this from England who owns Egypt, this from England who owns Gibraltar….he went on and on, noting all countries England had conquered. As one English sociologist put it, England holds the world record for having filched by force more territory than any country in the world. The United States is second on that list. The Brits are now saying how could Taiwan be Chinese, when England, without shame, is sitting on Gibraltar which they stole from Spain and on many other territories no where remotely near to England and calls them England. The motto was The sun never set on the English Empire. The reason why, one British parliamentarian noted, God never trusted the English in the dark.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Victor Whisky

Did you actually read my comment about decolonisation (hint: not colonisation) or are you just coming here to vent a rant ?
Please try to make a “reply” relevant to the preceding comment.
If you want to rant about the British Empire I suggest you can find alternative articles where this applies.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Thanks for flushing away the woke poo.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago
Reply to  Victor Whisky

Wasn’t conquering new territories pretty much the norm for say, 2000 years?

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago
Reply to  Victor Whisky

Gibraltar was not stolen, it was ceded to Britain in 1713 as part of a complex set of territorial measures in the Treaties of Utrecht. In return, Britain withdrew from the War of Spanish Succession. This was to the benefit of Spain as well as Britain. If you are ignorant of history, please don’t pontificate on it.
In 2002 Gibraltarians voted to remain British and against shared sovereignty by 99% to 1%. I presume you agree with the UN on the importance of self-determination.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 month ago

Perhaps he’d like the Spanish Netherlands to be returned, too.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 month ago
Reply to  Victor Whisky

So you quote Hitler to educate us.
I should have thought that Russia was the country which had filched the greatest territory by force. The majority is still occupied, while the parts which left around 30 years ago are now worried they might be reconquered.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

One of my best friends is an Estonian – she was my lodger for several years while we both did our PhD’s. If/when the schidt goes down, she’s coming back to live at mine with her kids.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Why the downvote? In what way is it wrong to help refugees?

tom j
tom j
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

“Snuffing out Russian culture” is precisely the pretext Putin wants, and it also is part of the definition of Genocide. Get a grip, minorities are a challenge for any state, but you can’t wipe them out.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 month ago
Reply to  tom j

You genocide comment is just nonsense.
Russians in Baltic States are descendants of Russian colonisers who were planted there by Stalin after Russia invaded in 1940.
For obvious reasons, Baltic States want loyal citizens and not Russian “5th columnists”.
Those who believe that their main loyalty is to Russia should move there.
This problem is not that dissimilar to many communities in uk.
Norman Tebbit called it “cricket test”.

tom j
tom j
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam Perry

Um, no. Deporting minorities is not acceptable behaviour for an ‘advanced Western European nation’. If Russia got even the faintest sniff that Estonia was thinking like this, what on earth do you think they’d do!?

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 month ago
Reply to  tom j

Deporting traitors who accepted Russian passports is perfectly sensible response.
No one is advocating deporting people who just speak Russian.
Anyway, Russia is depopulating, so surely they would welcome new citizen?
You seam to have zero understanding of this part of Europe.

William Adams
William Adams
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Demographically, Russia is shrinking. It can ill afford the loss of young men who are being wiped out in Putin’s war and the talented young people who are emigrating to the West. It is a country with a population far smaller than that of Pakistan or Bangladesh but with a land mass ludicrously oversized for its shrinking population. It faces a future of dwindling size and influence.

Chris Madden
Chris Madden
1 month ago
Reply to  tom j

Not forced deportation, you give those who want it the option. They appear to want their part of Estonia,much like Eastern Ukraine to become russian territory. If you want to be russian you know where to go. If you want to be Estonian stop your bitching and support your country against your aggressive neighbours.

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago

It’s also a city that Russians don’t like to talk about much.
Peter the Great’s first battle there ended in a total–rout much like the one outside Kyiv and Kharkiv. It was largely due to personnel problems almost identical to what Putin now faces in Donbas and Kherson.
Putin’s version of Russian history requires one to forget a lot more than one remembers.
And that can be fatal in war.

mike martin
mike martin
1 month ago

Putin’s predation on Ukraine and his criminal distortion of history resulted in my wife and I becoming refugees, forced to leave our Ukraine home. Putin is a tyrant and must be opposed by the Free World. Estonia is doing a fine job in that cause. Brainwashed Russians without the stomach for liberty are free to leave its precinct (plenty of room in Russia). My wife and I comfort ourselves reading Ukraineliberty.wordpress.com it is the story of the refugee trail but also of Ukraine and the warped world of Putin’s Russia. Funny, sad, informative, inspiring.

Dick Mitchell
Dick Mitchell
1 month ago

What a unique blend of interviewees. A drinker, a poet, and an artist. Are there no productive people to be interviewed in Estonia?
More news from this part of the world is welcome, though.

stephen archer
stephen archer
1 month ago
Reply to  Dick Mitchell

MEP and Art gallery manager. Isn’t that productive enough? As the article indicates discussing geopolitics is sensitive and probably not a lot of citizens want to divulge their feelings and leanings.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

There seems to be a running theme when it comes to agitating minorities on a national border. Perhaps there should be a population exchange like in 1920s Greece?

Kate Heusser
Kate Heusser
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

My Greek/Turkish history is very poor, but wasn’t that a disaster that resulted in mass murders and starvation/hounding on both sides?

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago
Reply to  Kate Heusser

There was much suffering, but if it hadn’t happened a century later there’d be constant wars between the two countries.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

Or like in post Yalta Poland in 1945 and then in 1956, when Polish citizens of what is now Western Ukraine were “persuaded” to leave.
Problem is that Russian citizens of Baltic States have EU passport.
Only old and thick would exchange that for Mother Russia.
Baltic States quite correctly are taking steps to cancel citizenship of traitors who accepted Russian passports.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew F

I know I’ve said this before, but what is your problem with the word “the”?

William Adams
William Adams
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Too definite for his liking.