30 April 2007

Burying the dead

On my last visit to Moscow some years ago I went with a friend to a church and the nearby graveyard. It was explained to me that the graveyard was now minute because of the huge construction efforts throughout the Soviet period but before that it had been a large military cemetery where many of the Russian and allied soldiers and officers were buried during the First World War.

In the post-Soviet years attempts had been made to put up monuments to various Russian officers of that period. It was an interesting experiment since the fate of the various men had been different. Some had joined the Red Army and some the White; some went abroad and died there or, possibly, were handed over for belated settling accounts at the end of the Second World War; some disappeared in Stalin’s purges in the thirties and some actually survived to die in bed to be buried with honour.

This applied to a few senior officers only. For the most part no trace was left of the several hundred Russian and allied soldiers who had been buried in that military cemetery during World War I.

This does bear some relevance to the present problems that surround the question of the Bronze Soldier and the Soviet soldiers buried in the nearby graves (though there is some talk of there being older burials there). Graveyards and cemeteries do not remain untouched for ever. Anyone who has ever worked on an archaeological dig would know that the dead had been dug up and unceremoniously reburied or simply dumped in the past. One may argue about the rightness of it but not about the facts.

The problem is not so much Estonia as Russia. As I have pointed out before, there was never any suggestion that the Bronze Soldier should be destroyed or that the exhumed soldiers should not receive proper re-burial. It would have been perfectly possible for the Russian government to insist on full military honours for them. Instead, this seemed like a good opportunity to stir up hatred against the West and particularly against the countries that have definitely got away, the Baltic ones.

The shrieks one gets instead of comments on various sites would be quite extraordinary if one did not know that what lies behind it is a serious ignorance of what really happened on the Eastern Front.

There was, in the early and mid-nineties, an attempt by historians to research and publish the truth about the immediate pre-war period, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the invasions of various surrounding countries, the savagery and incompetence of the Soviet war effort at the highest level, the unnecessarily huge casualties caused all too often by bad decisions and the presence of SMERSH troops behind the soldiers. Then there is the painful story of the Red Army’s behaviour in the occupied countries as well, of course, as the behaviour of the NKVD that followed the army.

All such attempts have now ceased. Documents are no longer available and difficult subjects are simply avoided. It is a good deal easier for most (though not all by a long chalk) to remain in denial about their recent history. The Soviet system has severely traumatized all those who lived under it and Russia more than any, as there it cannot even be blamed on foreign invaders.

Actually, that is not quite true. There were serious attempts to explain Communism as being an entirely foreign system, imposed on the Russian people by Jews, Letts (Latvians) and other suchlike foreign-blooded groups. While many of these groups were prominent in the Revolution, the Civil War and subsequent events, it is hard to keep arguing that the many millions of Russians were all simply victims.

This may explain a little why it seems to have been so easy to whip up hatred of Estonia (at least in the media and the internet) over an issue that is really not very important and certainly not insoluble. The removal of the Bronze Soldier and the suggestions that there were various aspects to the Soviet “liberation” of the Baltic and East European countries cuts at the very heart of the Russian self-perception.

The Great Patriotic War is the one shining glorious event that all can agree on and in his attempts to push the great nation agenda Putin needs that assumption. There must be no criticism, no complications, no grey area, no mention, even, of the fact that others had fought Nazi Germany as well. There is relatively little understanding in Russia that the war had started in 1939 and of the role of Britain and America. Hence the curious comments about the Russian army (they don’t like saying Soviet because that raises all sorts of issues) liberating Europe from Nazi occupation.

Curiously enough, there is no particular compunction in Russia itself about exhumating and re-burying military personnel from the Great Patriotic War and those who protest are treated with considerably more savagery than the Russian hooligans were in Tallinn.

One such example has just cropped up in Khimki, a small town just outside Moscow, where six Soviet airmen of the Great Patriotic War were dug up in order to make various changes in the area. These changes have been described variously as widening the Leningrad Prospect, building a new office block or, even, making sure that the local prostitutes find somewhere else to ply their trade.

The plan was that the remains would be dug up, taken to the local morgue and then reburied in a military cemetery before May 9, Victory Day in Russia. It seems from the reports [in Russian, so those who cannot read it will have to rely on the accuracy of my translation] that in a development reminiscent of the great Russian satirists like Gogol, Il’f and Petrov or Voynovich, the remains have disappeared.

The city authorities, who ordered the exhumation have no clear idea of where the remains were transferred, with the press secretary, Danilovsky, suggesting one particular morgue, which immediately denied that they had them. The municipal company, “Ritual” that is supposed to have carried out the work of exhumation and transportation refuses to talk to journalists.

As the article points out, the re-burial in the Novoluzhensk cemetery is scheduled for May 8, the day before Victory Day. There is very little time left to find the remains.

Meanwhile, defenders of the graves have submitted two complaints two the Moscow regional procurator’s office and to the military procurator. One has to do with the “inhuman” (how they love that word) treatment of the aviators’ remains during the excavation and bagging up. The other has to do with the treatment of the young people who had organized the meeting.

The young activists from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), whose own website seems to talk more about the horrors of Estonian “fascism”, which must be “stopped”, than about events in Khimki, were taken back to the train by local supporters. This indicates that the usual Bolshevik/Communist tactics of flying activists are still in place.

As soon as they got on the train the militia appeared and proceeded to administer a savage beating. One 15-year old girl, Masha Kolyada, is said to have been hit so hard that she lost consciousness and suffered concussion. A young man is said to have to wear a neck brace. It seems that other passengers, in particular some pensioners from Khimki, were also attacked by the militia.

The only person to be taken to hospital was the unconscious Masha and even she was transferred to the police station the same evening. Her comrades were already there.

The youngsters are due in court on May 2 though they are promising another meeting on May 9 by which time the re-burial may have taken place if the bones are ever found.

The Russian Federation Council has sent a letter demanding an explanation of what is happening to the remains of the airmen and the memorial to them though not, apparently, an explanation for the militia’s behaviour. No news yet as to whether the Speaker, Sergei Mironov has demanded a cessation of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Khimki.

As ever, the question one has to ask is why does the militia bother to react in this savage fashion to groups and events that are of very little significance. Youngsters who have joined the KPRF and see themselves as heroic fighters for the greater glory of Russia are not precisely a danger to anyone and do not deserve to be treated in this way, whether one agrees with their views or not.

The demonstrations of the motley group of oppositionists (the “Other Russia”) who were met by 9,000 heavily armed militia men and Ministry of Interior troops who proceeded to beat them up and arrest some of the leaders, were not a threat to Putin and his government either.

Meanwhile, the situation in Tallinn has calmed down a bit, despite the Russian newspapers foaming at the mouth, demanding that the country be called Es-Es-Estonia from now on. (Clever, huh?)

The Bronze Soldier has been hastily removed and is to be reinstalled in his new position a good deal sooner than had been anticipated. The authorities have insisted that the soldier is intact as is the plinth. That has not stopped at least one website [in English with a fascinating comments section] from publishing a clearly photo-shopped picture [above] of the wall and the soldier’s boots, supposedly left behind as the statue was sawn off at the ankles.

The only thing that this picture reminds one of is the famous boots that were left on the plinth in Budapest after the giant statue had been brought down by the populace. Here is a picture of a few jubilant people atop those infamous boots.

Thursday and Friday nights saw riots in Tallinn and Narva, during which a great deal of damage was done, more than sixty people were injured and between 800 and 1,000 arrested. One man was killed, according to the authorities in a knife fight between two gangs. It appears that he was a Russian citizen, though living in Estonia.

The picketing of the Estonian embassy in Moscow by the “Young Guard” and other youthful supporters of the pro-Kremlin “One Russia” party has continued and there is some boycotting of Estonian goods.

Boris Gryzlov, the Duma Speaker, has announced that a delegation from that body to Tallinn, to establish what was happening to the several score Russian citizens arrested during the riots. Information about the killed Russian has already been forwarded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The EU is pretending that absolutely nothing has happened though if Russia does break off diplomatic relations with Estonia there will have to be some reaction.