The second cemetery we visited was Kaitsevde Kalmesta (Defense Forces Cemetery), a military cemetery near the center of Tallinn. This is the home of ‘The Bronze Soldier’, a controversial war monument, not to be confused with “The Monument to the War of Independence” in Freedom Square which was recently in the news when Great Britain’s Prince Harry visited it.
The history of ‘The Bronze Soldier” dates to World War II when Estonia, a free republic, was first overrun by the Soviets following their ‘deal’ with the Nazis giving Poland to Germany. They executed thousands of Estonian government officials, teachers and businessmen, sending thousands more including women and children to Siberia. The German army invaded in 1941 on it’s way into Russia, and then the Soviets came again in 1944 when the Red Army was chasing the Germans back to Germany. (There was no battle fought to liberate Tallinn, and the Estonians initially tried to reestablish their free government until the Red Army rolled in.) The soldier is cast in a Red Army uniform from that period, and was unveiled in 1947 to celebrate three years of ‘Russian Liberation.’ Of course, during the period until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Estonians considered themselves an occupied country with intense negative feelings about a brutal Russian occupation. An initial monument placed at that site (Liberator’s Square) where 12 Soviet soldiers were buried at a town square, was destroyed in 1946 by two teenage Estonian girls to avenge Soviet destruction of war memorials to Estonian Independence. They were arrested and sent to the Gulag!
Following Estonian Independence in 1991, the Soldier became a rallying point for ethnic Russians who wanted reunification of the Soviet Union. Many Russians had been relocated to Estonia (Russification) to water down the influence of the culture and make the country more Russian. In response Estonians placed banners reading “Murderers of the Estonian People” on it. The Estonian government in 2007 decided that moving it to a military cemetery would be a solution to ease tensions without destroying the monument, which had been looked at as another option.
Having been to the Estonian/Russian border 10 years ago, I can tell you that the best maintained items for the ethnic Russians in Estonia is not one’s house or car, but the Soviet WW II monuments! The decision to move the statue resulted in several days of riots by Russians, so the government quickly disassembled the monument and moved it. The soldiers were disinterred and the Russian families were offered the opportunity to reclaim the bodies or have them re-interred in the Defense Forces Cemetery, where many Russian soldiers from the war and the occupation of Estonia are buried. There are also monuments to military events such as the sinking in the 1960’s of a Soviet submarine, much like what would be found in our Arlington National Cemetery.
The rules governing grave maintenance is the same in a military cemetery as a private cemetery, it is the responsibility of the family. But since many soldiers who are buried here have no family nearby, the cemetery does the maintenance. The appearance with unrestricted rows for mowing is much more like an American cemetery allowing for American style cemetery maintenance at a reasonable cost to the cemetery. And as with most Russian War Memorials in Estonia, the ethnic Russian population, still 25 years after Estonian independence from the Soviet Union, continues to decorate and honor their war dead from World War II, the occupation of Estonia and the Cold War.