Geologists call them “glacial erratics.” They’re rocks that were carried far from their origin by Ice Age glaciers and then left behind as the ice that had transported them melted away. Some are ordinary, unremarkable items, bunched up with lots of similar stones that wouldn’t turn the head of the most crazed rockhound, but others, boulders as big as a bungalow, sit solitary on some wide, flat piece of land miles from any brother boulders as oddly inappropriate as a bullfrog on a wedding cake. In this situation, they become Nature’s memorials commemorating a time when titanic rivers of ice ground mighty mountain peaks down into modest, unassuming hills. Man makes memorials, too. Most are aptly placed but some are like the erratic boulders, plunked down in unexpected spots as testimony to past cataclysmic events. Such are the memorials left across Eastern Europe to mark the victories of the Red Army over Nazi Germany.
It isn’t as well-remembered as it should be that World War II began with the invasion of Poland by Germany and Russia. In 1939, the two predatory, totalitarian nations, with much shaking of hands, toasts, and lizard smiles, concluded the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression agreement that they proclaimed would help insure world peace. It was a shocking development in international affairs for the world had come to view the two tyrannies as the embodiments of antagonistic and irreconcilable political philosophies, Fascism and Communism. Their respective dictators, Hitler and Stalin, were ruthless men, however, willing to sacrifice millions to elevate themselves and only their fanatical followers should have been so naïve as to expect them to let ideology prevent them from reaching an agreement that served their interests.
During World War I, Germany had been strained by fighting France and Britain in the West and Czarist Russia in the East. Many hoped that the possibility of a second two-front war would deter Hitler from risking a new war in Europe. The Pact removed this check. It made it possible for Hitler to confront France and Britain, who had promised to support Poland, without the annoyance of a belligerent Russia. The pact also included a war plan so secret that the Soviets denied it existed till 1988 and no copy of it was made public till after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the secret plan, Stalin and Hitler agreed to divide control of the nations lying between Russia and Germany. Russia was given Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and half of Poland. Germany got Lithuania and the other half of Poland. Poland would be the first nation taken with Russian and German armies attacking in coordination.
Stalin liked the deal not only for the territorial concessions—Russia had lusted after the Baltic states and Poland for generations—but because it positioned Russia to exploit the European war that was likely to erupt following Poland’s invasion. If Hitler kept his word and attacked only to his West, Russia could just watch while France, Britain and Germany tore each other apart then swoop in to take advantage of the chaos and ruin. The West would be unlikely to declare war on Russia. They’d have enough on their plate just dealing with Germany. If Hitler broke his word and attacked Russia, Stalin could expect France and Britain, who would already be fighting Hitler, to be his allies against Germany. In the meantime, Russia would co-operate with Germany and expand its territories, creating a buffer zone between it and Germany where an invasion could be turned back before reaching Russian soil.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact worked as Stalin expected—at first. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, causing France and Britain to declare war on Germany. Stalin held back. A short delay had the advantage of letting Germany do the bulk of the fighting to destroy Poland’s military. When Russia attacked on September 17th there were only lightly armed Polish border guards left on Poland’s Eastern border to face the Red Army’s, heavily-armed millions (at the end of the war, Russia pulled a similar stunt by declaring war on Japan just days before it surrendered to the Allies). By the time the fighting stopped, Russians had taken over 280,000 Polish soldiers as prisoners. They also arrested intellectuals and professionals, who might resist Russian occupation. Thousands of these soldiers and potential troublemakers were quickly executed.
German and Soviet troops together staged a victory parade to celebrate the destruction of Poland. The two nations issued a joint declaration calling upon Britain and France to end the war and hinted that, if they didn’t, Germany and Russia would “engage in mutual consultations” that might bring Russia into the war on Germany’s side. Communist parties around the world, following Russian dictates, adopted an “anti-war” stance that blamed France and Britain for the war. Russia even sold Germany resources important to its war effort. Stalin became so confident of his arrangement with Hitler that when Germany attacked Russia in 1941, he refused to believe it till thousands of his soldiers were dead and the German army was deep inside Russian territory.
Before Hitler turned on Stalin, Russia staked claim to the countries the Pact had given them. Estonia was occupied by Russia in 1940. The Russians used the same tactics in Estonia as they had in Poland, rounding up military men and intellectuals. Thousands were executed or deported to Siberia. Political freedoms were eliminated and an elaborate and continual indoctrination campaign was launched to convince the Estonian people that Communism was the bee’s knees. To a degree, these tactics succeeded. A defenseless, captive people threatened with prison camps and firing squads will do as they’re told but, along with obedience, Russian repression produced a smoldering hatred. This deepened after Germany went to war with Russia and the Russians forced thousands of Estonian men to fight for them against Hitler. The Red Army was quickly pushed back by the Germans, who occupied Estonia. It has been charged that, as they fled, the Russians executed Estonian political prisoners rather than release them. The prisons in Estonia didn’t stay empty for long. The Nazis soon were rounding up their enemies among the Estonians and jailing them. Like some bizarre TV ad comparing Brand X to Brand Y, Estonians, who had endured one kind of tyranny, were now trying out another. In this case, both were horrific but, when the Red Army was on the verge of returning, some Estonians enlisted in the German army to fight the Russians. The Germans were soon driven out and thousands of Estonians fled their country to avoid a new Russian occupation. Small bands of Estonian soldiers, called the “forest brothers,” fought a guerilla war against the Red Army but, lacking support from outside Estonia, by 1950, they were all in hiding, captured, or dead.
The Russian reoccupation of Estonia was brutal. This time, they had a grudge to settle with the Estonians, who they viewed as Nazi collaborators. They ruthlessly instituted strict measures to Sovietize the country. Since Communism is an inherently flawed form of government, these measures inevitably produced poor results, but, instead of blaming their ideology, the Communists blamed their victims. A terrible example of this occurred when the collectivization of Estonian agriculture stalled. The Russians rounded up 20,000 Estonia farm families and shipped them off to work camps in Siberia where half are said to have died of starvation and disease. The survivors were only allowed to straggle home in the 1960s. By then, to ensure loyalty, the Russians had settled thousands of Russian families in Estonia. These were often the families of veterans or of Communist bureaucrats selected for their loyalty to Communism. They were placed at the top of Estonia’s establishment with lots of despised Estonians to boss around. By the time the Soviets were done shipping Estonians out and Russians in, Estonia’s population was one-third Russian. The Russian language and Russian culture were forced upon Estonia. On top of this, Russian military bases were planted across the country to control the locals and project Russian power against the West. Much of its seacoast, for example, was set aside for the use of the Russian Baltic Fleet. As they did in every state in which they gained control after the war, the Russians self-righteously insisted they had “liberated” Estonia from Germany and had bestowed upon it the blessing of Communism. They demanded gratitude.
Russia’s insistence on gratitude wasn’t an accidental thing. It was an offshoot of the propaganda that Stalin used to rally Russia against Germany. He had killed millions of his own people and feared the invading Germans might be welcomed as liberators. To counter this, he appealed to Russian xenophobia, nationalism, and, with a large degree of cynicism for an atheistic society, religious imagery. Russia was the sacred Motherland. Her soldiers were heroic warriors engaged in a holy crusade. Russian war dead—23.5 million by the end of the war—sanctified Communism with their blood (critics counter that the high casualties were the result of Stalin’s inept military leadership and wonder if he’d been more inept, would Communism be more sanctified?). Even the war had a special, Russo-centric name. In exploitation of an earlier national triumph, the Patriotic War against Napoleon in 1812, World War II was called the Great Patriotic War. The contribution of other nations, including the massive aid sent to Russia by the U.S., was minimized. This kind of propaganda continued after the Germans were defeated to generate more patriotic fervor for the new Cold War. The rest of the world, which had suffered fewer deaths, owed Russia for its sacrifices. The territories caged in by the Iron Curtain were well-deserved tribute. The soldiers of the Great Patriotic War were lauded as patriots who defended Communism, thereby elevating it above questioning. And war memorials glorifying battles and soldiers were erected everywhere to insistently remind Russians of the costly effort to preserve the Soviet state. Outside Russia, they were erected as a reminder of Russian dominance and as a blunt demand that Russia be honored for fighting a war they helped start. To the citizens of the subjugated states, the monuments became detested symbols of tyranny. So it was with the “Bronze Soldier” memorial in Tallinn, Estonia.
In the late 1980s, as Soviet Russia began to crumble, nationalists in the countries forced into Communism, demanded their freedom. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring of 1968, both of which were brutally thwarted by Russian troops and their allies, vividly illustrated the dangers that the nationalists risked. None were able to militarily confront their occupiers. Instead, they used strikes, demonstrations, and appeals to international opinion to advance their cause. In Estonia, a unique form of revolution won Estonians their freedom. It was called “The Singing Revolution.”
Estonians have traditionally enjoyed music festivals, which include choral singing with audience participation. The Russians banned songs with nationalist associations but even non-political songs provided an opportunity for Estonians to share a feeling of group identity. Beginning in 1987, nationalists began to introduce traditional songs. Estonians, eager to defy the Russians, sang along in greater and greater numbers. It wasn’t long before mass singing demonstrations with as many as 300,000 singers became a common event. Pro-Russian demonstrators attempted to intimidate the nationalists but were thwarted when greater numbers of nationalists turned out to peacefully face them down. By the time the Russians sent in troops, they were blocked by thousands of ordinary, unarmed Estonians standing as human shields. In 1991, the Estonian Supreme Soviet and the Congress of Estonia proclaimed independence. At the same time, the Soviet Union was breaking up and Estonian independence became a fact. Without firing a shot, Estonians had won their nation’s freedom.
Following independence, Estonia eagerly turned to the West, joining NATO and the European Union. They rejected Communism in favor of capitalism, adopted a flat rate tax and dramatically reduced state control of private industry. The result was an economic boom. Many of the nation’s ethnic Russians chose to remain in the now prosperous Estonia instead of returning to a not-so-prosperous Russia. While some of these folks had no problem with the new order of things, others felt threatened by Estonian nationalism. They didn’t like the new emphasis on the Estonian language and culture or their reduced status in Estonia’s new society. As Russian troops departed, they grew wary of their Estonian neighbors. This distrust might have faded but for an economic revival in Russia based largely on oil and natural gas production. It currently earns $600 million a day for its energy exports and has doubled individual income while increasing gross national product by 60%. This prosperity should have made Russia content but, instead, it has fueled a revival of authoritarian government under President Vladimir Putin and dreams of rebuilding empire.
Putin, a former KGB officer, has dramatically restricted media freedom, centralized power under himself, renationalized the energy industry, jailed opposition figures, murdered critics abroad, and thwarted demonstrations by dissidents through threats and beatings. These actions are made more disturbing by Putin’s admiration for Stalin, the man who ruthlessly employed all the blood-rusty knives in Communism’s butcher shop to get what he wanted.
Internationally, Putin has sought to reestablish Russian pride by dominating its neighbors while contemptuously counting on Russia’s role as the EU’s biggest energy supplier to forestall resistance from the West. Putin has tried to push Poland around over trade issues, has meddled in the Balkans in favor of Russia’s old allies the Serbs, plotted the usurpation of the government in Georgia, and has attempted to intimidate the small Baltic states. Estonia has gotten particular attention. There, Putin has fomented unrest among its ethnic Russian citizens.
Some believe Putin has a personal reason to hate Estonia. During the Great Patriotic War, his father served as a saboteur with the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. During a mission to destroy infrastructure in Estonia, his team ran out of food and sought more from some locals. The Estonians fed them but, shortly afterwards, the team was surprised by the Germans. Most were captured or killed. Putin’s father barely escaped, evading a German patrol by submerging himself in a pond and breathing through a reed. The Germans might have just stumbled across the team or detected them after they made some error in evading pursuit but Putin’s dad was certain the Estonians who brought them the food had betrayed them. Putin shared his father’s certainty and openly disdains Estonians. His associates and supporters routinely link Estonia to the Nazis, insinuating that they were all pro-German.
Russian and Estonian relations reached a low point in April when the Estonian government moved a Russian war memorial—a statue of a Russian soldier called the “Bronze Soldier”—from the center of the city of Tallinn, the capital and largest city in Estonia, to a military cemetery on the edge of town. Estonian authorities feared the memorial was becoming a focal point for ethnic Russian demonstrators. Many Estonians also viewed the memorial as a reminder of Russian occupation. The city has a large ethnic Russian population and many of these residents took the action as an insult. The Estonian authorities invited Russians to send representatives to discuss the moving of the statue but Russia refused. Russia’s state-owned media criticized the move for months before it was actually made and the Estonian government suspects Russian agents were encouraging ethnic Russian anger. When the statue was moved, two nights of violent rioting followed. In it, an ethnic Russian youth was stabbed to death. Putin and his various political cronies vociferously attacked Estonia’s “blasphemy” of Russian war dead, its oppression of ethnic Russians, and charged it was responsible for the murder of the youth. The riots were followed by a massive, three-week cyber-attack upon Estonian government, media, and commercial Internet sites. Estonia has embraced the Internet with as many as 800,000 of its 1.3 million citizens going online to bank, pay taxes, shop, communicate, and even vote. So significant is their usage that they sometimes refer to their nation as “E-stonia.” The cyber-attack was a frightening indicator that Russia was willing to do Estonia considerable harm.
Russian authorities insist that the cyber-attack was a spontaneous, unofficial response to an Estonian insult but Estonian officials claim to have traced one attacking address to the office of an official in Putin’s administration. Experts also believe the thousands of computers used in the attacks included powerful rented computers. Such rental is costly and suggests official Russian involvement. The Russian authorities have offered no help to Estonia in tracking down the instigators of the attack and a spokesman for the Kremlin ominously insisted that “The Estonia side has to be extremely careful when making accusations.”
Less technological attacks also occurred. For days, Estonia’s embassy in Moscow and the Estonian ambassador were beset by a Russian mob that included members of a rabid Russian-nationalist youth group known as “Nashi” (“Ours”). The Russian government temporarily suspended rail traffic into Estonia and cut energy exports by 30%. Russian companies suspended contracts and the Russian media, under Putin’s thumb, fueled anti-Estonian hysteria. The Russian Duma has insisted the statue be returned to its original site and that the Estonian government resign. Russian political pundits also demanded that Russia cut off diplomatic relations. Ironically, two weeks before the Tallinn statue was moved, Moscow authorities destroyed a similar war memorial there to make room for an office facility with no public furor.
While Russian bullying of Estonia is a threat to that country, it is also troubling for Europe and the West in general. Estonia has been supportive of other former Russian puppet states, helping them develop their economies and democratic institutions, which strengthens their ties to the West. This has made them an impediment to Putin’s plans for empire. It seems clear that he hopes to intimidate Estonia into abandoning their efforts and that Russian abuse of Estonia is a warning to other former-puppet states to bend to Russian will. Estonia also appears to be an experiment for Putin with which he can test how aggressive Russia can be before its energy exports and trade possibilities are deemed too expensive for Europe. While Russians seem to enjoy inflicting this kind of thuggery, believing it just a demand for the respect it deserves, the West is becoming increasingly unsettled by Putin’s Russia. For America, the issues of concern include Russian support for Iran, its trade in advanced weaponry, its suppression of human rights, and its resistance to the deployment of an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, both NATO nations.
The shield is meant to protect Europe from nuclear-armed missiles that might be launched by rogue states like Iran or North Korea. It will draw the nations that host it closer to the U.S. Russia also fears this closer relationship and also that, if improved over time, the shield may someday provide some protection from Russian missiles. That would be intolerable for the newly pugnacious Russia and it has devoted considerable rhetoric to condemning the shield as creating what Putin calls “a powder keg” in Europe. He bluntly announced that a shield would cause Russia to re-target its atomic weapons at Europe. Russia insists that a defensive shield is actually an offensive move. Recently, they successfully test-fired the RS-24 missile, a new intercontinental ballistic missile with multiple nuclear warheads, which they claim can overcome any anti-missile system. Despite this advance, they still insist that a missile shield in Europe is a threat to them and part of an American imperial effort.
In the last weeks, Putin has stepped back a bit from his opposition to the shield, offering to accept one that involves the Russian military and is based in nations Russia either doesn’t see as a threat or which are outside their former, Soviet-era sphere of domination. While appearing conciliatory, if accepted by the West, this would establish Russia’s right to veto military decisions by former puppet states. The threat Russian offensive weapons pose to Russia’s neighbors isn’t addressed by these conciliatory gestures. It is just assumed that they have an obligation to make themselves easy targets even though they pose no military threat to Russia. As in Stalin’s day, the Russians believe they have a right to dominate their neighbors without question. The Russian bear is once again growling.
The glacial erratics that memorialize the Ice Age have another interesting characteristic. The glaciers didn’t come once and never again; they came in waves, advancing then retreating and advancing again. The erratic boulders they left behind can be viewed as more than memorials. The glaciers will someday return and those erratics might better be seen as markers of how far the icy grasp of the glaciers can reach. Perhaps the forces that marked Europe with Soviet Russian memorials will also surge forth again. The 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston famously remarked of international relations, “There are no permanent alliances—only permanent interests.” With the Russians, it might more precisely be said there are only permanent ambitions.