Tallinn riots: bronze soldier takes a shot

10 May 2007
The removal of the monument to the Soviet soldiers who died in World War 2 sparked spontaneous protests that mark a turning point in the formation of Estonia's civil society. On the contrary, the recent protests in Moscow were qualitatively different - they were organized by pro-Kremlin youth, writes Boris Kagarlitsky.

I learned about the riots in Tallinn during a philosophy conference in the south Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Participants were deep into Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” when a young man showed an SMS message about the events in Estonia. During the coffee-break we didn’t miss the chance to share first impressions from the news. “This is mere practice, while our fiefdom is theory”, was the disdainful reaction.

“It is just another proof that Estonia is a European country, and the Russian nationals living there did just what the Europeans would do. The Dutch, British or French citizens would do just the same.” This synthesis from one theorist has set me thinking.

Indeed, massive protests are a way to express democratic conscience. Theorists of the XVII century listed the “right to rebellion” among the basic civic rights. People have the right, and sometimes it is their duty, to go to the streets when the authorities violate norms of civilized life, thus humiliating citizens’ dignity. This is the reason why the general public always sympathizes with rioters and the authorities almost never dare to persecute them. Following the logic of social processes, the authorities are responsible for such events.

So, when the Estonian authorities were about to pull down the monument to the Soviet soldiers who died in the World War II, Tallinn dwellers went further than discussing the situation in their kitchens – they offered resistance. In some forty years children in Estonian schools will learn that April 2007 was a turning point in the formation of the country’s civil society. And the situation won’t be seen as a Russian revolt against insults from the part of the Estonians. The fact that the majority of the discontented were the Russian-speaking residents of the Baltic capital testifies only that they were more responsive to the situation than their Estonian-speaking countrymen. But the Russian mass media represent the unrest as an ethnic conflict, only perpetuating the existing controversies between the Russians and Estonians.

Here in Russia we have nothing to do but to follow the events in Tallinn with envy and astonishment, for our own oppositionists have repeatedly failed to make people hit the street. The liberal press has to focus on police atrocities against the participants of all sorts of “Dissenter’s Marches”, for the marches themselves are inconsiderable in number and can hardly make big news. So far, the most successful march in St. Petersburg managed to gather about four thousand people, other actions can hardly be called mass protests at all, but for the massive presence of OMON (Russian SWAT), FSB, the police and the press.

However, the number of the dissenters is not the key element – what really matters is the qualitative differences between the social protest movements in Europe and in Russia.

First and foremost, social mobilization in Europe always takes place around a concrete issue, with clear and realistic demands being formulated: to abolish the “First Employment Contract” in France, to return the Ungdomshuset (literally «the Youth House») in Copenhagen to the people, to leave the bronze soldier in Tallinn at its place. These demands are clear, concrete and quite satisfiable. Our intellectuals keep arguing if diametrically opposite political forces should unite their political potential in “Dissenters’ Marches”. These debates are due to speculative and demagogic nature of the Marches that unite discreet social forces in order to express discontent per se, not in connection to a concrete issue. While in Western Europe the opposition politicians jointly lead the people into the streets to get concrete problems resolved, our political movements only seek to use each other, failing to find consent and showing disrespect of all possible democratic values.

As for political leaders, their active role in “Dissenters’ Marches” is another telling distinction of our protest expression from spontaneous grass-roots level actions in Europe. Of course, the majority of protest actions in Western Europe are orchestrated. But they are not staged by the leading opposition politicians. Europeans hit the street when they disagree with some event and feel that the politicians cannot or don’t want to represent people’s will. Our situation is a paradox: it is not the citizens who search for the way out of the political stalemate but the politicians themselves. Acknowledging their impotence, Russian oppositionists are trying to imitate the European-like social movements.

Authoritarian nature of Putin’s regime partly accounts for this paradox. But the regime, as authoritarian as it is, doesn’t deprive leaders of the “Other Russia” or the “United Civil Front” of alternative democratic strategies and methods. The authoritarian grip can be felt at the “Ford” or “Heineken – Petersburg” plants where workers are simply prohibited to hold rallies, or at the city social movements level whose demands are merely ignored.

The game of the “Other Russia” is to form a “broad coalition” and use the existing social protest for its own profit. It is nothing more than political manipulation. And though it might have relative success in the instantaneous political game, it is an obstacle for further development of the civil conscience in our society, for it doesn’t intend to turn the crowd into citizens, but has been repeatedly trying to gather a crowd out of the citizens.

Hopefully, civil conscience will develop independently of the “Other Russia”, the president or his spin-doctors with their “sovereign democracy” conceptions. It will happen gradually as people get more social experience: sooner or later, shifting way of life will change political behavior.

Simply, in small Estonia these processes evolve quicker than in big Russia.

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About the authors

Boris Kagarlitsky

Boris Kagarlitsky is a well-known international commentator on Russian politics and society. Boris was a deputy to the Moscow City Soviet between 1990-93, during which time he was a member of the executive of the Socialist Party of Russia, co-founder of the Party of Labour, and advisor to the Chairperson of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.  Previously, he was a student of art criticism and was imprisoned for two years for 'anti-Soviet' activities.

Boris' books include Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (Pluto Press, February 2008, Russia Under Yeltsin And Putin: Neo-Liberal Autocracy (TNI/Pluto 2002) and New Realism, New Barbarism: The Crisis of Capitalism (Pluto 1999).