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Re-creating memorial landscape in Estonia: The case of the Victory Column in Tallinn

6 November 2017

Federico Bellentani discusses the political significance of monumental architecture through the contested urban landscape of Talinn, Estonia.

National elites in post-Soviet countries have often  used the built environment, monuments and heritage to reinforce national identity and to legitimate political power. In particular, they have established monuments to articulate selective historical narratives, focusing attention on convenient events and individuals, while obliterating what is discomforting for them.

In Estonia, national elites have taken various initiatives to marginalise Soviet monuments, while erecting new monuments reflecting the new society’s rule of play. However, these initiatives have not come about without political division.

Estonia is the northernmost of three Baltic countries. The total size of its population is around 1.3 million. More than ten different foreign powers have ruled the territories of present-day Estonia since ancient times . Estonians have been the main people ruling the country only from 1918 to 1944 and from 1991 onwards.

A vast number of changes has characterised Estonia after regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991; among them, the built environment has been variously redesigned to support new economic, social and political orders. The redesign of the Estonian built environment has evolved through two concurrent practices: the redesign of the inherited built forms created by the Soviets and the establishment of a new built environment reflecting the needs of post-Soviet society.

In 2004, EU and NATO memberships have provided opportunities for Estonian elites to gain symbolic capital and to reinforce their values through monuments. However, the relocation and removal of Soviet monuments and the erection of new ones have not been widely accepted by the entire Estonian population, in which multiple historical narratives and identities coexist. For example, there is a large Russian minority living in Estonia, whose interpretations of the recent past could differ from those of the Estonians.

In 2007, the relocation of a memorial to the Soviet Army in Tallinn – the so-called ‘Bronze Soldier’ – even resulted in two nights of disorders, during which a 20-year-old Russian was killed.

The statue of the Bronze Soldier in its current location in the Talinn Military Cemetery

A new chapter of the controversies around monuments began in 2009, when the War of Independence Victory Column was erected about 500 meters from the Bronze Soldier’s original location. The Victory Column is a large, column-shape memorial that commemorates those who served in a war that ended with the first recognition of Estonia as an independent state (1918-1920). For this reason, Estonians commonly refer to this as the ‘War of Independence’ and link it with ideals of freedom.

The War of Independence Victory Column

But the intentions of the Estonian Government’s erection of the Victory Column have gone beyond commemoration. The Estonian Government has erected the memorial to turn a new page in the construction of the national memory and identity. As such, the memorial has helped to reflect and sustain the cultural and political agendas of the Estonian Government.

Nonetheless, citizens have mostly resisted the political and the cultural positions embodied in the Victory Column. Criticism has focused on the material and the symbolic design of the memorial: hermetic iconography, controversial design, a location that does not fit in with the adjacent built environment, and its failure to facilitate interactions.

The Victory Column has attracted the expected practices of commemorations only during public rituals arranged by the Estonian Government and its affiliates. For the rest of the year, the memorial attracts only unexpected practices that are different from those intended by its designers: due to flat ground and sharp curbs, skaters and bikers use the space of the memorial for their tricks during the warmer weather.

Laying of wreaths in front of the Victory Column during the celebrations of the Independence Day, 24 February 2015


Signs of skating and biking on the pedestal of the Victory Column

In brief, the significance that the Victory Column has assumed for Estonian political elites have not been widely recognised at non-elite levels. So far, the memorial has come in for a great deal of criticism and has not attracted the expected practices of commemorations and sentiments of mourning.

The Victory Column suggests that elites use monuments as a form of discourse to construct and spread meanings in space. A set of design strategies is available to direct a user’s interpretation of monuments. Nevertheless, users can interpret monuments in ways designers may have never intended. Considering the multiple interpretations of monuments as emerging from the interplay between designers’ and users’ can limit broad debates and social conflicts resulting from ill-advised politics of monumental architecture.