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10 January, 2012  ▪  Igor Matveev

“Fun” Occupation

Estonia established a museum with a good sense of humor, evidently to attract more Russians

The Ukrainian Week continues its series of articles about how post-Soviet countries and former members of the socialist bloc bid farewell to their communist past. We wrote about Georgia’s Museum of Occupation in issue 30, the Czech Museum of Communism in issue 38, the Lithuanian Museum of Genocide Victims in issue 41 and the House of Terror in Budapest in issue 43. This instalment is about the Museum of Occupation in Tallinn, Estonia.

A YouTube video about the great deportation (“forced evacuation”) of Estonians to Siberia on June 13-14, 1941, was watched by 100,000 viewers. When NKVD troops storm into the house of an Estonian family during an evening meal in order to drive them out into the street at gunpoint, father and mother, stunned, “rejoice” that the Soviet government will take them to Siberian “resorts” for free. The video was produced allegedly “with the financial support of the Commission for Historical Truth of the Russian State Duma.” In fact, as one of the commentators points out, it is a “great way to jeer at attempts to represent the history of Estonia from the standpoint of (Russian) official historical propaganda.” The same goes for the Museum of Occupation (some say “occupations”) in Tallinn. As a plaque by the entrance testifies, this institution’s mission is to show the “divided schizophrenic life of Estonian society for half a century.”

A COMMUNITY EFFORT

Lennart Meri, President of Estonia from 1992-2001, assumed patronage over the project to build the museum, while the International Kistler-Ritso Foundation raised funding. In the early 1990s, the initiators of the project appealed to Estonians across the country and abroad to provide both financial and factual support – testimonies, historical photos, videos, artifacts of the time and so on. It was also a challenge to find room for the museum in crammed downtown Tallinn. Finally, the museum was opened in a newly built transparent building on the edge of Old Tallinn.

Two models of trains – one with a Soviet five-point star and the other one with a Nazi swastika – welcome visitors. The idea is copied from a Soviet placard of the 1930s with the title “Who will beat whom?” In it, the USSR is catching up with Hitler’s Third Reich rather than the bourgeois West as was the case later under Nikita Khrushchev. The trains represent two totalitarian Molochs between which Estonia found itself squeezed. Truth be told, red totalitarianism did much more damage to the country. Even though the Germans were not very kind the Estonians either, exhibits showing the Soviet era prevail in the museum. Behind the trains are stands with allowing “meditation” where patrons can sit in a nearby chair, pause and think about how people were able to survive for decades with just a minimum set of things for everyday use.

Next, heaped along a transparent wall are suitcases – symbols of the aforementioned Baltic deportation. On the other side there are objects which ordinary Estonians who were fortunate to avoid deportation and stay in their land were able to “enjoy”: phone booths with the paint peeling off, the glass panes shattered and skewed dial disks; ugly small cars for disabled drivers; soda dispensers; a hair saloon chair with an antediluvian fan, the first rolls of toilet paper, etc. It was occupation Soviet style.

TOILETS MADE IN THE USSR

The entrance to the dungeon is framed with red flags. There is a wall made of prison doors, including prison toilet doors, in front of it. They are painted in various colors to add zest to the display. The dungeon is filled with busts of Soviet figures, except Stalin. Instead, there is his complete works in Estonian. Niches contain various Soviet “artifacts,” from iron prison spoons and cigarette cases to felt boots, cast-iron pots, worn-down quilted coats and even bast shoes. There are also more interesting exhibits like the publication listing books banned from libraries, prison numbers worn by inmates and small black-blue-white Estonian national flags confiscated from them. All of this is complemented with brief excerpts from Estonia’s modern history in Estonian, Russian and English. The creators of the museum do not seem disturbed by unlikely combinations, such as the facts “the last partisan died in 1978” and “the 1980 Olympic regatta in Pirita.”

Another room is completely dedicated to goods in everyday use in Soviet times: a Vega portable radio (1980s), several specimens of its predecessors, a Karavella vinyl record player, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, one of the first TVs with a magnifying glass, an array of cassette recorders and a desktop Perestroika alarm clock as a symbol of coming changes. The “music” section is crowned, for some reason, with a string bag filled with empty Moskovskaya Special vodka bottles (the sticker in Estonian reads “Moskva viin”) and, next to it, there is a poster proclaiming “Soviet means excellent!” as a sneer at the room’s decor.

A FACE OF EPOCH 

The museum is equipped with multimedia that offers a glimpse at people forced by the Soviets to leave their homes and perform penal work in Russia’s North or on the Kazakh steppes. The museum asked Estonian citizens to bring any photos to be scanned, so the Memento collection contains, in addition to KGB photos, also private pictures. They are dated from 1953, when Stalin died and people were able to use cameras more, to 1956, the year of the “great liberation.” For example, the Estonian museum acquired photos of female coal miners in Karaganda, tree cutting in the Urals in camp Nyzva and helicopter views of a camp town in Norilsk. These photos may show still unidentified Ukrainians. Visitors can see typical EXECUTE verdicts from the archives of special services that were delivered primarily against former government officials in Estonia though some targeted ordinary people like Aili Jurgenson, 15, who destroyed a red wooden monument to Stalin in Tallinn in 1946.

The photo exhibit is complemented by several documentaries under the general title “Occupation of Estonia in modern history” which incorporate archival footage of various periods under two aggressors. Of course, people talk about their experience under the Soviets most of the time in these films. The documentary about the arrival of the “first Soviets” is entitled First Red Year and the one on the Brezhnev era Stagnation. Commentary is provided by historian Enn Tarvel who tries to put Estonia’s history in the context of events across Central and Eastern Europe as a whole. Sometimes this comes across somewhat unnatural, but that does not negate the fact that the “smallest nation in the Soviet Union” was able to overcome totalitarianism.


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