Bronze Soldier - Familiar Old Russian Approach
Author: Pekka Erelt (17.05.2007)
(Basic translation by Juta Ristsoo; edited and revised.)
The story of the Bronze Soldier is remarkably similar to the events that preceded and followed the Soviet organized Communist armed putsch of 1924 in Estonia.
Organized mayhem on the streets of Tallinn, demonstrations in front of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, a shrill anti-Estonia propaganda war-it seems like something similar has already happened to us before. The Bronze Soldier affair dramatically evokes the beginning of the 1920s, when the young Estonian state had to endure incessant negative propaganda and pressure from its large eastern neighbor. History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
New tactic - a propaganda war
Estonia declared its independence on February 24, 1918 and fought the War of Independence against Soviet Russia from November 1918 - February 1920. The Republic of Estonia succeeded in thwarting the military invasion by Soviet Russia whose leader Lenin regarded the independence of the three Baltic states as an obstacle on the road to world revolution. Faced by an imminent Soviet take-over, all political forces in Estonia - from socialists to center-right parties - united in defense of the nation’s independence. The only exception was Viktor Kingissepp’s Estonian Communist Party, which was in fact a branch of the Russian Bolsheviks. In November 1918, the Estonian Communists played the role of fig leaf for the Soviet invasion. Their task was to return Estonia to Soviet Russia under the guise of the Estonian Working People’s Commune, formed with the support of the Red Army. The latter was defeated and the plot failed. With the 1920 Tartu Peace Treat (the first international treaty concluded between Soviet Russia and a foreign country), Lenin had to recognize “unconditionally and for all times” the independence of the Estonian Republic.
Any sympathy that the Estonian people felt for the Communists in 1917 rapidly disappeared. By 1920, only 700 Communist Party members were left. After the independence of Estonia was confirmed, the Estonian Communist Party separated formally from the All-Russian Bolshevik party to form an independent party that joined the Communist International. Its official goal remained the overthrow of the Estonian “bourgeois” Government and establishment of Soviet rule. Already in the spring after the conclusion of the Tartu Peace Treaty, the Security Police rooted out several underground Communist organizations.
In circumstances that had quickly turned against Russian plans of expansion, the latter started to employ a new tactic against Estonia. Vehement anti-Estonian propaganda was set in motion and hostages were taken. Whenever Estonia caught an important Communist, the Cheka arrested some Estonians in return, who were then accused of spying or speculation. In this way Estonia was forced to make an exchange with the Russians.
A great uproar broke out in Russia, when during the night of May 2-3, 1922, the underground leader of the Communists, Viktor Kingissepp, was finally apprehended in Tallinn. He was tried by a field court and executed for treason. In this case Russia did not have the opportunity to exchange him for anyone. The only thing left was propaganda. As the first reaction, the Russian Embassy in Tallinn lowered its flag to half-mast as a sign of mourning.
Estonia was immediately vilified in Russian newspapers. The Krasnaja Gazeta cursed “the Estonian band of White Guard executioners, who call themselves the democratic Republic of Estonia”. The Estonian-language Edasi in Petrograd called for violence, “We will answer the actions of the butchers with new assaults; we will answer every killing of a worker with the killing of tens of members of the bourgeoisie. The Estonian butchers should remember that we have a large number of their hostages.” Edasi also agitated to create combat groups to destroy the “Estonian gendarmerie”.
While the newspapers were carrying out a large-scale attack, meetings and demonstrations were organized in front of the Estonian missions in St. Petersburg and Jamburg (a Russian provincial town not far from the Estonian border). These meetings resulted in resolutions, for instance, demanding the shooting of hostages-”a hundred ignoble souls of the Estonian bourgeoisie for the life of a workers’ leader!” The uproar ended on May 17, 1922, with a demonstrative decision to rename Jamburg Kingissepp.
In March 1923, when another leader of the underground Estonian Communists, Jaan Kreuks, was killed in an exchange of gunfire with police, a new wave of hostile propaganda was launched in Russia, culminating with plundering of the Estonian Consulate in Petrograd.
In January 1924, the Estonian Security Police uncovered an underground network of Communist organizations that continued to prepare for overthrow of the constitutional Government in accordance with the Communist International plans. The pretrial period saw a dramatic increase of political pressure on Estonia.
A new word employed by Russian propaganda was none other than “fascism”. In the summer of 1924, articles started appearing in Russian newspapers, describing a secret fascist organization operating in Tallinn, which was supposedly planning a coup. In July 1924, Estonian Security Police arrested a man by the name of Reinkubjas whose purportedly fascist organization claimed to work for the overthrow of the Government. However,
investigations revealed his real ties to the Communist Party. Nevertheless, in the shadow of this uproar, preparations for a real coup were being made.
Children were hustled to an anti-Estonian meeting
In November 1924, the trial of 149 seditionists was held in Tallinn, which significantly reduced the striking power of the Communists. Russia reacted to the trial with a new propaganda avalanche. Throughout the country,
especially in the military district of Petrograd, protest meetings were held among the troops. The objective was clear-to stoke anti-Estonian hysteria in the army to prepare for an invasion of Estonia. At the meetings, “boycotts of the murders’ republic” and the “shackling of all Estonian bourgeois who dwell in Soviet Russia” were called for.
On November 17, 1924, genuine propaganda fireworks took place in front of the Estonian Consulate in Petrograd. For half a day, troops, workers, state officials and even schoolchildren organized incitive meetings. Demonstrators carrying placards marched past the Consulate and shouted anti-Estonian curses on command.
“Children were hustled to the demonstration directly from school, and to prevent them from going home to eat, lunch was organized for them and they were promised free tickets to the cinema. Placards were hung in the university proclaiming, “Who turns out to be a scoundrel and does not go to the demonstration, we will beat up,” described journalist Eduard Laaman.
The Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat wrote, “nearby militia units took no steps to control the raucous crowd. All this indicates that the whole show was carried out with official permission, perhaps even at official orders.”
The next day’s Leningradskaja Pravda editorialized, ” Tiny Estonia’s dwarf bourgeoisie is doing its work, hoping it will succeed because strong supporters are backing it up. It is all the more urgent to strike a counterblow immediately. This is the duty of the international proletariat and the Soviet Union whom the Estonian white guards are mocking.”
At the end of November, four age classes of the 56th Territorial Division were mobilized on the border of Estonia and Latvia. The Russian Army’s own newspaper later wrote that the mobilization was so unexpected that rumors of impending war started to spread.
This blitzkrieg was being prepared in Moscow by one of the Russia’s leaders, Grigory Zinoviev himself. After his failure to bring about “world revolution” in Germany in the fall of 1923, he needed a new victory to rehabilitate himself before the party. Zinoviev summoned Janis Berzins, the head of the Russian Army Intelligence and told him, “We will not operate as we did in Germany. We need new methods-no strikes, no agitation. The only thing we need is a few strong monolithic groups, led by a handful of Red Army commanders, and in two, three days we will be the masters of Estonia.”
The necessary shock troops were quickly mobilized in St. Petersburg and Berzins handed them over to the command of Rudolf Vakmann, the Secretary of the Petrograd Office subordinated to the Russian Foreign Commissariat.
Shock troops from Russia
By the end of November 1924, preparations had been completed and on November 28-29, shock troops crept across the Estonian border. Weapons and other battle equipment were brought along in backpacks. According to the Estonian language History of the Estonian SSR (Tallinn, 1987, p 131), by November 1924 there were about 1000 men in underground battle groups.
In addition to Zinoviev, a large number of leading figures of the Comintern and Russia participated in the preparations, such as Otto Kuusinen, Lev Kamenev, Vyacheslav Molotov and even Joseph Stalin. Of military personnel, for instance, Mikhail Frunze, Chairman of the Military Council, J. Unschlicht, head of supplies for the Red Army, and others. In Tallinn, the local forces were organized by Russian Ambassador M. Kobetsky, at the order of Zinoviev.
Although the rebellion was not totally unexpected, a lack of coordination and confusion reigned in Tallinn in the early morning of December 1. The insurgents succeeded in capturing several important institutions and they murdered 21 people, including Minister of Roads Karl Kark. “At that moment, the fate of Estonia hung by a thread,” said Colonel Karl Laurits, long-time head of military intelligence. However, due to the spontaneous resistance by the Estonian police and military, the putchists failed to achieve their main goal - to establish a Communist Government which was supposed to appeal to Moscow for help. As a result, Soviet Russia decided at the last minute to pull back from the operation. The pending invasion of Estonia by Russian forces was averted.
During the suppression of the rebellion, a Russian Embassy employee, courier J. Maritov, was caught with Erich Vakmann. Maritov confessed his part in the organization of the putsch, betrayed a number of the leaders of the rebellion and the location of the headquarters on Tõnismägi and confirmed that the leaders and weapons of the shock troops that attacked the Tondi military barracks in Tallinn were from Russia. In addition to Maritov, a number of other Russian Embassy employees directly participated in the putsch. Five of them were also caught.
If the December 1924 rebellion would have succeeded, there would have been terrible consequences for Estonia. Lists of Estonians who were to be killed after the coup were already compiled before the rebellion. In Pärnu alone, where 18,000 people lived at the time, 1,800 were to be liquidated. In all of Estonia about 60,000 people or the entire elite were to be killed.
Would anyone have come to our aid?
Europe’s press reacted actively to the December Rebellion. Sympathy in this battle between David and Goliath was clearly on Estonia’s side. “The Estonian people deserve our total sympathy in the current times of tribulation. With its gallantry and determination, it has saved itself from great danger. The revolutionary propaganda that is being prompted from Moscow and St. Petersburg is worldwide in its aspirations and the Tallinn rebellion is a noteworthy warning. It sheds a bright light on the recent development in Soviet politics,” wrote The Times.
“That the Russians are involved is clear. The leading Communists are not only indirectly responsible through their propaganda, but assisted directly in the performance,” accused the British socialist newspaper, The New Statesman.
“This is a danger of common character which must be combated. Since revolutionaries operate internationally, the battle against them must also be organized internationally,” said Le Temps from Paris.
The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung called all of Europe to action. “Europe dreams that Russian Communist Party has abandoned its plans for world revolution. The Tallinn rebellion must wake Europe from this dream.”
Moscow Pravda, however, claimed on December 3, 1924, that the Estonian authorities had provoked the coup themselves by putting 149 Communists on trial. In the following period Russia continued its efforts to show the Baltic States in a negative light. Or as British Intelligence Officer R. J. Meiklejohn asserted-the Russians wanted at minimum to create an uproar with December 1st and to show Estonia as an unstable country, where it is risky for Western businessmen to do business.
Today’s Estonia, having survived the Bronze Soldier shock, should learn from this story. The Russian historian Boris Sokolov is of the opinion that some planners close to the Kremlin developed the idea to use the defense of the Bronze soldier to consolidate the Russian-speaking community in Estonia into a half-autonomous entity that would then ask Russia to defend then just as has happened in the case of Abkhasia and Trans-Dnistria. According to Sokolov, destabilization of the Estonian state and its authority was seen as a minimum goal. Declarations of support from foreign journalists and politicians are welcome and heartwarming, but one should not get carried away by them. Assistance will only be provided to those who can protect themselves.
The 1924 failed coup in Tallinn was the last in a series of post 1917 October Revolution attempts by the Soviet Russia to export its revolution to European countries by violent means. More than a dozen years of relative stability followed while the Soviet Union officially proclaimed the so-called policy of collective security. However, a new change that had a fatal effect on all countries neighboring the Soviet Union culminated with the Hitler-Stalin pact signed on August 23, 1939. Two months later, Soviet troops marched into Estonia on the basis of a “mutual assistance treaty”. In June 1940 the Estonian Government was toppled and a few weeks later in August 1940, Estonia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. After a 16 year delay, the dream of Viktor Kingissepp was realized. At least for the next half century.
Additional sources used:
Eesti Ajalugu; Kronoloogia, by Sulev Vahtre. Tallinn, Olion, 1994
Eesti NSV Ajalugu, by Juhan Kahk & Karl Siilivask. Tallinn, Perioodika, 1987.
“Riigipöördekatse eelmäng;Propagandasõda Eesti vastu novembris 1924″ by Alo Lõhmus. Postimees, May 5, 2007.
Enamlaste riigipöörde katse Tallinnas 1. detsembril 1924 by J. Saar (Eduard Laaman), 1925.
Article by Dr. J. Vilms Vaba Sõna, 1925, nr 1.
“За родину, против Таллина”, by Boris Sokolov, on website: http://grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.121448.html
Via Mari-Ann Kelam