September 22 is an important day for many citizens of Tallinn. For decades, that day was celebrated as the liberation day of Tallinn from the Hitler regime conquerors in 1944. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the event, and this time the Kremlin has decided to celebrate the occasion with a fireworks display in Moscow.
In reality, however, the event cannot be described as the liberation of the city, because just as in many other European Capitols, the Red Army marched into Tallinn and replaced one occupation with their own.
Myth: the Red Army liberated Tallinn
The myth claims, that on September 22, 1944, after victorious battles, the Red Army entered Tallinn and liberated it from German occupation. In honour of the Red Army soldiers who died in the liberation battles, the Bronze Soldier, which became a significant symbol, was erected in Tallinn at Tõnismägi in 1947. The official opening of the memorial is reported, for example in the 1947 cinematic overview of Soviet Estonia no. #24 .
According to the myth, on September 22, 1944, Soviet forces, led by an Estonian Rifle Corp’s Special Forces group, marched into Tallinn. The Multinational Special Forces group included alongside Estonians, Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Kazakhs, Armenians and others. Significant resistance from the fascist enemy was encountered in the village of Jüri. After the victorious battle, they marched into Tallinn, where the residents of Tallinn greeted the liberators joyfully and with great enthusiasm.
The workers of Tallinn did not wait passively but on their own initiative defended the factories, thus frustrating the fascist plan to turn Tallinn into ruins. The Red Army, led by Lieutenant Lumiste, hoisted the Red flag at the Pikk Herman tower on Toompea. At 22:30 in the evening, Moscow saluted Tallinn’s liberators with the firing of 24 cannon shots by 324 artillery pieces.
An important part of the myth is also related to the Tallinn Liberator monument, known popularly as the Bronze Soldier, which was opened at Tõnismägi in 1947 and moved to the Tallinn Military Cemetery in 2007. The monument was originally erected in the green space area of Tõnismägi, where on April 14, 1945 a group of 12 Red Army soldiers who had allegedly fallen during the taking of Tallinn were buried.
Where is this myth distributed?
The Soviet propaganda machine started spreading the myth immediately after the establishment of its power in the territory of Estonia. Marek Miil, in his academic work has addressed the time period in the daily newspapers of Rahva Hääl (the people’s voice), Noorte Hääl (the voice of the youth) and Õhtuleht (the evening paper) which were published in the Estonian SSR between 1945 and 1989. There were 299 articles dedicated to the liberation event and these publications repeated the exact same constructed narrative components every year on 22. September.
In addition to the Estonian language media, the myth was spread elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet Union has left the world stage of history, the myth persists on the Kremlin’s propaganda channels. In the Estonian language media, the myth is kept alive for example, by Sputnik. This year, the issue has been raised mainly in connection with the Kremlin’s plan to hold a fireworks display in Moscow to mark the 75th anniversary of the event.
In 2016, Russia issued a five-ruble coin depicting the Bronze Soldier in the series of “European Capitols freed from fascist usurpers” and was also featured in Propastop.
Russia Beyond has provided an overview on how the Red Army liberated European Capitols. The schedule for the Moscow fireworks in honour of the liberation can be seen for example here.
Why is the myth being spread?
One the one hand, the continued spread of the myth is motivated by the desire to perpetuate the narrative of the Great Patriotic War, which had grown throughout the years to a super powerful status in Soviet Russia and which formed one of the most important foundations for the Russian people. While the collapse of the Soviet Union was considered by Russia’s head of State, Vladimir Putin as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century, the victory over the fascist usurper was the greatest success. Contesting this would be a strong blow to national dignity and self-confidence.
The myth of liberating Tallinn is doubly confirming – it affirms the legitimacy of the creation of the Soviet Union and gives every Russian a sense of self worth as a liberator of Fascism from Europe.
On the other hand, it is used to instill distrust in the Estonian State and institutions to the Russian speaking residents of Estonia, who are under the influence of the myth, since the official treatment of history differs markedly from the dictates of the Putin’s regime’s „memory politics“. The myth consequently, confuses the societies of neighbouring countries and creates tensions between nations.
The myth of the liberation of Tallinn is part of a larger „liberation myth“ that Kremlin propagandists are extending to all countries where Red Army soldiers’ boots were on the ground during World War II. For example, Delfi recently reported a news story in which Bulgaria requested that the Russian Embassy no longer call the entry of Soviet Troops in 1944 as a „liberation“.
Refuting the myth
The main reason we cannot say Tallinn was liberated is that the Red Army, which marched into Tallinn on September 22, 1944 had no plans of ever leaving. A liberator is not one who drives out an usurper just to take its place. On that day, another bloody occupation began in Estonia, which ended almost half a century later. The last Russian troops left Estonia on 31. August 1994.
On September 22, 1944, when the Red Army arrived in Tallinn, the Germans had already left the city. On 18. September, Otto Tief’s Republic of Estonia’s Constitutional Government, which had been formed by Prime Minister Jüri Uluots acting on behalf of the President was in force. As of September 20th, the national Blueblackwhite flag, not a German swastika flag, was flying at the Tall Herman Tower.
Since there were no German battle groups in the city, there were no large scale defensive or liberation battles in Tallinn. There were although, minor clashes mainly with units of the so-called „Pitka boys“ and Estonian soldiers who had been volunteers in the Finnish army and were called the „Finnish boys“.
According to Vello Salo, who belonged to the Finnish Boys group, on September 22. at the Vaskjala Bridge, about twenty Estonian soldiers- Pitka Boys, of whom at least were Finnish Boys fought with the Russians. Near Jüri Kirik (Church of St. George), the Estonians held a small embankment with panzerfausts and small arms. On the opposing side, only one soldier is known to have fallen.
Military archeologist, Arnold Unt states in his „Academy“ article „Tõnismägi ten years later“ dated June 6, 2017, that through indirect memories and based on old Soviet loss reports, there were also minor clashes in the Nõmme and Pääsküla areas.
Indeed, in April 1945, the remains of 12 Red Army soldiers were buried at Tõnismägi. It was the re-burial of individuals from various burial sites. Thanks to the liquidation of the previous single graves, Unt received information that some of the Tallinn „liberators“ had been a regular army commander, Hapikalo who had drank himself to death with Methanol, regular army Sergeant Davõdov shot in the process of drawing graffiti, and Jelena Varshavskaja, a soldier killed in a traffic accident. The other nine buried at Tõnismägi had indeed fallen in battle clashes near Tallinn.
It is also true that on the evening of September 22, the Red flag was hoisted at Pikk Hermann Tower. However, as Marek Miil shows in his research, the list of flag hoisters has changed over the years. While in the post-war years, Estonian members of the Red Army were named as flag hoisters, in later years some of these names were replaced by representatives of other nations. The German’s alleged plan to blow up a number of buildings upon leaving Tallinn and the courageous resistance of Tallinn workers has not been proven. Nevertheless, there were clashes between the retreating Germans and the Pitka boys that wanted to get the German armaments to fight the next occupier.
As the German occupation, forces had already left Tallinn by 22. September and the Constitutional Government of the Republic of Estonia had been formed already on 18. September, the Red Army marching on the Capitol could not have been as a liberator. They were another conqueror and occupier who had no plans of ever leaving.
The desperate resistance of the Pitka Boys, who fought battles with the retreating Germans and against the invading Red Army shows that the Red Army was not greeted by all with flowers as liberators. On the other hand, many of the Estonian Rifle Corps soldiers in Tallinn certainly had relatives in Tallinn who were sincerely happy for the reunion.
Although some of the Russian-speaking population celebrate the anniversary of the liberation of Tallinn from the German occupiers on 22 September, the Parliament of Estonia declared the same day a day of resistance in 2007.
On this day, the fall of the Estonian Government and the capture of the Capitol by the Red Army, followed by the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union is remembered. The end of the Fascist occupation in the Baltic States paved the way for the next occupation by a foreign power, which lasted ten times longer and caused immeasurable suffering to the people of Estonia.
The Red Army, raising the Red flag at Pikk Herman Tower in 1944. USSR propaganda poster on the conquest of Tallinn. Source: Australian War Memorial
The Blueblackwhite flying at Pikk Herman Tower today. Photo by Guillaume Speurt /Flickr / CC