History: Russian desinformation Operation about the March bombing of Narva

06.03.2024

The Estonian History Museum collection hides the so-called Nuremberg Trials album, which includes photos taken in Narva at the end and aftermath of World War II, depicting destroyed buildings. The Soviet authorities presented these as ‘evidence’ of German crimes.

War Devastation in Narva. The Front Facade of the Commercial Gymnasium Building

Approximately 150 photos were intended to prove the Soviet claim that Narva’s historic Old Town, dating back to the second half of the 17th century, was not destroyed by the Red Army bombing but by the Germans. However, historians have pointed out several tragic flaws in this information operation, indicating the planned nature of the action and the real goals of spreading disinformation.

On March 1, 1944, over 200 aerial bombs were dropped on Narva, but from March 6 to 8, the Red Army conducted a large-scale bombing of the city. Over 100 bombers participated in the attack, accompanied by artillery bombardment on the city. On March 17-19, Narva’s ruins were bombed again, and finally, on July 25, 1944, Narva was completely destroyed. Of the 3,550 stone buildings in the city, only 198 could be made habitable later. All historical buildings were destroyed: Narva Town Hall, the ancient stock exchange building, the weigh house, Peter I’s house, Narva synagogue, Nicholas military church-manege, Narva St. Peter’s Church, and many other centuries-old structures.

Cotton Mill Workers’ Residential Building

Historian and heritage conservationist Jüri Tõnisson has pointed out deviations from the usual pattern in reporting these attacks. While the Red Army typically tended to exaggerate its success or the impact of its actions in communication, the March bombings in Tallinn and Narva were downplayed immediately after the attacks. Tõnisson wrote in the journal Kultuur ja Elu 1/2014: “In Tallinn, Sovinformburo declared that about a dozen strategically important objects were attacked, which were not bombed. In Narva, where the result was excellent – the entire city was destroyed—it was reported only about the bombing of the railway junction, which had not been operational for a month. Instead, they could have announced that a devastating blow was dealt to the enemy’s defensive structures in the city.”

Tõnisson believes that the silence about the target and the achieved result of the attack were not accidental. “It was probably decided in advance to organize a grand ideological diversion to expose the ‘vile enemy,'” writes Tõnisson.

City Hospital Maternity Ward Building Rear View

Andres Toode’s research supports Tõnisson’s claims regarding how allegedly German-destroyed heritage was described, evaluated, and presented. In his comprehensive research article, “Valuable War Ruins: Assessing War Damages to Architectural Heritage, Using the Example of Narva,” Toode describes the superficiality, variability, and low reliability of evaluation criteria and methodology. This, in turn, inflated the damages grotesquely, disconnecting them from the prices valid in real life. The damage assessment commission found that the restoration value of Peter I’s house exceeded 52 million rubles. However, a document from just a year later revealed that the Estonian SSR Architecture Department planned to renovate the building within three years for 440,000 rubles. The difference is 118 times.

Toode also highlights that the Damage Assessment Commission’s decision, based on expert assessments, does not allow for the conclusions drawn. “Mostly, i.e., in more than 30 cases, the cause of building damage is stated as either ‘due to the events of 1944’ or ‘due to fires caused by military operations.’ Sometimes, ‘bombings’ or ‘air raids’ are added as additional reasons, implying either unintentionally or discreetly the involvement of the Red Army, as the Germans, being in the city, did not bomb themselves,” writes Toode.

Jaanilinna Elementary School Building

Toode writes that the State Commission for Assessing War Damages, established in Moscow in 1942 (which also included a corresponding Estonian commission), collected information based on which the accusations presented at the Nuremberg Tribunal were made, forming the basis for damage claims against Germany. However, Toode argues that the extensive propagandistic and political exploitation of the commission’s materials suggests that the real purpose of the undertaking was to create a tool supporting the strategic narratives of the Soviet leadership. “This conclusion is supported by the extensive use of propaganda and political exploitation of the commission’s collected data. The researchers themselves have pointed out numerous examples of forgeries – the most famous being the attempt to incriminate the Katyn mass murders to the Germans—as well as false claims or data, where it will likely remain a mystery whether the false cause is due to ignorance, sloppiness, indifference, or political order,” concludes Toode.

The screenshots are from the sources used in the story and from the collection of the Estonian History Museum.