What a circus - and for one book !
About 300 people, mostly men, were on hand at Helsinki’s Sanoma House when writers Sofi Oksanen and Imbi Paju spoke about their new book Kaiken takana oli pelko (“Behind Everything Was Fear”). The writers spoke about Estonia’s hidden past, and the audience listened in complete silence.
Also attracting people was the prospect of seeing a demonstration by the Nashi movement, also known as the “Putin Youth”, who saw the indictment of the Soviet occupation as an attack on Russia. The handful of demonstrators were the focus of attention for about 40 representatives of the media. Even the Putin youth themselves photographed each other as if they were on a summer excursion.
A few shy-looking demonstrators, with their flags and their “stop facizm” (sic) masks slipped in among the listeners. “Go home and grow up a bit”, said an older man.
About 15 Estonian and Russian demonstrators showed up with flags and signs.
They were supported by long-bearded representatives of the Finnish Islamic Party and a lone man who shouted antifascist slogans. He said that he represented a “people’s protection association”.
There was also a small counterdemonstration led by Kai Pöntinen, who is running for the European Parliament on the ticket of the National Coalition Party.
“It is irritating people come here from abroad to tell us what she should talk about. We don’t limit debate, research, or writing here”, said Pöntinen.
The protest was arranged by Johan Bäckman. At an earlier press conference, Bäckman claimed that the Soviet Union did not occupy Estonia and that the deportations during Stalin’s time were population transfers. In addition he denounced the book by Oksanen and Paju as anti-Soviet and Estonia as an undemocratic apartheid state.
The Russian demonstrators who came to Helsinki had similar thoughts.
The Putin Youth say that the Estonians use the falsification of history in today’s politics, and discriminate against Russians on that basis. “The numbers put forward on the deportations are a lie”, says the leader of the group, 20-year-old Mark Siryk.
Along with the Putin youth, half a dozen men came from Tallinn, who are part of the "Night Watch" group of local Russians who opposed the relocation of the Bronze Soldier statue in the centre of Tallinn two years ago.
At the publication event, Sofi Oksanen said that one reason that she wrote about Estonian history was that Finns know so little of it. “I have often thought what might be written about it in Finnish that could be recommended. There is nothing.”
The demonstration seemed to make Oksanen feel mainly awkward.
“Their message is aimed at Russians and the Russian media”, she suggested.
Imbi Paju concedes that mistakes have been made in Estonia’s policy on nationalities, and says that open debate is the solution to the problems.
“When this book is seen as incitement against Russia, the only aim is to end debate”, Paju says.
“The content of totalitarianism needs to be analysed. Most Estonians are willing to discuss it.”
Roughly 93,000 Russian citizens live in Estonia today, a legacy of Soviet times. Alongside them are a further 100,000 who have no nationality status whatsoever. Nearly a third of Russian-speakers in Estonia feel they are being rebuffed.
The Second World War is at the heart of discord between nationalists on either side: to some of the Russians in Estonia it was the Great Patriotic War, whilst the Estonians who suffered from Soviet occupation take a rather different, but no less passionate view.
Previously in HS International Edition :
Russian nationalists plan Helsinki protest (20.3.2009)
Finlandia Prize goes to Sofi Oksanen and portrait of Estonia under Soviet occupation (5.12.2008)
Sofi Oksanen invited to St. Petersburg poetry evening after all (12.8.2008)
Soviet memorial in Tallinn moved after night of rioting (27.4.2007)