Lenin in the Basement

How far in time and across space do the shadows of the Cold War reach? Masco persuasively argues that Cold War logics live with us today, not least in the way that US culture continues to constitute itself through fantasies of its own demise. Americans are weirdly obsessed with their own annihilation, whether at the hands of communist revolutionaries or Islamic radicals. But Estonia, a country of 1.3 million, actually was invaded by the Soviets. The country, an hour and half by boat from Helsinki, continues to confront — or bury — that memory. What Masco argues for the US, recent events in Estonia have perhaps also revealed: repression doesn’t work very well.

lenin2.jpgEstonia’s ‘Museum of Occupations‘ sits just outside Tallinn’s famous old town. It is a modern structure (opened in 2003); you enter through a courtyard cleverly enclosed beneath a glass-sheathed reading room and lecture hall. I was excited to visit the Museum a few weeks ago. Estonia had made international headlines for moving a memorial to Soviet soldiers in WWII (soldiers who expelled the Nazi occupiers of Estonia) from central Tallinn to a less visible cemetery outside the city. Riots erupted across the country for reasons I could not fully grasp at the time. When I visited in May I could still see broken glass in many storefronts. I hoped that the Museum would provide context for understanding the rioting.

In fact, throughout Tallinn, there are very few signs of the former Soviet Union. There is one Soviet era theater in the Old Town. But other than that one building, you might never know that Estonia had been a part of the Soviet Union for 50 years. In order to find the Soviet presence, you have to look underground — literally.

The museum is really just one big exhibition room. You enter the display area through a large ‘gate’ comprised of two figurative locomotives emblazoned with totalitarian insignia, the Nazi swastika and the Soviet hammer and sickle. Display cases collect paraphernalia of occupation: bureaucratic documents, old family photos, suitcases, prison doors. The main substance of the exhibits however comes from videos that play on flat screens mounted from the top of the cases. Unfortunately, because the museum is small, many of these displays are packed close together. So although the main point appears to be to watch videos on these screens, it is hard to focus on them because they are too close to each other. Making matters worse, you also have to crane your neck upwards to watch the videos. Plus, each one is about 30 minutes long… so it would literally take hours and hours to figure out what the museum has to say about the experience of occupation. Fortunately, however, you can watch the very same videos online here.

Most of the videos decry the mismanagement of the Soviet command economy. The exhibition room also has on display a tiny old car, a barber’s chair, a cludgy computer, this and that. And the message seems clear enough. The mix of the video narration decrying the unproductive command economy with the visible display of the anemic material cultural artifacts seems to say: Look how inept the Soviets were! Still, the actual effect on this viewer was more complex. There is almost no interpretive material presented that attempts to understand or present what the Soviets thought they were doing or what the whole Soviet Union was about. So there are multiple occupations on display: both the Nazi and the Soviet occupations in the past, and the psychic occupation that repressing that past performs in the present.

Gregory Feldman writes that…

…between 1939 and 1945, Estonia lost roughly 250,000 out of 1.1 million people, largely through emigration, deportation, and execution and other war-related deaths. Deportations continued until the early 1950s, with as many as 83,000 more Estonians sent to the interior of Soviet Russia.

Clearly, the memory of these losses lives today in Estonian public life in the form of a dramatic repudiation of the Soviet and of all things Russian. Those losses are visible in acts of public purification, such as moving the statue out of the public square and into the margins. But does putting the Soviet era out of sight mean that it has been put out of mind?

You go down a staircase walled with plush red velvet into the basement of the Occupation Museum. And it is there that you find the signs and symbols of the Soviet era: busts and other statuary cast in the instantly recognizable sculptural language of socialist realism. You also find the plumbing down there. Lenin’s head sits directly next to the toilets.

The Soviets carried out a systematic Russification of Estonia; transmigration programs reduced the percentage make up of the country from 88% ethnic Estonian in 1934 to 65% at ‘reindependence’ in 1991. Today, roughly a third of the country is ‘ethnic Russian.’ As Feldman details, post-1991, Estonia used a legal theory pertaining to a 1930s treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union to incorporate itself as a sovereign and independent nation again in the 1990s. This created a legal situation in which the transmigrated Russian-speaking population was not granted citizenship in the new Estonia. Thus, hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Estonians found themselves stateless in the 1990s, a situation that continues to today, according to Robert Kaiser. Over 140,000 Russian-speaking Estonians are now stateless.

Thus, the background to the May riots in Tallinn includes histories of conflict, oppression, and repression, histories that reverberate unabated into contemporary circumstance. Kaiser suggests that Cold War logic in fact underwrites both the Estonian effort to erase the Soviet past (as when Soviet era memorials are removed from the city square) and the attempt to understand the problems that Estonia presently faces in terms of the ‘threat’ that Russia poses to it. In this regard, Kaiser is in accord with Feldman, who shows how the Cold War logic of international security is applied to actual, regular people (Russian speakers) in ways that renders them stateless. Feldman carefully relates the marginalization of stateless Russian-speaking Estonians to the national-cultural logic of sovereignty and to the ‘security’ logic governing accession to the European Union, where cultural complexity (‘minority populations’) is understood as internationally destabilizing. As I understand them, both Kaiser and Feldman want to tamp down East/West divisions in understanding the current state of affairs in Estonia, and both call for careful attention to the legal premises through which Estonia is today governed. They ostensibly align their critiques with the large body of people in Estonia who find themselves with no citizenship.

Lenin’s head in the basement invites us to consider the ethical, moral, and cultural quandaries of reconciliation and historical memory in post-colonial situations of all kinds, including those in Europe.

3 thoughts on “Lenin in the Basement

  1. This reminds me of two things: one was my visit to an aging East German museum of Hair and Hair technology in Marzahn, outside Berlin. It was truly creepy, since there was a kind of herman Munster guide (bald) who kept tailing us through the place, as well as a room filled with nothing but hair dryers (the kind you sit under) from various eras, many looking like torture devices. I’m not sure why it was still operating, except for certain policies of full employment, but we certainly weren’t the only visitors.

    The other is Sophie Calle’s project “The Detachment” which was a project in which she photographed places in East Berlin where monuments had been removed, and asked residents to recall what they were, and why they were there. The resulting document is pretty engrossing.

    Statues of Lenin, and any number of ddr heros were all over East Berlin, now its hard to find even the most benign.

  2. Thanks CKelty. Lots of good anthropological work on collective memory in postsocialist states. You might remember that I went to a conference on ‘memory’ in Tartu earlier this year. The remarkable thing about that conference, in retrospect, was how apolitical it seemed in regard to the very-much-present problem of memory in the ongoing construction of Estonian national order. I only hint at how interesting this is in this post, which was largely just drawing attention to the almost literal notion of ‘repression’ used in a museum devoted to the Soviet era that puts Lenin underground, next to the toilets. In this respect then it is relevant to remember that Estonia has embraced free market fundamentalism with something of a vengeance. It is number one on the ‘World Liberty Index’ for example: http://www.stateofworldliberty.org/ Bush felt happy to visit Tallinn this spring. Etc.

    I am going to Berlin tomorrow and hope to visit an exhibit on DDR that Haidy Gaismar blogged about at Material World http://www.nyu.edu/projects/materialworld/2007/06/socialism_could_be_fun.html! Can’t wait.

  3. Oh I forgot.
    The cultural geographers I cite in this post refer principally to Malkki’s work on refugees and national-cultural territoriality. Giorgio Agamben is a further relevant connection of course, and here is a nifty little piece that outlines some of his ideas. It is useful in referencing some 20th Century background to the problem of ‘minority populations’ and ‘stateless nationals’ in Europe.

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