Honoring Yeltsin in Tallinn

Last week, a new monument was unveiled in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. The bas-relief mounted on Nunne Street, in Old Town, bears an inscription in three languages—Estonian, Russian, and English: “In memory of Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, to honor his role in the peaceful restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1990–1991.”

Created by Estonian sculptor Rene Reinumae, the bas-relief is based on the bust of Yeltsin by legendary Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny. The idea of erecting a monument to Russia’s first (and, so far, only) democratically elected leader in the Estonian capital was conceived and realized by a nonprofit group, Memory Initiative (Malestuse initsiatiiv), whose members include Heiki Ahonen, director of the Museum of the Occupations and a former political prisoner; Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee; and Matti Pats, the grandson of Konstantin Pats, the first and last president of interwar independent Estonia. The funds for the bas-relief were raised from individual donations.

The unveiling ceremony was attended by hundreds of Tallinn residents as well as several guests of honor, including Estonian Parliament Speaker Ene Ergma, Tallinn Mayor Egdar Savisaar, former Estonian President Arnold Ruutel, the first leader of independent Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, and Russia’s former first lady, Naina Yeltsina. “I had a sense of guilt and unfulfilled duty. We gave so many medals to so many people … [but] Boris Nikolayevich, during his life, received nothing,” said Igor Grazin, a member of the Estonian Parliament from the ruling Reform Party and a key supporter of the initiative. “Boris Nikolayevich … was a great man who played such a role in Estonia’s history as few Estonians have.”

On January 13, 1991, as Soviet tanks rolled into Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, to crush the pro-independence movement, Boris Yeltsin, then speaker of Parliament of the Russian Federation, flew into Tallinn in what many Western diplomats considered a “crazy” move. In open defiance of the Kremlin, Yeltsin signed a treaty with Estonia recognizing her “inalienable right to national independence” (he later signed similar treaties with Latvia and Lithuania). While in Estonia, Yeltsin met with Soviet troops stationed there and urged them to disobey the Soviet leadership, should it give an order to move against peaceful demonstrators, as had been done in Vilnius and Riga. Yeltsin publicly condemned the Soviet aggression, spoke out in favor of independence for the Baltic States, and, reaching out to his Lithuanian counterpart, Vytautas Landsbergis, disrupted the Kremlin’s plans for an economic blockade of the republic.

In August 1991, Boris Yeltsin, who, alongside hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Moscow, confronted the leaders of a hard-line Communist coup d’état, played a central role in defeating that attempt—which meant freedom for Russia and for all the other Soviet republics. On August 24th, on behalf of the Russian Federation, President Yeltsin officially recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It took the United States until September 2nd to do the same.

Not a single representative of the current Russian authorities participated in the unveiling ceremony last week. The memory of Boris Yeltsin—both of the domestic political freedoms and of the pro-European foreign policy—is not welcome by the Putin regime. “When some rogue in the Duma once again raises his voice about the Baltics’ ‘disrespect’ for Russia … I will remember that shameful scene,” wrote Sergei Parkhomenko, a prominent Russian journalist. “[I will remember] a large crowd of Estonians who came to express gratitude and respect to Russia and her president, and the cowardly absence of Russian politicians and diplomats.”

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