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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Monument to Different Interpretations

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Napoleon once described history as "the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." The furor that has erupted over a monument in the Estonian capital of Tallinn demonstrates just how difficult reaching agreement can be.

Consisting of a bronze statue of a Red Army soldier and the inscription "To the Fallen of the Second World War" in both Estonian and Russian, the seemingly inoffensive monument is a red flag -- in both senses -- for many Estonians.

Given the central place that independence from the Soviet Union -- regained in 1991 -- occupies in the Estonian national consciousness, the soldier is a symbol of the period many in the country refer to as the occupation.

Among Russians, however, the victory over Nazi Germany in what is called the Great Patriotic War remains the defining event of the 20th century, and the idea of moving the monument has been portrayed as blasphemy to the memory of the liberators.

As unlikely as it might seem, it should be possible to reach an agreement on history starting from these two seemingly contradictory positions: The Red Army soldiers who fought their way into Tallinn in 1944 liberated the country from Nazi Germany. The political decision by Stalin's government to keep Estonia within the Soviet Union re-established the occupation that had begun in 1940. This leaves the Russians with their liberator and the Estonians with their occupiers.

The statements from both sides during the latest blowup offer little hope that consensus will be reached.

Since Estonia regained independence, its politicians have generally assumed an aggressively critical stance toward Russia.

On the policy side, the denial of citizenship to a large number of ethnic Russians, who make up 25 percent of the population, draws regular criticism on human rights grounds. The government argues that passing an Estonian language test is not an unreasonable requirement for gaining citizenship, but ethnic Russians wonder why they aren't automatically citizens in the place where most of them were born and raised.

But the Russian side hasn't demonstrated much in the way of balance or understanding either.

Describing Estonian legislation allowing for the movement of the monument or reburial of soldiers in compliance with the requirements of international law as "an attempt to legalize fascism," is hardly a sober assessment of the situation.

Unfortunately, politicians on both sides seem more interested in pandering to, and often reinforcing, crude simplifications of a complex past.

As long as this continues to be the case, there will be two irreconcilable understandings of this history, and not much hope for reconciliation in the future.