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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 May 2007, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
When giants fought in Estonia
In the first of a series of reports from Estonia, the BBC News website's Patrick Jackson speaks to veterans who served on both sides in World War II.

German war graves outside Narva
German graves like these stretch out along the River Narva

A flick through an album of photos and prints of Old Narva reveals an architectural and cultural treasure trove on Estonia's Russian border to rival Tallinn.

Fighting in 1944 mostly crushed it to dust, the war on the Eastern Front leaving its giant footprint on Estonia.

Travelling west from Narva today, geographical marks of war melt away but Soviet and Nazi memorials multiply, as do versions of history.

Take for example Tallinn's Soviet-era monument to the Unknown Soldier, now at the centre of a row between Estonia and Russia, and the Soviet soldiers buried beside it. Why were those bodies there at all?

These were not soldiers who died "liberating" Tallinn, says Ilmar Haaviste, head and, at 80, youngest member of an association of Estonian veterans who, like himself, donned German uniform.

Not only were there no battles in the city when Soviet troops entered in September 1944, he says, but their remains were only buried in the park a year later "by order of the Kremlin", having been dug up elsewhere.

Then there is the version of events given by Arnold Meri, the first and last surviving Estonian to be a Hero of the Soviet Union.

The 12, he says, belonged to mobile units sent on an overnight dash from Narva and Tartu to reach Tallinn before it could be dynamited by the retreating Germans, and they died in skirmishes along the way.

With no time to stop, their comrades drove into the capital with the bodies on their vehicles and the commander picked out the park as a good place to bury them, according to the Soviet veteran.

Gold Star

"Occupiers? They call my wife an occupier?"

Mr Meri's eyes burn with anger and his hand is raised when he talks about Yekaterina, the Russian army doctor he met during the war, who is downstairs in his house in a quiet Tallinn suburb.

Arnold Meri
Estonia's participation in World War II was inevitable and only a fool could have believed otherwise
Arnold Meri

The same hand, according to his story, once held a revolver as he lay wounded, counting how many bullets he had left before the last one, which he was keeping for himself in order not to be bayoneted by a German.

It was July 1941 and he and the platoon he commanded in north-west Russia were defending a position under heavy gun and mortar fire. He was wounded three times before reinforcements arrived.

For his action, the USSR awarded him the Gold Star, its highest military decoration, the first of 17 ethnic Estonians to get it, he says.

Mr Meri is one of the small number of Estonians who voluntarily fought for the Soviets after the annexation in 1940.

"It would be a lie to say Estonians rushed to embrace a bright new future as communists but Estonia's participation in World War II was inevitable and only a fool could have believed otherwise," he said.

"Every Estonian had only one decision to make: whose side to take in that bloody fight - the Nazis' or the anti-Hitler coalition's."

The overwhelming majority would have preferred the British or the French as their allies, he adds, but geography dictated Estonia would have to fight alongside the Soviet Union.

Mr Meri still recalls vividly how, after the Allied victory, he visited London in late 1945 as part of a Soviet military delegation.

After a concert of Soviet war songs at the Albert Hall, he says, the delegation's buses were escorted by a crowd half the way to their Hyde Park hotel.

"We had illusions back then, both on our side and their side, that with the destruction of fascism, a new era in human development would begin," he adds.

'Two evils'

"The British did not have to live through the Stalin period," Ilmar Haaviste says.

Ilmar Haaviste
We had a slogan in those days: death here or in Siberia
Ilmar Haaviste

"If you had lived through both regimes, you would understand that they were equally evil - there was no difference between the two except that Stalin was more cunning," he said.

"Nobody has ever liberated Estonia. Anyone who ever came here and said he was liberating Estonia was really just out to rob us."

Mr Haaviste burns with indignation of his own. In Tallinn's military cemetery, he says, the Soviets once buried their soldiers on top of Estonians killed in the 1918-1920 War of Independence.

"Imagine your parents are buried in a graveyard and someone comes and buries others on top of them - it's horrible," he says.

He shows pictures of a new monument in Tallinn to all soldiers who died in World War II, which was recently vandalised with the word "fascists".

"Wearing a German uniform does not make you a fascist," he says.

He responded to the German call-up in 1944 when the Soviets were threatening to sweep in from Narva, and says he spent half a year in the border guards without seeing action.

Remembering the Soviet repressions which followed annexation, he says he does not regret taking the German uniform, because there was a "naive" hope that somehow an independent Estonia could be salvaged.

"We had a slogan in those days: death here or in Siberia," he adds. And large numbers of Estonians were indeed sent to Siberia after the Soviet victory.

As head of the veterans' association, he says he has tried to attract old soldiers from the other side to attend joint commemorations.

"Russian war veterans had nothing to do with the riots over the monument," he adds.


Viktor Andreyev
Our orders were to take Narva and as a ranking soldier I wasn't thinking about who needed it
Viktor Andreyev
Narva in February 1944 meant the bloodiest days of the war for Viktor Alexeyev, 83, fighting hand to hand against the Waffen SS.

"I myself don't know how I stayed alive," he says, standing in a Soviet war cemetery near the Estonian town of Sillamae, itself once witness to ferocious fighting.

What does he, a Russian, feel about being called an "occupier"? "Some countries support us, others support Estonia but the world has always been polarised," he replies coolly.

"Half believe one thing, half believe another. That's in the run of things.

"Our orders were to take Narva and as a ranking soldier I wasn't thinking about who needed it."

Crowds visit Tallinn monument

Moscow Diary: Victory Day
07 May 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Estonia
26 Apr 07 |  Country profiles

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