New party wants Russian museum

  • 2000-07-20
  • Laura Bailey
TALLINN - The newly formed Russian Baltic Party of Estonia plans to create Estonia's first Baltic Russian history museum next fall as part of its platform to improve life for Estonia's Russian minorities, said party board member Viktor Lanberg.

RBPE formed last June as a splinter of the Russian-speaking People's Trust party. One of its major cultural projects includes a museum intended to preserve Russian culture in the Baltics and improve attitudes toward ethnic Russians living in Estonia, Lanberg said.

"The creation of the museum will help fix the negative image of Russians here," he said, referring to what he says are anti-Russian political ideas that unfairly stereotype Russians as followers of Stalin.

"Russians here are not occupiers. They live here in a legal and decent way. That's why we should not be excluded from the cultural and political landscape."

Lanberg said he hopes the museum, which will be housed in Tallinn, will help raise awareness that Russians were contributing members of the Baltics long before the great influx of Soviet Russians led to tensions between the two cultures.

"It is politically not fair, and historically not right to think that the history of Russians in the Baltics started in the 1940s," said Lanberg, adding that Russian immigrant groups were important contributors to Estonian culture as far back as the 13th century - long before Soviet Russification policies increased the Russian population of Estonia to nearly 40 percent.

"We are looking for the positive side of the historical partnership between Russia and Estonia," he explained. He said he hopes the museum will shine a better light on the close ties that Russia and Estonia have historically shared.

Lanberg said the party, which now has 800 members, will try to find funding for the museum from next year's budget.

If Parliament approves the funding, the museum will house historical documents, photos and artifacts from as far back as the 13th century.

Much of the museum's content will be contributed by archivist Alexander Dormidontov, whose photo collection of Baltic-Russian culture has traveled throughout Estonia and was on display at Parliament last spring.

Dormidontov will contribute a large collection of 19th and 20th century photographs and documents detailing the history of Russian immigration to the Baltics, as well as material on ecclesiastical, educational and cultural life. Also included in the collection will be selections from his collection of 3,000 Russian language books and newspapers printed in Estonia.

Dormidontov, who will be a permanent board member of the museum, said he wanted to find a better way to preserve what he and others have collected as well as give ethnic Estonians and Russians another perspective on the country's history.

"The history of Russians deserves to be studied more since they have been here for more than a 1,000 years," Dormidontov said.

The museum will be welcomed by Estonians, said Madis Jarv, an adviser at the Ministry of Culture. But its aim to affect attitudes toward ethnic Russians may not be as needed as some would think, he said.

"Although we have been accused of being discriminatory, I think most Estonians are not negative to Russians themselves. They know that people are people," he said.

Jarv stressed that Russians are reflected in other Estonian museums and he agreed that they have contributed to Estonian culture throughout the centuries.

"Of course these Russians were quite well-integrated in Estonia, and they were fluent in Estonian also," he said, referring to the small communities of pre-Soviet Russian immigrants.

Estonia's preconditions for citizenship one of which is proficiency in Estonian are often confused as exclusion of Russians from Estonian political or cultural life, Jarv said. The aim is to make them fluent in the national language, not to exclude them or their culture, he said.

Jarv stressed that the museum would be welcomed if it shows that Russians who lived in Estonia before Soviet times were well-integrated and often fluent in Estonian. "If that will be reflected in the museum then I will greet it."

To say that Estonians think all Russians are Stalinists is quite silly, said Moderate party MP Mart Meri. But the opening of a Russian museum, if done objectively, would be useful for Estonians to visit and could help improve relations, he said. If the museum has a cultural rather than political purpose, he will support the idea.

"If it's cultural then I say, 'why not?'," Meri said.

Lanberg said the idea of the museum has become possible because of his party's partnership with the ruling coalition government. "Highly educated" Estonian politicians will support the idea, he believes.

"Young politicians want to see Estonia in the European Union," said Lanberg, whose party supports Estonia's integration in EU. "For that reason they know they can't create a 'mononational' state at the expense of Russian minorities."

The leadership of MP Sergei Ivanov will also help get approval for the project, Lanberg said.

"Ivanov's great influence has risen since his project on citizenship for the disabled was successful," he said.

That success has helped launch RBPE's relationship with the coalition, which will help push the project forward, Lanberg said.

The location of the museum has not been chosen yet, but Lanberg said the decision will be made by fall. The project coordinators hope to find a space in one of the historic Russian buildings, such as the one in Kadriorg Park, where Peter the Great built a summer home for his wife Catherine.

Other legislative projects in the party's platform are to make citizenship available to all Russians born or living in Estonia during Soviet times and to make Russian an official language, particularly in areas that are heavily populated by Russians.

In addition to the Russian museum, RBPE is working on the restoration of Russian Orthodox churches in Tallinn as one of its cultural projects.