Curtain (again) falls on Soviet mural

Tallinna Linnamäe Vene Lütseumi õpetajad lasevad tänini esimese klassi õpilasi pildistada nõukogude riigisümbolite taustal.

PHOTO: Erakogu/ERR

Till 2008 a veil hid mural extolling the Soviet Union by Evald Okas – one now used as backdrop for class photographs by Tallinn Linnamäe Russian Lyceum. 

According to Estonian History Museum development director Inge Laurik-Teder, great was the displeasure when in 1987 the mural by Evald Okas «Friendship of Nations» was opened in History and Revolution Museum of Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.   

«By the way, they also planned a Friendship of Nations park in the manor complex, complete with a Friendship Alley headed till the Maarjamäe Memorial. But, by then there was hope in the air and the Singing Revolution, so the guest book back then featured entries of people offering help to come paint the mural over, or have it removed,» said Ms Laurik-Teder.

As independence was regained, it was decided to cover the masterpiece by curtains. «Probably, it was also important back then as the people so freshly remembered the Soviet occupation times,» admitted Ms Laurik-Teder.

It was only in 2008 that the mural was opened to the public together with the exhibition on own statehood called «Iseolemise tahe» (The Will to Stand on One’s Own).

«For a while, the idea had been hatched as the public was getting curious what lay hidden behind the veil,» the director recalls. «It was a stage in our history, as well as in the colourful story of the Maarjamäe Castle as such,» she added.

Bring back the veil

According to her, the opening of the mural has stirred emotions and urged the debate on what to do with Soviet time monumental works. «For foreign tourists, the work is an exhibit exciting and of value, of course, reflecting the Soviet times. The issue rather being: how does a work with such a content fit the manor summer hall context,» said Ms Laurik-Teder.

Namely, as the Maarjamäe Castle gets renovated, the plan is to restore the atmosphere of an end-of-19th-century summer hall. The mural by Mr Okas will indeed remain, but will be covered with an electric curtain to only be opened for educational purposes and special events. That’s been the plan, at the museum, for quite some time.  

«A reason being, this is the only room that has largely retained the feeling of how things were at the summer manor times, at the end of the 19th century,» explained Ms Laurik-Teder, according to whom they desire to show the visitors what the castle originally looked like.

Also, she said, the hall can host more events and concerts once the infamous mural is under curtain.

«Even so, this will not mean we will not be wishing to fully show the Evald Okas mural. To that end, we are seeking a suitable solution with architects, to be able to close and open the mural as simply as possible, without damaging the work.»

The castle will undergo repairs next year; on August 31st, it will be closed to public completely. The mural will be restored also. The Maarjamäe Castle will be reopened for visitors on 100th birthday of Estonian Republic.   

As revealed in this week’s TV programme «Pealtnägija» (Eyewitness), 1st graders at Tallinn Linnamäe Russian Lyceum are yearly taken to the History Museum’s Maarjamäe Castle to be photographed collectively to the backdrop of the USSR era symbols. According to headmaster Sergei Garanža, this is no politics – rather, he is into a worthy and dignified upbringing of the children, introducing them to history.  

The ideology

The museum staff will not deny: class pictures to the backdrop of Evald Okas mural make them worry. While the museum offers educational programs led by own employees, many groups including schools take the option to pay a visit with a guide of their own. In such instances, the museum has no control over what is being said at the works.

«This is a monumental and true-to-era work by Evald Okas, one of Estonia’s best known and multitalented artists, one with high artistic value,» said Ms Laurik-Teder, adding this cannot be swept under the carpet.

The parade-like mural ordered by culture ministry of Estonian SSR was to become the centrepiece of the main exposition, establishing the ideological message of the museum. The topics to be depicted were, in detail, prescribed by the ideological department of Estonian Communist Party. The ends of Maarjamäe Manor one-time summer hall depict symbols of power, the side walls are divided into thematic compositions propagating friendship of nations and the achievements of socialism. 

Free-will ceremony

Tallinn education department head Andres Pajula claimed not to know what Linnamäe Russian Lyceum headmaster Sergei Garanža tells the 1st graders regarding Soviet symbols at Maarjamäe Castle.

What does the city think about a headmaster letting children to be photographed to the backdrop of Soviet Union symbols?

I have no information about any ceremony being compulsory. I think Estonian Republic is a democratic state honouring people’s freedom.

Have you sought to find out what the children are being told about it?

Not yet.

Don’t you think this activity may sow ill feeling?

What activity?

Why a headmaster is photographing children to backdrop USSR symbols?

Can’t say.

Would you also consider it right if some school opted to photograph students to Nazi Germany symbols, the swastika?

I am for democracy and freedom.