KAAREL VANAMÖLDER To me, Narva meant trauma. That is why I went to work there

Kaarel Vanamölder
View to Narva castle.
View to Narva castle. Photo: Ilja Smirnov / Põhjarannik

Narva holds immense potential, you know, historian Kaarel Vanamölder writes.

Fifteen years ago, I worked at Narva College. The college is located in Narva, this avant-garde, almost capital of culture, where Station Narva takes place, artists meet, and socially poignant plays are performed. Narva holds immense potential, you know!

Lying urban space

Back then, Narva was still full of Soviet monuments. I pass them and read about eternal glory and gratitude to those who crushed fascism. I read about how life returned to Narva with the arrival of the Red Army. I read street signs bearing the names of Soviet heroes.

In the first few years, passing them was difficult, because, after all, I knew and heard how lies were being screamed in my face from the monuments and signs. I knew that some of the Soviet heroes of the street signs were simply murderers. I knew that, with the arrival of the Red Army, life was actually erased from Narva. Among those who had to leave their homes was my great aunt. She had previously lost her husband, an officer of the Republic of Estonia, who, after being arrested, had disappeared into the red hell.

My great uncle later maintained the front at Sinimäed. His brother – grandfather – was later gifted Kotšenovski’s book on the history of Narva with the dedication «The time will hopefully come when it [Narva] will find its people again...» The search ended up being difficult, not least because of overgrown or destroyed cemeteries.

To me, Narva definitely meant trauma. Dealing with it and conquering it is likely the reason why I went to work there in 2004. To teach the people of Estonia the history of Estonia. Well, of course, I also went for the adventure and the opportunity to work in my field. That too.

The hard life of Russians

This was a very nice and active time at Narva College. International conferences and cooperation groups were held, projects were launched, and the integration mill was grinding at full speed. A format developed, which I, in my head, named «the hard life of Russians in Estonia» – foreign and local researchers kept interviewing, talking about post-Soviet space, the border experience, identities, etc.

That is, about how difficult it is for the Russian-speaking minority to cope in the new conditions. The hard life of Russians in independent Estonia. Furthermore, both Estonia itself and its independence seemed to have arrived somewhat unexpectedly, even against legitimate expectations. Such events seemed endless. Europe provided the money and the machine kept working.

There was no ethnic problem in Narva, the city was completely safe. Of course, the group of Estonians only went to certain pubs in the evenings, where people were used to us. We were the «one of us» Estonians, who, if necessary, were protected from intrusive and annoying individuals. There were discussions behind drinks, of course, including on views on World War II in a comparative aspect.

Time and again, those discussions led to the sad and nagging question: why don't you, Estonians, love us? We were also born here! At this point, there was suddenly nothing to talk about. The more the years went by, the less I bothered to have such conversations, knowing that in the end we would still end up at the same dead end.


We listened to stories about Narva and the people of Narva during the Soviet era. How good everything was. People were young and the war was over. «When we came here, there was nothing here.» From then on, everything only got better – there was enough work and salary, there were even products to buy. We listened and nodded.

I noticed that although I had to listen to stories about the golden past time and again, no one was willing to listen to me. My stories about Narva. That Narva is also my city. The stories of pre-war Narva didn't matter to anyone, nor did the wartime stories – ...ah, what's the point now..., we'd better leave it and live on... «They» didn't want to listen to my stories, get emotionally involved in them, «they» mostly didn't even try to understand, to be empathetic.

I realized that I am completely alone with my memories, stories and traumas in Narva. Nearly alone. There was still the Vana-Narva Selts (the Old-Narva Society) and Narva Eesti Selts (the Estonian Society of Narva), the members of which lit candles in March. There were also the «Varangians» who had arrived at the «front» to build the college and museum. All in all, a handful that fit into up to three percent of the population.

I learned to pass by the monuments screaming lies without seeing them. I got used to switching them off for myself. To keep dirt from splashing. We did our Estonian thing, crumbling granite drop by drop, shard by shard.

A monologue instead of a dialogue

«We» had to listen to and understand «them». There was no dialogue, only a one-sided monologue. This was the price we paid for «them» to agree to be with «us». For «integration» to work.

Such a situation persists to this day and not only in Narva. Also in Tallinn and Riga and elsewhere. It has been like this for over thirty years. «We» have to understand and listen, «they» only have to maintain loyalty. Participating in rituals and functions, if necessary, without actually understanding and listening to the content.

Like a medieval peasant following a Latin Mass, bowing in the right place, even making a cross. Meanwhile thinking about God knows what. This is how parallel worlds have emerged, where in the Russian-language version of municipal newspapers with otherwise identical content, the only difference is that there is no news about the commemoration of the March bombing. After all, this is «their» issue, it does not concern «us».

Let «them» light their candles. However, if Estonians become too annoying with telling «their» stories, we will start criticizing, for example, Narva Museum, accusing them of rewriting history and drawing inappropriate parallels. Very often we also hear the phrase «now integration has received a death blow», etc., as a reaction. This is obvious extortion, a game involving integration, in which there is no faith in reality.

Thus, no general breathing in unison can occur. Because this cannot happen until there is real dialogue, until everyone has to listen and understand. We can think of ourselves as blue or the color of the rainbow, give new meanings to monuments, consider the work collective of the textile factory to be an ideal feminist community, etc. This won't change anything until there is mutual understanding and a willingness to empathize. At best, our novel interpretations cause indifference, followed by irony or anger.

Yes – thirty years later, new generations have come who did not see the «happy Soviet times». The new generation is seemingly not linked to the past. If this is indeed the case, then perhaps «they» could start by asking their grandparents and parents why they never once felt an interest in the land, its people and past, on the territory of which their factory was built after the war?

Why are they still not interested?