The peaceful Nordic city of Helsinki experienced a rare scandal in late March, when two Finnish writers, Sofi Oksanen and Imbi Paju, published a book about Estonia’s history. Oksanen is a young Finnish writer with partly Estonian roots, who was recently awarded the highest-ranking literary prize in Finland, the Finlandia, for her recent novel, Puhdistus (Cleansing). Paju, who is Estonian, is known as a documentarist telling stories about Stalin’s terror through the memories of her own family members. The new book that they co-edited (titled “Behind it all was fear – how Estonia lost its history and how it is taken back”) offers a wide range of articles from a diverse group of writers about the Soviet occupation of Estonia, the Gulag archipelago and the effects of the occupation and Sovietization had on Estonian people and society, from WW II up to these days.
The book launch took place two days before the 60th anniversary of the deporation of over 90 000 people from the three Baltic states to Siberia by Stalin’s regime on March 25 1949. The publication ceremony was followed by a memorial seminar, arranged by the publisher WSOY, Finland’s national audiovisual archive and the embassies of the three Baltic states.
Surprisingly, the book launch and memorial ceremonies were guarded by a massive police presence. The reason was obvious: a small but vocal informal organization that self-identifies as Finland’s “Anti-Fascist Committee” had invited some ultranationalist pro-Kremlin groups from Russia and Estonia, the Nashi and Night Watch, to protest against the events that they claimed were “anti-Russian” and “Fascist”. Those groups are known for arranging the so-called “Bronze soldier” riots in Tallinn in 2007, the attacks against the Estonian embassy in Moscow, and recently Nashi also declared responsibility for the cyber-attacks against Estonian institutions at the same time. No wonder that expecting foreign guests like that, the Finnish police was prepared to act. However, the loudly pre-announced demonstrations ended up very modest, with a dozen people coming from abroad, and another marginal local activist group, one that calls itself the Finnish Islamic Party, joining their ranks. Given the massive media attention and police presence, the 15-20 demonstrators looked mostly ridiculous. But although the anti-Estonian demonstration itself turned out a fiasco (unlike the memorial events it was protesting against), some details about the persons and groups behind it are worth some attention.
Johan Bäckman, a docent (which in Finland is an academic title, not a position) and contracted lecturer at the University of Helsinki – he never fails to present himself as a University spokesman when making public statements – has been for some time writing blogs that are fiercely pro-Kremlin, retrograde pro-Soviet and at the same time anti-Estonian and even anti-Finnish. Bäckman issued a pamphlet, “the Bronze soldier”, in fall 2008 in Estonia, by a small publisher Tarbeinfo whose director Vladimir Ilyashevich is s a former KGB agent. The pamphlet’s central claim is that Estonia never was occupied by the Soviet Union and that all talk about the Soviet occupation is a mere “Nazi myth”, used to justify the alleged “oppression” of Estonia’s ethnic Russians. Bäckman calls Estonia an “apartheid regime”, denies its status as an independent state and predicts that it will be part of Russia within ten years. Those claims did not prevent him from teaching “Russian and Estonian legal politics” at the legal studies department of the University of Helsinki in winter 2009. He thus taught the legal politics of a state whose existence he publicly denied. Curiously, the University had no problem with that.
Just before the book launch ceremony on March 23rd, Bäckman published a press release in his blog (that is hosted by the online news site Uusi Suomi), titled “Simon Wiesenthal Center supports the demonstration against the Estonian embassy; Zuroff reproaches Estonia for falsification of history and dismissing the Jewish Holocaust”. The “press release” said, among other things: “The director the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem Dr. Efraim Zuroff supports the demonstration of Finnish, Estonian and Russian anti-Fascists against the ‘history seminar’ arranged by the Estonian Embassy”. Bäckman went on insisting, as he had often done before, that the talk about Communist crimes somehow meant that Estonia dismissed the crimes against the Jews during the Nazi occupation 1941-1944. He also blamed Paju and Oksanen’s book for dismissing Nazi crimes, of which there is no evidence in the book – on the contrary.
Mr. Zuroff confirmed that Bäckman had contacted him, but denied that he had ever expressed support to Nashi demonstration in Helsinki – while Bäckman’s blog entry that claims the contrary remains online. As Mr. Zuroff was informed about the contents of the book, he also withdrew his immediate reaction to Bäckman’s allegations that he had had no chance to prove, as the book was only available in Finnish (and in Finland). The book focuses on the deportations of ethnic Estonians to Siberia and other Communist crimes, but there is no contest between the two tragedies, and in fact the fate of the Jews during the Nazi occupation of Estonia is also discussed in a few articles in the book. Still, Bäckman and his colleagues in the “Anti-Fascist committee” repeatedly label the editors “Nazis” and “Fascists”, with no ground whatsoever in anything they have said or done (indeed the libelous list of “Estonian Fascists” includes a number of persons including the Ambassador of Estonia in Helsinki, mrs. Merle Pajula, and also the undersigned).
Bäckman’s statements about Estonia and Estonians are propagandist while repetitious. Any person remembering Stalinist crimes, or just seen as too friendly toward Estonians, is labelled a “Fascist”, “Nazi”, “right-wing extremist”, “Russophobe” or “misantrophist”. A similar rhetoric is employed by the other group that joined the March 23rd anti-Estonian demonstration, the so-called “Finnish Islamic Party”. It, too, calls Estonia an “apartheid regime” in its video statements and blogs, in a wording that is identical to that of the “anti-Fascists”, with an occasional epithet like “Satanic” adding a religious flavor. Referring to the book launch and memorial seminar, the group published a “statement against Estonian racism and Fascism”, in which it blames Estonia for “crimes against human rights” and demands that the Estonian government that “favors Fascism and apartheid politics” resign. In a video statement the leader of the group, Abdullah Tammi, adds that those deported to Siberia in 1949 (most of whom were women and children) were “criminals” who had “helped the Nazis”. But who exactly is this self-proclaimed “human rights champion”?
Abdullah (formerly Risto) Tammi is a Finnish convert to Islam who has, in his own words, worked for the KGB while he was formally a member of various Christian sects. His job was to report about the attempts to export Bibles to and propagate Christianity in the Soviet Union. Now Tammi is trying to register the “Finnish Islamic Party”, a small group of Finnish converts to Islam, as a formal political party, but has not received sufficient public support – the mostly immigrant Muslim population of Finland is not interested in joining them. The program of the aspiring party promotes, among other things, legalizing Islamic Sharia law in Finland and forbidding alcohol.
Although Tammi and his group joined the “Anti-Fascists” in their rally against what they both call “Estonian Fascism” and “Holocaust denial”, they do not appear to be friends of the Jews. In a video statement recorded after the Gaza war, Tammi says: “This is a global Zionist conspiracy, the same that has worked in Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan… The Zionist conspiracy attempts to destroy the Islamic faith, and eliminate it from the earth. But they won’t succeed… Our revered prophet Jesus, who will come back on the last day, will destroy all that Jewish state, and condemn their actions… We all should have a common goal – fight against Israel.” And there is more: “You see what the Americans and the Jewish Zionists are doing, they sow death by deceptive means, and they claim we Muslims are militant. You can see… who are the attackers, who are aggressive, it’s the global Zionist conspiracy, the US and the current Israeli state.” Tammi also lists the “rogue states” that allegedly fight all Muslims along with the “Jewish Zionists”: among them is the USA, as well as “Estonia and the Baltic states that are its allies”.
This talk about divine war against Israel and the “global Zionist conspiracy” of which Tammi claims the Baltic states are part, makes an odd combination with his claim that he is a protector of Jewish memory from the alleged “Estonian Fascists”. And Bäckman seems to have other connections that cast an eerie shadow on his posing as a fighter against anti-Semitism. Another ethnic Finn, called Risto Teinonen, who received Estonian citizenship and the Estonian medal, the Cross of Terra Mariana, in 2001 for his activities as a scout leader, later went on to promote a neo-Nazi movement in Estonia. He re-published wartime Nazi literature in Estonian and gathered around him a group of people who decorated themselves with the Swastika and followed other Nazi rituals.
Teinonen was investigated for alleged crimes against the Constitution by the Estonian authorities, but due to Estonia’s very liberal free speech laws he was not prosecuted. Interestingly Bäckman, who otherwise habitually slanders Estonians as “Nazis”, defended Teinonen in his “Bronze Soldier” pamphlet and his blogs against what he called “persecution” by Estonian “Fascist” government. In March 2009, the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves withdrew Teinonen’s medal for his wearing it together with a Nazi swastika armband. Again, Bäckman rushed to Teinonen’s defense in his blog, within hours since the news came out. That provoked the interest of some Estonian journalists who questioned Teinonen about his ties to Bäckman. They revealed that Teinonen had received a copy of Bäckman’s pamphlet with the task to translate it from Finnish to Estonian. Teinonen explained that it was “just a way to earn a living in hard times”, but he did not deny that plans for co-operation existed.
So, here we’ve got an interesting package of persons: a Finnish university teacher who poses as “anti-Fascist” and accuses the Republic of Estonia, and a number of people related to Estonia, including Finnish writers who write about Soviet crimes, of being “Fascist”. With him, and against the Estonians, stands the “Finnish Islamic Party” that also claims to oppose racism and Fascism and makes similar allegations about Estonia – and who at the same time calls his new co-religionists to fight against the “global Zionist conspiracy”. And, in addition, a man openly supporting Nazism and exploiting visible Nazi symbolics, enjoys public protection by that same university teacher – and apparently also operates as the translator of his anti-Estonian work.
At the same time Bäckman has been apparently telling lies to the Director of the Wiesenthal Center, Dr. Zuroff, about the contents of the book edited by Paju and Oksanen, and to the Finnish audience about the Wiesenthal Center, claiming that it supported the demonstrations in Helsinki by Bäckman, Nashi and the “Finnish Islamic Party”, which it did not. It is more than obvious that the goal of Bäckman and his supporters is not to protect the memory of the Holocaust and the Jews, nor any minority or anyone’s human rights, but just to slander Estonians and the independent Republic of Estonia, and to prevent an honest discussion about the history of the Soviet Union. Whatever their reasons for that, any public claims made by these people must be taken with a grain of salt.
Quotes and statements translated from Finnish, from the sources: