- HELEN PARISH
In the Latvian capital of Riga, an 80-meter concrete obelisk is broken down at the end of August to the cheers of a nearby crowd. It was created to commemorate the capture of Latvia by the Soviet army in 1944. A few days earlier in Estonia, another Soviet monument, this time of a tank adorned with the communist red star, was abducted and brought to reside in a museum.
Such scenes occur all over Central and Eastern Europe – in Poland, Lithuania and Czechia. The removal or destruction of Soviet-era monuments is a powerful reminder of the complex relationship between history, memory and politics.
A municipal police officer attends the dismantling of a World War II Soviet victory monument in Riga, Latvia on August 23. PHOTO: Reuters/Ints Kalnins/File Photo.
Monuments are powerful propaganda tools, making events of the past visible in the present. Public art of this type defines the heroes of history and writes the story of a nation’s identity. But these removed objects reflect (and create) conflicting stories and interpretations of the consequences of the war. Public memory is neither uniform nor static.
“Monuments are powerful instruments of propaganda, making events of the past visible in the present. Public art of this type defines the heroes of history and writes the story of a nation’s identity. But these Objects removed reflect (and create) conflicting histories and interpretations of the consequences of war Public memory is neither uniform nor static.
The statues and memorials erected in the years following World War II are prime examples. Intended to commemorate the liberation from Nazism, they were also symbols of Soviet power and presence in Eastern Europe and political and military occupation.
As a result, memorials, statues, and monuments that appear to propagate communism or commemorate the Soviet past have also been subject to government-sanctioned removal or, more commonly, disfigurement, marginalization or reassignment. Their deletion is not a destruction or an erasure of history, but the creation of a new way of remembering.
Decommunization of public space
In Ukraine, thedecommunizationThe law passed in April 2015 prohibits the use of communist symbols and propaganda in monuments, places and street names. More than 2,000 monuments to Ukraine’s communist past were removed between 2015 and 2020, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
An updated decommunization law in Poland in 2017 mandated the removal of monuments and memorials to individuals and events that symbolized communism or other forms of totalitarianism. Driven by the Russian war in Ukraine, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance has stepped up its efforts to decommunize public spaces. In March 2022, its leader, Karol Nawrocki, called for quick action to remove symbols that could promote communism from public spaces.
Soviet-era monuments have also been removed from public places in Estonia, to ensure – in the words of the prime ministerKaja Kallas – that Russia would be denied any opportunity “to use the past to disturb the peace”.
In the Latvian capital, Riga, while the USSR War Memorial was demolished, the city’s mayor, Mārtiņš Staķis, argued that the monument had glorified Russian war crimes and that it should be demolished physically and “in hearts as well”.
But the removal of visible Soviet-era memorials has been divisive. These monuments and images were an important part of the landscape, and their removal fueled arguments about national identity and history. For some observers, decommunization was necessary to prevent the rise of oppressive regimes.
For others, the disappearance of statues and military monuments was a visible, violent and unwarranted attempt to erase a nation’s past, as troubled as he is. Among them was a spokesman for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who condemned the removal of Soviet-era monuments as a “war against history”.
The condemnation of memory
When statues are toppled and monuments are torn down, we witness a physical assault on both the object and the people and events it symbolizes. Destruction aims to sever our link with the past, degradation shows the object – and what it symbolizes – as powerless, incapable of defending itself.
The destruction of public monuments has a long history. “Damnatio memoriae(the condemnation of memory) summarizes the practice of the Roman world, in which the Emperor, the Senate, or the populace at large could act to condemn the actions and memory of previous rulers.
We rely on our readers to fund Sight’s work – become a funder today!
Statues were pulled down, coins melted down and written documents destroyed. In the Panegyrici Latinithe writer and philosopher Pliny the Elder describes the joy of the participants when vengeance was enacted on the hated dead.
But have the condemned dead been forgotten, their memory and their history?wiped out” by such actions? Or do we remember it, just in a different interpretation of the past?
Such competing narratives can be observed in the interpretation of the ruins of medieval monasteries which remain visible in the English landscape. For many Protestant reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries, these “bare ruined choirs” were a monument to the successful suppression of “false religion” (Catholicism) in England. But opponents of religious change viewed those same ruins with nostalgia, and mourned the lost monastic life.
Similarly, the statue of King George III, installed by the British in Bowling Green Park in New York, was toppled and melted down in 1776 after the Declaration of Independence was read. But the empty plinth and the fence that surrounds it remain as a monument to a different historical narrativewhich commemorates the successful defeat of the revolutionaries against an oppressive British state.
“Decommunization” in Ukraine has created new physical and mental spaces, with some monuments being destroyed and others being replaced by religious figures, flowers or left blank. The dust and rubble remind us of what once stood in the same place.
Statues and monuments commemorate the past for present and future audiences. They build a landscape and an environment made up of layers of human culture and memory, which can be both created and destroyed. But the empty spaces left by the statues communicate a message as powerful as the propaganda of the statue itself.
The destruction of material objects and the destruction of human memory are not the same. History, memory and politics are, and always have been, closely intertwined and the link between memory and forgetting is stronger than one might think.