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Sight Magazine – Essay: War in Ukraine prompts Baltic states to remove Soviet memorials

Estonia is to remove all of its Soviet-era war memorials, the latest in a string of Eastern European countries to do so. There are would have 200-400 Soviet-era memorials or monuments still standing across Estonia.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said these would now be moved”as fast as possibleadding: “It is clear that Russian aggression in Ukraine has torn the wounds in our society that these communist monuments remind us of and therefore their removal from public space is necessary to avoid further tensions.”

Soviet-era monument in Riga, Latvia, which was splashed with the colors of the Ukrainian flag the day after Russia invaded in February 2022. IMAGE: Karlis Dambrans/Flickr (licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0)

The move is not without controversy. The discussed removal of a T-34 tank monument outside the town of Narva, near the border with Russia, has met with some opposition from the local population, 90% of whom are Russian speakers.

But Kallas pointed out that this is not the “right place” to commemorate the dead: “A tank is a lethal weapon, it is not a memorial, and these same tanks are killing people in the streets of Ukraine right now.”

“In recent years, some countries of the former Soviet bloc have debated the future of their Soviet-era war memorials…But…few war memorials have been removed. Instead of that, they were more often neglected, defaced or otherwise.But now the invasion of Ukraine seems to be causing the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states to consider getting rid of the remaining Soviet war memorials completely. .

In recent years, some former Soviet bloc countries have debated the future of their Soviet-era war memorials, many of which celebrate the role played by the Red Army in World War II and, in particular, the battle against fascism. But – beyond a few notable examples of monuments removed from countries transitioning from communism to a liberal market economy (Poland comes to mind) – few war memorials have actually been deleted.

Instead, they were more often neglected, defaced or otherwise altered. But now the invasion of Ukraine appears to be prompting Eastern European countries and the Baltic states to consider getting rid of the remaining Soviet war memorials altogether.

During the first days and weeks of the invasion, Soviet war memorials made headlines as activists and supporters of Ukraine painted statues in the national flag colors as an expression of solidarity – something they have done since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

As the war stretched into spring and summer, campaigns to remove Soviet monuments resurfaced in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. All three regained their independence in 1991 and later joined NATO and the EU.

In June, a law prohibiting the promotion of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and their ideologies – dubbed the “law of “de-Sovietization” – was drafted by the Lithuanian parliament. At the same time, in neighboring Latvia, the parliament passed its own similar law. Now Estonia is following suit.

Interestingly, while the focus is on WWII Red Army monuments, there is a clear impetus for a debate on the history of Soviet control of these countries.

Liberation or occupation?
Despite the title of the recent Latvian law, it would be hard to find any monument glorifying the Nazi regime there or anywhere else in the Baltic states. The key element here is the established equivalence between the Soviet and Nazi regimes as they are remembered.

From the perspective of the Eastern European states, the origins of the Second World War can be traced back to the secret protocols of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 that divided Europe into spheres of influence between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. As a result, the two are held responsible for the war that transformed much of Eastern Europe into what historian Timothy Snyder has called “land of blood”.

In the recent discussion of Soviet-era monuments, it is the associated interpretation of the aftermath of World War II that is at stake. Soviet war monuments are nothing if not ambiguous,”symbolizing liberation, aggression and occupation”. While these monuments refer to the liberation from Nazi German occupations, the rescue simultaneously brought about a long period of communist rule, accompanied by the presence of the Soviet military throughout Eastern Europe.

The move to Prague of a statue of Ivan Konev in 2020 is a good example of this ambiguity. Konev led the liberation of Prague from the Nazis in 1945, but also helped suppress the Prague Spring in 1968.

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new meaning
The war in Ukraine gave a new impetus to Estonia and “the moral right to look at the wounds that are not yet healed“, according to the Minister of Public Administration. Soviet war memorials became a proxy by which to seemingly accomplish this task.

memories of Soviet occupation has also become a filter through which the partial occupation of Ukraine by Russian troops is understood. Soviet war memorials are now considered by many to be “glorify soviet imperialismwhich now extends to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. They are “Monuments of the Soviet occupationwhich now also represent what Russia is doing to its neighboring country.

The link between the Soviet and Nazi regimes in Latvian law is also not accidental. On the contrary, the removal and displacement of Soviet war monuments is part of the Baltic and more broadly Eastern European memory of the Second World War and that of the 20th century. Seems like a step towards taking that stance secured in the background of Vladimir Putin hijacking of history to justify the war in Ukraine.

While public opinion in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is far from uniform, one thing seems to be clear. In the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the removal and relocation of these statues and monuments is not only an expression of solidarity with Ukraine. It is a way of establishing how Soviet-era history should be remembered.

The question is whether these processes will facilitate the healing of the wounds left by the complex 20th century history of the former Soviet bloc countries. Or if they are just as likely to root existing memory vulnerabilities.The conversation

Dmitrijs Andrejevsis a doctoral student in Russian and East European Studies at University of Manchester. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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