In the Latvian capital of Riga, an obelisk that stood above a park to commemorate the nation’s capture by the Soviet army in 1944 was toppled last week. It crashed into a pond to the cheers of those watching.
A few days earlier in Estonia, a replica of a Soviet tank with the communist red star was removed by cranes and trucked to a museum – one of 400 examples earmarked for removal. And in Poland, Lithuania and Czechia, monuments to the Red Army have been torn down for months, a belated purge of what many see as symbols of past oppression.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has given new impetus to topple the last remaining Soviet monuments in nations that regained their sovereignty in Moscow more than three decades ago. These countries now belong to NATO and the European Union and are strong supporters of Ukraine.
At the end of the communist era, when Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia regained their independence from the Soviet Union and Poland and its neighbors rejected Moscow-backed communism, these nations began renaming streets and purging most hated symbols, including statues of Soviet founder Vladimir. Lenin and other communist bosses. Many of these relics are now kept in museums.
In Warsaw in 1989, authorities quickly toppled a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Polish aristocrat who organized the Soviet secret police after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Under his rule, the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, was responsible for a wave of terror. Such changes followed the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who died in a Moscow hospital on Tuesday at the age of 91.
But memorials to Soviet soldiers or their role in defeating Nazi Germany remained in many places, met with indifference or reverence for the ordinary soldiers who died fighting Adolf Hitler’s brutal regime. The war in Ukraine, however, brought back memories of how some of these soldiers also raped local women and committed other war crimes.
Krista Sarv, research director of the Estonian History Museum, said after the toppling of statues of Lenin and other communist leaders in the 1990s, people could largely ignore other memorials. But opinions suddenly changed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and now memorials are “screaming loudly about occupation and annexation”. Karol Nawrocki, the head of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance which oversees the removal of the monuments, says “before our eyes, history has become a living experience.” “Dressing in the uniforms of the Russian Federation, with Lenin and Stalin in their heads and hearts, Russian soldiers are liberating Ukraine by murdering women, children and killing soldiers,” Nawrocki said. “Let’s be clear: there is no place in Polish public space for any commemoration of the totalitarian communist regime and its people,” he added.
A 2016 decommunization law had already called for a purge of communist symbols and names, but some municipalities didn’t have the money for it, so the institute stepped in to help. Since February, the Polish institute has identified 60 monuments for removal – and toppled more than 20.
In Lithuania, a number of remaining Soviet memorials have been removed since the spring without much protest. But in Latvia and Estonia, which have large Russian minorities, the expulsions have stirred greater emotions, with local Russians – and the Russian government – seeing it as an offense against their war heroes.
Dmitry Prokopenko, a Russian-speaking Latvian who opposed the removal of the obelisk from Riga, said his grandparents fought and a great-grandfather died in the fight “for freedom against the Nazis”. For him, the memorial honored their sacrifice.
“Latvia is a land where Latvians and Russians live together,” he said. “I think part of the state, part of the country, should also respect the rights of the other part.” The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a long statement on Tuesday denouncing the demolition of Soviet monuments in the Baltic countries as “barbaric” and threatening Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia with retaliatory measures.
In an apparent slap in the face against Poland, Belarus last week reportedly razed a memorial containing the graves of wartime Polish soldiers.
Polish officials declared the action barbaric, given that Poland has a policy of not disturbing the graves of Soviet soldiers. Rafal Leskiewicz, a historian at the Polish Remembrance Institute, explained, “As Christians, we treat graves as holy ground. It doesn’t matter who is in the graves. In some cases, locals support the retention of Red Army memorials because of its role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Some fear the erasure of historical memory, or see it as an affront to their own ancestors who fought alongside the Soviets.
In the city of Gdansk in northern Poland, there was a heated debate over a Soviet T-34 tank on Victory Avenue, and the city decided not to retire it. The tank commander was a Polish lieutenant, and Polish soldiers played a key role in liberating the former German city of Danzig from the Nazis.
In an open letter, two descendants of Polish wartime soldiers expressed outrage over the removal of monuments. They recalled that Polish soldiers died fighting with the Soviets to liberate Poland from the Nazis, and that the Soviet victory allowed Poland to receive a swath of defeated German territories and cities, including Gdansk and Wroclaw. They also noted that it was the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz, Majdanek and many other Nazi death camps.
“If it had not been for the victory of Polish and Soviet soldiers in May 1945, Poland might not have existed at all,” said the letter from magazine editor Pawel Dybicz and the historian August Grabski.
But many other Poles note that World War II broke out after the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany secretly agreed in 1939 to partition Poland and the Baltic states. It was only after Germany betrayed and invaded the Soviet Union that the Red Army began to fight the Germans.
Even before Russia’s war in Ukraine, monuments have been a source of tension.
In 2007, the relocation of a World War II monument to a Red Army soldier in Tallinn, Estonia sparked days of rioting.
In 2013, an artist erected a statue of a Soviet soldier raping a pregnant woman next to the Gdansk tank. The unauthorized carving was quickly removed. After Russia invaded Ukraine, another artist covered the tank with a large, hand-stitched Ukrainian flag to protest what he called the “tyranny” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In March, as Poland set a timetable for the destruction of Soviet monuments, a resident of the northern city of Koszalin took matters into his own hands. He drove an excavator into a cemetery and knocked down the statue of a Soviet soldier being hugged by a girl. Nawrocki says the official removal of Soviet monuments in Poland is progressing at “a very rapid pace, but it is a matter that should have been settled long ago.”
(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)