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What Happens When Soviet Monuments Are Torn Down

The toppling of statues and other political symbols creates new spaces that are themselves a reckoning for society.

photo of The Monument to the Liberators of Riga being taken down in Riga, Latvia.

The Monument to the Liberators of Riga is taken down in Riga, Latvia.

Helen Parish

In the Latvian capital of Riga, an 80-meter concrete obelisk came crashing down in late August to the loud cheers of a nearby crowd. It was created to commemorate the Soviet Army’s capture of Latvia in 1944.

Days earlier in Estonia, another Soviet monument, this time of a tank adorned with the communist red star, was removed and taken to reside in a museum.

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Such scenes are happening all over central and eastern Europe – in Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. The removal or destruction of Soviet-era monuments is a powerful reminder of the complex relationship that exists between history, memory and politics.

Monuments are powerful instruments of propaganda, making the 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 being removed reflect (and create) conflicting histories and interpretations of the aftermath of war. Public memory is not uniform or static.

Statues and memorials erected in the years after World War II are prime examples. Intended to commemorate 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 either to government-sanctioned removal or, more commonly, defacement, marginalisation or repurposing. Their removal is not a destruction or an erasure of history, but a creation of a new way of remembering.

What is Decommunization?

In Ukraine, the “Decommunization” law passed in April 2015 prohibited 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 the Russian annexation of Crimea.

An updated law on decommunization in Poland in 2017 enforced the removal of monuments and memorials to individuals and events that symbolised communism or other forms of totalitarianism. Driven by the Russian war in Ukraine, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance intensified its efforts to decommunize public spaces. In March 2022 its head, Karol Nawrocki, called for swift action to remove symbols that might 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 minister, Kaja Kallas – that Russia would be denied any opportunity to “use the past to disturb the peace”.

In Latvia’s capital, Riga, as the Soviet war memorial was demolished, The city’s mayor, Mārtiņš Staķis, argued that the monument had glorified Russian war crimes, and should be demolished physically and “in the hearts as well”.

But the removal of visible memorials to the Soviet era has been divisive. Such monuments and imagery were a prominent part of the landscape, and their removal has fuelled arguments about national identity and history. For some observers, de-communisation was necessary to prevent the rise of oppressive regimes.

For others, the disappearance of statues and military monuments was a visible, forceful and unjustified attempt to erase a nation’s past, however troubled it was. 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 that it symbolizes. Destruction is intended to break our link with the past, defacement shows the object – and what or who it symbolizes – to be powerless, unable to defend itself.

The destruction of public monuments has a long history.

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, Senate or wider populace could act to condemn the actions and memory of previous rulers.

Statues were pulled down, coins melted, and written records destroyed. In the Panegyrici Latini, the writer and philosopher Pliny the Elder describes participants’ delight when vengeance was enacted upon the hated dead.

But were the condemned dead forgotten, their memory and history “wiped out” by such actions? Or do we remember them, just in a different interpretation of the past?

King George III in a New York park

We can observe such competing narratives in the interpretation of the ruins of medieval monasteries that remain visible on 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.

Likewise, the statue of King George III, installed by the British in Bowling Green park in New York, was toppled and melted in 1776 after the reading of the Declaration of Independence. But the empty plinth and surrounding fence remain as a monument to a different historical narrative, that commemorates the revolutionaries’ successful defeat of an oppressive British state.

“Decommunization” in Ukraine created new physical and mental spaces, with some monuments destroyed and others replaced with religious figures, flowers, or left empty. Dust and rubble remind us of what once stood on that same spot.

Statues and monuments commemorate the past for a present and future audience. They build a landscape and environment that is made up of layers of human culture and memory, which can be both created and destroyed. But empty spaces left by statues communicate a message that is 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 remembering and forgetting is stronger than we might think.

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Longyearbyen Postcard: World's Northernmost Town Facing Climate Change — And Russia

The melting of the sea ice in the Far North has accelerated in recent years. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become the focal point of the environmental drama gripping the Arctic as well as the geopolitical tensions it is causing there, with Russia in particular.

A statue of a coal miner stands in the center of the photos with houses surronding it, draped around their shoudler is a Ukrainian flag. The environment is snowy and the sky is white from clouds.

A Ukraine flag placed on a statue of a coal miner in the center of Longyearbyen

Steffen Trumpf/dpa/ZUMA
Laura Berny

LONGYEARBYEN — The Longyearbreen glacier, which once unfurled to the sea, is now a shadow of its former self. Only the name of Longyearbyen’s Isfjorden now conveys the idea of something frozen.

“Last January, during the polar winter, the temperature was between 0 and 5 °C. When I went for a walk by the fjord, I could hear the waves. This was not the case before at this time of year,” says Heidi Sevestre. The French glaciologist fell in love with Svalbard as a student, so much so that she now lives here for part of the year.

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Compared to Siberia, Canada’s and Greenland’s High North – the Arctic archipelago, located just over a thousand kilometers from the North Pole – has historically benefited from a slightly more benign climate despite its extreme latitude. Temperatures here range between 5 °C and 15 °C in summer and usually not below -30 °C in the coldest of winter. This relatively “mild" weather has its origin in the Gulf Stream — the marine current which rises up from the Caribbean and runs along the west coast of Svalbard.

But the situation has now changed.

“There has been a lot of talk about the rise in atmospheric temperature for at least 20 years. But in the past three years, ocean temperatures have also risen significantly. This is what is causing the increasingly rapid retreat of the ice pack,” explains Jean-Charles Gallet, a glaciologist who has worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) since 2010.

“The sea ice acts like an air conditioner for the ocean, so the more it decreases, the more the ocean warms up. This causes a chain reaction which ends up accelerating the warming process,” adds Eero Rinne, a Finnish specialist on the topic and a researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Rinne is working on the CRISTAL sea ice satellite mission, slated to go live in 2028 as part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program.

Beyond the alarming disappearance of glaciers and ice packs and the threat to polar bears (of which there are still around 300 in the archipelago), global warming is also causing cracks in the infrastructure of the territory, which is covered by permafrost. Landslides are increasingly frequent, and all recently constructed buildings in the region are on stilts.

“It used to rain very little in Svalbard, but now it is getting wetter and wetter, which is weakening the soil,” explains Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish-Norwegian scientist and specialist on permafrost at UNIS.

Norwegians kept a low profile about Svalbard's growing crisis, until 2017. That was the year when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was flooded, less than 10 years after its foundation. The facility, dug near a mine in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, was built to preserve more than a million seeds from a possible cataclysm. The disaster didn’t affect the seeds but left a scar in people’s minds. Even this close to the pole, permafrost is thawing.

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