In the Latvian capital of Riga, an 80-metre 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.
Such scenes are happening 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 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 the second world war 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.
De-communisation of public space
In Ukraine, the “de-communisation” 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 de-communisation 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 de-communise 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”.
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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 symbolises. Destruction is intended to break our link with the past, defacement shows the object – and what or who it symbolises – to be powerless, unable to defend itself.
The destruction of public monuments has a long history. “Damnatio memoriae” (the condemnation of memory) summarises 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?
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.
“De-communisation” 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.