Three statues of Red Army soldiers in Riga (Latvia) are removed.Image ANP

    In the Victory Park in the Latvian capital Riga, an obelisk nearly eighty meters high fell to the ground, as did three granite statues of Red Army soldiers. This fall, the monument was replaced by a skating rink. It is not the first, and certainly not the last, statue to fall in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Estonian government decided this summer to remove all two to four hundred Soviet monuments, starting with a famous Soviet tank in Narva, on the border with Russia. The parliaments of Lithuania and Latvia also passed laws to quickly remove Soviet-era statues, monuments and street names from the streets.

    Fear of Russia is great

    At the end of World War II, the Red Army expelled the German occupiers from the Baltic countries. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became Soviet republics. In those years, the Soviet Union erected thousands of monuments and statues. Sometimes to celebrate communism, like with a statue of Lenin. More often to celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany and thus justify Russian rule in those lands.

    In the Victory Park in Riga (Latvia), an obelisk almost 80 meters high fell to the ground this summer.  Image AP

    In the Victory Park in Riga (Latvia), an obelisk almost 80 meters high fell to the ground this summer.Image AP

    A large number of statues already disappeared with independence in 1991. And every time Russia threatens the sovereignty of other former Soviet countries, the urge to remove the remaining monuments also grows. For example, the Russo-Georgian war (2009) and the annexation of Crimea (2014) have already led to petitions, bills and in some cases the removal of Soviet monuments in the Baltic countries.

    The invasion of Ukraine again increases the aversion towards the monuments. The Balts are among the fiercest Russia condemners in the EU. The political leaders are big pushers of the sanctions against Russia; 70 percent of the Balts fear a Russian invasion of their country and are in favor of a greater NATO presence on their territory. The Baltic countries also refuse to receive Russian refugees.

    Heritage has ‘positive connotation’

    That hatred and fear has everything to do with history. For many Balts, World War II did not end in 1945, but in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Thousands of Balts were on deportation trains to Siberia when the Soviet statues were placed. “The Soviet statues are called liberation monuments,” says Irina Sandomirskaja, professor of cultural studies at the Center for Baltic and Eastern European Studies in Stockholm. ‘But after 1945 the occupier basically only changed his nationality.’

    The removal of statues sparks protests in Riga and attracts supporters and opponents alike.  Image ANP / EPA

    The removal of statues sparks protests in Riga and attracts supporters and opponents alike.Image ANP / EPA

    What you see happening now, says Sandomirskaja, is the removal of suppression symbols. ‘This also strengthens the relatively young national identity.’ Sandomirskaja does not regard the images as heritage. ‘Heritage is not a neutral word, it has a positive connotation. Heritage is something that should be preserved.’

    No public consensus

    But for the Russian minority in the Baltic countries, who make up a quarter of the population in both Latvia and Estonia, it is indeed heritage. The obelisk in Riga was the main meeting place for Russian Latvians, they celebrated Russian holidays there. For this group, the removal of Soviet monuments is extremely sensitive.

    This was also evident in 2007 when the Estonian government decided to demolish a bronze Soviet soldier, placed by the Soviet Union in 1944, from the center of the capital Tallinn. For the Russian minority, this statue was a symbol of the liberation from Nazi Germany, for the Estonian government it was an expression of Soviet oppression. Before the statue was finally removed, Russian Estonians looted the streets of Tallinn for nights on end, resulting in more than a thousand arrests and one dead demonstrator.

    The Estonian government decided to remove this famous Soviet tank in Narva, on the border with Russia.  Image Getty

    The Estonian government decided to remove this famous Soviet tank in Narva, on the border with Russia.Image Getty

    The Soviet images are what the British social geographers John E. Tunbridge and Gregory J. Ashworth discordant heritage name: heritage about which there is no public consensus or about which public opinion changes over time. In the west there are numerous examples of statues of politicians, explorers and other historical figures that fall into this category, such as the JP Coen statue in Hoorn.

    But there is a crucial difference between JP Coen and the Soviet images, says Sandomirskaja. ‘These images were already controversial at the time of their placement by the Soviet Union and symbols of power and oppression.’

    Acceptance of historical period

    Removing Soviet images is rewriting history, says Odeta Rudling, a Lithuanian researcher on Soviet culture at Lund University in Sweden. “It’s an attempt to balance historiography and show that the crimes of the Soviet Union are, in some sense, just as bad as those of Nazi Germany.”

    Nevertheless, Rudling believes that the images are indeed heritage. ‘To us they represent victimization and oppression. The way Lithuania, for example, now shapes its history has been dominated by national identity since 1991. As a result, there is no place for such symbols anymore.’

    This while, according to Rudling, historians in the Baltic countries were busy with a nuanced and less one-dimensional way of writing history. ‘Because of the invasion of Ukraine there is now less room for that. But those images represent a certain historical period that we have to accept. Toppling the images does not help to better understand that period.’

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