Post-Soviet Countries Don’t Know What to Do With Their Monuments

Should Lenin be thrown into a river, too?

by Juliet Jacques

27 March 2024

A large stone monument depicting a number of soldiers
Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo: Juliet Jacques

In December 2023, the monument to the Soviet army in Sofia was partially dismantled, 30 years after the city’s local council voted to remove or demolish it. Built in 1954 to commemorate the Red Army’s entry into Nazi-occupied Bulgaria ten years earlier, it was the city’s tallest monument, topped with a Red Army soldier raising a gun with a charging battalion. For the Soviets, it was a symbol of liberation, but for Democratic Bulgaria MP Ivaylo Mirchev, amongst others, it was “a symbol of occupation” that is now “going to the past, where it belongs”.

Since the end of the Soviet satellite regime in 1989, the people of Sofia have reimagined the monument in a variety of ways. Skaters and punks gather around it; Sofia Pride has used it as a meeting point. In 2011, the anonymous art collective Destructive Creation painted the monument’s soldiers as popular American fictional characters including Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and Ronald McDonald as a comment on the post-Soviet westernisation of Bulgaria (the subject of a short documentary by Anton Partalev). Two years later, artists painted the soldiers pink in apology for the Bulgarian role in the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. It was painted yellow and blue in 2014 in support of the Maidan revolution, and again in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Where the past is located, and how it looks, is not just a practical question, but a philosophical one too. The immediate trigger for the Sofia statue decision appears to have been the revelation that tech-entrepreneur-turned-mayor Vasil Terziev’s parents were part of the Bulgarian secret service, which may have prompted Terziev’s manifesto pledge to finally remove the statue. Yet debates among former Warsaw Pact countries about what to do with their Soviet monuments have been raging ever since 1989.

Should they be destroyed, to definitively repudiate the countries’ communist past? Would keeping them in place mean celebrating that history, or ensuring the period – with all its corruptions of Marx and Engels’ vision of communism – is not forgotten? Is an acceptable compromise to relocate the monuments to less visible, but still publicly accessible places such as museums? If so, who runs such spaces, and what is their tone?

On these questions, Sofians are divided. In a survey in October 2023, 30.7% voted for the Red Army monument to remain in place; 22% for demolishing it; and 27.8% for moving it to a museum. But the Museum of Socialist Art, founded by the government in 2011, lacks the capacity to house the monument in its sculpture garden, and the authorities perhaps worried it would remain a site of protest and vandalism. Instead, they opted for the temporary solution of taking down the soldiers, which currently sit at the foot of the monument behind a barrier, awaiting their next destination. As a friend from Sofia told me, this could even end up being their restoration – something that would be unprecedented in the former Soviet bloc.

Soviet theme parks.

Some of these countries have chosen to deal with this problematic inheritance by setting up outdoor museums for some of these monuments, adopting a variety of tones. The sculpture park at Bulgaria’s Museum of Socialist Art was modelled on similar initiatives across eastern Europe, most closely resembling the garden of the Estonian History Museum, full of Lenins, Stalins and leaders of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Estonian sculpture park is more an anti-imperialist gesture than an anti-socialist one: in Tallinn as in Riga in neighbouring Latvia, monuments to the proletarian uprising of 1905 remain in the city centre, as only monuments to people who were part of the Red Army, the Bolshevik revolutionary vanguard or the Soviet government have been moved to the museum. There is a sombreness to the Tallinn garden, which feels like a graveyard, with Matti Varik’s large bust of Lenin and Martin Saks’ bust of Estonian Bolshevik revolutionary Jaan Anvelt on the ground, and Aleksandr Kaasik’s statue of Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin missing a hand.

This approach is different to that taken in Hungary, one of the first post-socialist states to decide to put their monuments in a museum. Memento Park opened in an old sports arena on the edge of Budapest on 29 June 1993, two years after Soviet troops left Hungary, and was criticised by survivors of the regime, especially its notorious Stalinist iteration of 1945-56, who felt the statues should be destroyed and that the theme park’s concept and marketing were altogether too flippant. “This park is about dictatorship,” said architect Ákos Eleöd in response. “At the same time, [it] is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to … let us think freely about dictatorship.”

The park’s centrepiece are the remains of the huge Stalin statue torn down to its boots during the Hungarian Uprising in 1956; there are also several memorials to Béla Kun, who led the short-lived independent Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. There’s a sardonic humour to Memento Park, celebrating the collapse of the regime not by demolishing its relics but by inviting tourists to take selfies with them. Some histories are beyond levity, however: the brutal Stalinist ruler Mátyas Rákosi and Janos Kádár, who betrayed Imre Nagy and other leaders of the 1956 uprising before presiding over a less draconian regime until 1988, are notably absent from the park. A permanent exhibition about Soviet Hungary put on by Memento Park in 2007 acknowledged tension between its tongue-in-cheek attitude, those with some nostalgia for the socialist era, and those who wanted its memory erased.

a woman stands beside a large statue of lenin
Juliet Jacques stands beside the statue of Lenin in Budapest’s Memento Park. Photo: Juliet Jacques

English filmmaker Peter Watkins makes a similar observation about Grūtas Park in Lithuania – the sculpture garden founded in 2001 as a private enterprise, from local businessman Viliumas Malinaukskas’s personal collection of communist statues, bought on the cheap ten years earlier – in Deimantas Narkevičius’ 2003 film Role of a Lifetime. “To a number of Lithuanians, it is a disaster to, as they see it, put these statues of these murderers in a sylvan setting with birds twittering,” says Watkins, “but I’m sure there are others who see this as a possibility to reflect on man’s unbelievable folly and inhumanity and the endless repetition, sadly, of history.”

Grutas Park’s creation was contentious; Malinauskas was not allowed to transport visitors in a mocked-up gulag-style train, though he was permitted to include recreations of the camps with guard towers and barbed-wire fences (tasteless as it might sound, it’s notable that this, combined with the KGB Museum in Vilnius, is far more than has been devoted to the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, or local collaboration with it, an imbalance also found in Tallinn and Riga.)

Another Narkevičius film, Once in the XX Century (2004), reverses the footage of gleeful citizens watching a Lenin monument being removed in 1991 to make it look as if it is being installed – a comment on the joy felt by many when such statues were removed, but also on the nostalgia for communism that became more prevalent as the promises of market capitalism proved to be false (disillusionment epitomised by Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin!).

The spectacle of such monuments’ removals captured the attention of the west, revelling in its Cold War victory – but in parts of the USSR, many were left in place. Visiting them now is a strange, melancholic experience.

Good Bye, Lenin?

Now the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek existed before 1917 but the Soviets renamed it Frunze after Bolshevik military leader Mikhail Frunze, who was born there. In a referendum in March 1991, 88.7% voted for Kirghizia (as it was then) to remain part of the USSR, but secessionist forces pushed through independence anyway.

The new government renamed the capital city Bishkek and changed the central plaza from Lenin Square to Ala-Too Square (after the nearby mountain). Otherwise, it retained not just the Soviet architecture but also its monuments. Lenin was moved behind the National Museum on the main square, but almost everything else was left in place: even the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the notorious founder of the Soviet secret police, remained until 1999.

This forms a stark contrast to the “decommunisation” in Ukraine that followed the revolution of 2014, during which the Lenin statue in Kyiv was toppled. New laws targeted the removal of “symbols” of fascism and communism, but in practice, have applied almost exclusively to the latter, with the notable exception of second world war memorials (some are too big to dismantle, particularly Kyiv’s motherland monument, completed in 1981, taller than the nearby Pechersk Lavra cathedral). After the escalation of war in February 2022 and a rise in anti-USSR feeling across the former Soviet bloc, the hammer and sickle on the statue’s shield was replaced with the Ukrainian trident.

But as such monuments are removed elsewhere, after careful consideration of the implications in rapidly changing contexts, they are replaced in Russia with crude belligerence. Putin repudiates the USSR’s communist ideology but not its Russian imperialism, nor its authoritarianism, and a new Dzerzhinsky statue was recently unveiled outside the Foreign Intelligence Service HQ in Moscow. Replacing monuments has been an act of (barely passive) aggression, too: Maria Kapajeva’s film the enforced memory looks at how a tank put in Narva to commemorate the second world war was removed in August 2022 after the Estonian government adopted similar decommunisation policies to Ukraine. Estonia’s sizeable Russian community opposed the move. A month later, the Russians put a replica of a monument in Ivangorod, on its side of the Estonian border.

Rhodes never fell.

These debates have played out thus because the Soviet Union broke up after its satellite regimes were overthrown. Monuments have been the subject of debate, direct action and legislation in the United Kingdom as well, from the Rhodes Must Fall campaign to the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, and panic about attacks on the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square or the Cenotaph on Whitehall, largely manufactured to galvanise the far-right into beating up Black Lives Matter and later Palestine protestors respectively. The crucial difference here is that there was never a decisive break with the society that produced Rhodes or Colston.

The Commons and Lords would prefer people not to deviate from the official narrative about the UK’s benevolence in abolishing slavery by pointing out how British merchants played a significant role in the trade in human beings; how much the UK benefited from colonial extraction; or that the government paid millions in compensation to slave owners but nothing to the enslaved. If the Tories were to remove monuments to colonists and slavers, would they have to pay reparations to the descendants of their victims? Or to former colonies? Which people and events from their treasured version of British history would they have to disown – and how many would be direct ancestors of our current MPs or their client journalists?

None of these questions can be tolerated, so we get the opposite of decommunisation. In response to the Colston action, the government introduced new laws to “protect England’s cultural and historic heritage”, with “individuals who want to remove any historic statue, whether listed or not” requiring “listed building consent or planning permission”. Commentators complained that Colston’s self-appointed removers should have “gone through the proper channels”. As one local put it, “he’s in the proper channel now”.

Communities secretary and ongoing buffoon Robert Jenrick said such measures were to stop “woke worthies” removing monuments “at the behest of a baying mob” and, with the disingenuous inherent to any right-wing discussion about freedom of speech, said that “we cannot, and should not try to edit or censor our past”. For the likes of Jenrick, this is about suppressing an honest conversation about what the United Kingdom is built on, and goes hand-in-hand with attacks on anti-colonial academics – all part of an attempt to silence criticism of British foreign policy, past and present.

Perhaps in another 30 years, statues of Sir Robert Geffrye, James Cook and others will go the way of those of Lenin and Stalin in the former Soviet bloc. For now, we get the proposed Monument to Good Muslims to deflect from the Islamophobia rampant in the Conservative Party and their B-team, the Labour right, let alone their support for genocide in Gaza, and endless shrieking nonsense about the Churchill statue to drown out any discussion of, say, the Bengal famine. Maybe we could compromise, and move them all to the sculpture garden of a new Museum of British Imperialism?

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic.


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