Soviet war memorials in Eastern Europe continue to strain relations with Russia

Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria, painted overnight on February 24 2014 by unknown activists in solidarity with anti-Russian protests in Ukraine. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Soviet war memorials in Eastern Europe continue to strain relations with Russia

Decades after the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Soviet World War II monuments continue to arouse significant controversy in many former Eastern Bloc countries where they are either being dismantled by law or vandalised by activists.

While many Soviet war monuments in Eastern Europe were demolished or relocated in the 1990s, in certain countries the past few years have seen a spike in these activities. The Ukrainian “decommunisation law” which passed on April 9, 2015 opened the way for the removal of public art bearing communist symbolism. While war monuments were officially exempt, the political climate has encouraged sporadic destruction and vandalism (particularly in the western regions of Ukraine – Lviv’s Memorial of Glory to Heroes Fallen in World War II, for instance, was vandalised less than two months ago).

In Poland, the process of dismantling Soviet war monuments was accelerated by an amended “decommunisation” law, which came into force in October 2017. It allows for the removal of up to 230 Soviet war monuments by local authorities within the year (after which remaining decisions will be made at the regional level).

In the Czech Republic, the inscription on a monument honouring Marshal Ivan Konev, who was twice designated a Hero of the Soviet Union by Stalin, has been rewritten to highlight the marshal’s prominent role in suppressing the Prague Spring in 1968.

In other East European countries, including those in which Soviet war monuments are protected by law, they remain targets of sporadic defacement and vandalism. The Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria, is a good example. It was painted over (as in the main image above) on the night of February 24, 2014 by unknown activists, in solidarity with the Euromaidan Revolution against Ukraine’s pro-Russian regime. This is the most famous instance of defacement, but the monument has been the subject of several similar actions over the years, which show no signs of abating.

At the root of these developments are conflicting interpretations of the aftermath of World War II. Soviet-era war monuments tend to refer to liberation from the Nazis and the defence of the freedom and independence of Eastern European states. But for many people in Eastern Europe, this liberation was followed by the imposition of pro-Soviet communist regimes and the long-term presence of the Soviet military in Eastern Europe, something experienced more as an occupation.

As the deputy head of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, Paweł Ukielski, recently wrote, after the war, monuments “popped up like mushrooms”. Significantly, he added:

But they were not erected by the society – they were the work of the Soviet Army. Under the false guise of gratitude, they hid the true symbolism – the Polish enslavement and dependence on the totalitarian Soviet Union. It is not surprising that free Poland wants to get rid of this ballast.

Ukielski’s assessment is perhaps hyperbolic. In any case, aside from promulgating the narrative of liberation among contemporaries, Soviet war monuments appear to have had a larger propaganda task. This, as some documents suggest, involved a bid for the hearts and minds of future generations of East European citizens.

Liberators: Tsarist and Soviet

Tsarist ‘Monument to Liberty’ at Shipka Pass, Bulgaria. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Such logic can be seen in one little-known episode: a trip to Bulgaria in the final weeks of the war by Lieutenant-General Aleksandr Semenovich Gundorov and members of the pan-Slavic Committee, which had been created in 1941 to bolster support for the Soviet war effort among East European emigres.

While they were there, they saw a number of old Russian military monuments dedicated to the fallen of the Russo-Turkish War of 1886-1887, which resulted in the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the modern Bulgarian state.

On May 4, 1945, Gundorov wrote to the Central Committee of the Soviet communist party:

There is no city or large settlement in this country, in which there were no such monuments … and the town of Plevna and Shipka Pass are turned into huge museums dedicated to the liberation of Bulgaria by the Russian people.

Gundorov saw an interesting connection:

Without a doubt, they played a huge role in instilling in the present generation of Bulgarians a passionate love for the Russian people, which we saw during our stay.

From the perspective of the atheistic Soviet state, “the cult of venerating the graves of their liberators” also had the added advantage of distracting the population from the need for religious monuments. Gundorov commented:

Unlike in other Slavic countries, in Bulgaria you find less chapels, crosses, figures of Madonnas, and other [religious] monuments that usually decorate villages, crossroads, and other places, as they are replaced by the graves of Russian soldiers.

So, in order to encourage goodwill towards the USSR among future generations, Gundorov suggested issuing a call to the public and to local communist branches to embark on a wide programme of building memorials. While Gundorov’s proposal was not implemented formally – no such call was issued by the Pan-Slavic Committee – it was carried out in practice.

Soviet war memorial in the Tiergarten, Berlin, erected in 1945. Ethan Doyle White via Wikimeda Commons, CC BY

Indeed, the first major war monuments commissioned by the Soviet government were built in Eastern and Central European cities – such as Vienna, Warsaw, and Berlin – rather than in the USSR proper. Local communist authorities also commissioned monuments marking their gratitude for liberation and the commitment to friendship and brotherhood with the Soviet Union.

‘Future memory’

It is ironic that these monuments, oriented as they were towards future generations – in part, towards those who now decide their fate – are today far more likely to provoke antipathy towards Russia than goodwill. Whether based on genuine popular resentment or whipped up by nationalist governments, the treatment of these monuments as symbolic markers of Soviet imperialism has been a continuous source of strain in relations with Russia.

In the complex game of East European memory politics, the independent effect of Soviet war monuments, despite predictions, appears to have been negative. In influencing “future memory,” monuments alone make poor tools – they are just as likely to provide evidence of the artificial nature of the “Soviets as liberators” narrative, and the way it was imposed on these countries, as to support it.