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…