Soviet Monuments between the ‘Soviet’ Past and ‘European’ Present in Post-Communist Public Space

Home  >>  Публікації  >>  Soviet Monuments between the ‘Soviet’ Past and ‘European’ Present in Post-Communist Public Space

Petra Švardová: This article is focused on the heritage from the communist era in the Central and Eastern Europe as well as the transformation and new interpretation of this heritage in the contemporary European context. Special attention is given to the Ukrainian way of transition and Europeanisation in the cultural domain.

© Petra Švardová,
PhD student,
Institute of History, Slovak Academy of Sciences (Faculty of Philosophy, Comenius University) and INALCO Paris (National Institute of Oriental Language and Civilization)

This article is focused on the heritage from the communist era in the Central and Eastern Europe as well as the transformation and new interpretation of this heritage in the contemporary European context. Special attention is given to the Ukrainian way of transition and Europeanisation in the cultural domain.

1. Space and time

A/ Sovietisation of Eastern Europe
Statues and memorials have been always represented as a way to remember. Monuments become places for the memory of important historical events. Therefore, construction of monuments to the Red Army in 1945 was strongly supported by the Soviet Union. This support was a significant point of the affirmation of political power in the countries under the Soviet influence. Construction of new monuments was one of the important instruments of mystification and creation of new heroic figures in the Central and Eastern Europe. However, single post-war propaganda plan for monuments did not exist that means also that the Soviet Union did not intervene in their construction. Building projects were most often initiated by generals to solve two problems at once: to bury the remains of soldiers and to insure symbolically presence of the Red Army. However, since 1950, especially at each anniversary, which celebrated the end of the war, huge new monuments for the liberators have appeared in the public space. In fact, all monuments constructed after World War II explain much more about those who built them than about the historical moments to which they refer. Soviet monuments not only obtained commemorative or legitimizing functions, but they also marked a border of geopolitical stake after World War II.

B/ Breaking point in the history

The fall of communism in 1989 aroused a wave of political movements but also some changes in society itself, especially in attitudes toward objects related to the communist past. The fall of the icons of the Ancient regime is always emblematic of a new beginning and mostly legitimized new government. Monuments as tangible symbols of this period became an object of anger and repressed emotions. In the terms of time, monuments illustrated certain continuity with a very undesirable past. The most of the statues of the communist leaders and other symbols of communism were destroyed. Changes in political regimes destroyed former relationships to the Soviet war monuments. Society began to take these monuments as a symbol of one political system, not as a place of remembering the historical event. However, in Ukraine most of the monuments to V. Lenin (these material products which a man or a certain political regime leaves behind him after its demise) survived until 2013 protest events of Euromaidan. All started with the protests in Kiev against the Ukrainian ex-president V. Yanukovych who refused to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. This decision provoked the massive protests in Maidan square in the capital. Destruction of Lenin statue in Kiev in December 2013 and all toppled Lenins over Ukraine involved a symbolical rupture with Soviet past and break dependence on Russia [1]. In 1991 Ukraine became an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2013 smashed Lenin statues were a powerful sign to say goodbye to the past and to rebuild the national narrative.

Monuments from Soviet past represent the common history for all post-communist countries, not only for Ukraine. However, Ukraine has the stronger entwined relations by mutual historical roots. There are many similar points in cultural cleaning of public space between the fall of communism in Central Europe in 1989 and antigovernment protests in Ukraine during 2013. Since 1989, Central Europe has turned towards the European values and integration to the European Union. The Europeanisation obtained new signification after the fall of communism. The transition from the communism to the democracy was gradual and progressive.

2. Cultural policy
The modifications in cultural domain took place through the institutions and installation of European values. Cultural implications were set up by the new structures, by decisions to take and by policy-making. The Europeanisation process in Central Europe was established by two main platforms. The European space was created by organizing a series of cultural events during European Capital of Culture aimed to discover richness and diversity of European cultures. Another platform of Europeanisation was constituted through cultural co-operation between the European countries. In its various forms, Europeanisation process had the impact in range of cultural policy but was often limited at the regional level. From the geopolitical position and historical heritage, the Europeanisation in Eastern Europe is not possible without a new modernization of the national society.

A/ Dominate the collective memory
Monuments are powerful political tools and the major importance of communism was the strategy to implant the younger generation with the habits of commemorating and paying respect to the heroes. It was very important to integrate the youth into the new social and political system at the earliest possible age. Monuments became a sacral place, where all acts of commemorations were almost understood as a religion process. Soviet monuments represent collective memories of the liberation; they are mediums for the visualization of the memory and the realization of the past; they also communicate communist party’s political interpretations of the historical events. The tradition of celebration and process of laying wreaths at the pious places meant for most of the population acts of respect and gratitude to the fallen soldiers. However, the years 1956 in Hungary and Poland or 1968 in Czechoslovakia became major points of changing this image of the hero. People started to look differently at the monuments to the Red Army, and their former connotation of liberation turned into a symbol of occupation. Analyzing the way how communist regime penetrated to the collective memory and which tools party used to manipulate the mass, we can understand the impact of these ritual traditions to the several generations until today.

2B/ Memory laws
Obviously, the Europeanisation by historical meanings is a process of changing in thinking. The evolution of the Europeanisation process may be understandable by two ways – by natural process of Europeanisation or by accession to the European Union. Ukraine, often taken as country between the European Union and Russia, sustains a difficult position. Countries of the Central and Eastern Europe, as Ukraine, the close neighbour of the Visegrad countries, have the common history related to soviet Russia. Post-communist countries had to trace a reconfiguration of the national memory by different measures and precautions. Memory suffering of the communism changed the image of heroic martyrdom toward innocent victimhood. Each post-communist country adopted various rules how to absorb the difficult and undesirable past. In the Central Europe during the 1990s, monuments related to the communist past were at the center of conflict during discussion about their elimination and removal. The monuments, which were not destroyed during the time of chaos just after 1989, are very difficult to remove or destroy today. In Ukraine, in May 2015 President Petro Poroshenko signed a set of controversial memory laws, which ban the promotion of communist and totalitarian symbols. The ban comprises monuments, place and street names (excluding World War II monuments). The laws also reevaluate the status of UPA (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) in legitimacy and glorify their veterans and S. Bandera [2]. During World War II, the UPA collaborated with the Germans against the Red Army and committed numerous inhuman acts against ethnic minorities. Because the laws were approved by the parliament without any public debate, they are imposing with the aim to break with the ‘criminal’ Soviet past. Many people think that the mentioned laws divide the country by replacing one officially sanctioned version of history with another.

3. Crisis of identity

A/ Communist heritage in transformation
Public space is infiltrated by political power and its purpose. Contemporary public space shows lot of controversial monuments from the communist time. Graffiti as a popular phenomenon comes from the part of the society and from the street. The authors of this transformation are the artists who take part in the ideological metamorphosis of monuments by expressing the opinions and problems of the contemporary society, and not those of the past. The memorial to the glory of the soldiers of the Soviet Army in Bulgaria attracted attention almost every year by transformation or as a ‘panel’ of expression.

The most famous intervention of this monument was realized in June 2011 when anonymous artists transformed the heroes of World War II, the Soviet soldiers, into American super-heroes. Another intervention was made in February 2014 when the monument in Sofia was repainted again, this time in the colors of the Ukrainian flag to express solidarity with Ukraine. The repainting coincided with the celebration of the Day of the Red Army in the USSR. Another monument in Bulgaria was also in the center of discussion regarding its physical transformation during the time when relationships between Russia and Ukraine and also Europe were very tense. The Mound of Brothers monument in Sofia was painted in March 2014 during the night. This intervention marked the anniversary of the Katyn massacre in which the USSR murdered thousands of Polish officers, intellectuals and at the same time the annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation in March 2014, 74 years later.

Artistic interventions on Soviet war monuments in Europe do not touch only on protest movements, but also comment on problems of Soviet past and rebuilding of new national identity.

B/ Ukraine and struggle for identity
The transformation of the monuments touches Ukraine also in a different way. Recent conversion of the Lenin’s statue into the statue of Star Wars villain Darth Vader in Odessa shows the artistic creation and sarcastic perception of the past by the contemporary regard and adverts to the crises in the collective memory of two generations. Another transformation in Ukraine is less pleasant and includes international problems between Ukraine and Russia. The monument in Donetsk region commemorates the soldiers of the Red Army in World War II. The monument was damaged during clashes between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army in August 2014. In the Red Army, both of them, Russians and Ukrainians, were fighting together. Today they fight against each other and destruction of this monument is the material proof of the complicated relationships between Russia and Ukraine. Artistic intervention indicates to the strong communicative function between the past and present (or future).

8The Europeanisation process is difficult and gradual because of its intense involvements on the rules, norms, traditions and habits of each state. In the cultural domain of Europeanisation, European culture is diffused within the national framework of cultural policies and norms. That is the reason why the Europeanisation cannot be governed by one and unique decision from Brussel but has to take into consideration cultural diversion in the European Union. Ukraine and states of the Central Europe share the common Soviet experience, therefore the stronger cooperation between them could be beneficially not only in economic relations but especially could gain in cultural field.

1. For more information about the Leninfall in Ukraine: Noack Rick, What toppled Lenin statues tell us about Ukraine’s crisis, in: The Washington Post, September 30, 2014,
2. For more information: Motyl Alexander J., Kiev’s Purge. Behind the New Legislation to Decommunize Ukraine, in: Foreign Affairs, April 28, 2015,

* All the photos are provided by the author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *