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Former USSR states dismantle the Soviet past

Stephanie Höppner
August 18, 2022

The Ukraine war has inflamed fervent debates about what to do with USSR-era monuments. Some former Soviet states have decided to dismantle some monuments, but in Germany it's complicated.

A Soviet monument in Tehurnardi in Estonia
This is one of dozens of Soviet memorials in the Baltic statesImage: Danita Delimont/IMAGO

Tanks, statues, monuments to Red Army soldiers: The Soviet era is omnipresent in the Baltic states and other former communist countries. 

Though lawmakers in the Baltic countries have largely decided to remove those monuments, which commemorate Soviet soldiers fighting Nazi Germany during World War II.

However, not all inhabitants agree, particularly not the Russian-speaking minority.

Estonia: 'A tank is a murder weapon, not a memorial'

It is time for the museum: On Tuesday, the authorities removed a contentious monument of a Soviet tank outside the city of Narva, which lies on the border between Estonia and Russia and is largely inhabited by ethnic Russians. The removal of the monument has been particularly controversial, and the authorities had initially spoken out against its being relocated. The argument was that the local population considered it as part of the city's identity. 

Workers removing a tank that served as a memorial
The tank monument is a risk for public order, the government has said.Image: Sergei Stepanov/AP/picture alliance

The monument was moved to the Estonian War Museum, some 200 kilometers north of the capital Tallinn. Six more Soviet-era monuments were also removed.

The government in Tallinn had given the green light for the removal of Soviet monuments from public spaces in the Baltic EU and NATO country. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas explained that "A tank is a murder weapon, it is not a memorial, and those same tanks are killing people on the streets of Ukraine right now." A total of about 400 monuments are to be dismantled.

Latvia: Divided opinion

Many Latvians feel that the Soviet Victory Memorial in the capital Riga is no longer tolerable, but for large parts of the country's Russian-speaking population it still bears a great significance.

Earlier this year, Latvian lawmakers approved a law ordering the dismantling of all monuments and other objects, some of which are seen as glorifying the Soviet regime, by November 15. Some 69 objects fall into this category.

A momument to the Soviet army in Latvia
For some minority ethnic Russians in Latvia this Soviet memorial remains important Image: SNA/IMAGO

The Victory Memorial was built in 1985 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and received the official name of "Monument to the liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German fascist invaders."

Lithuania: Names of fallen soldiers will remain

In Lithuania, there has also been a heated debate around the country's Soviet-era monuments. In July, the dismantling of a monument erected to commemorate the victory of the Soviet army began. What will remain are the parts, on which are engraved the names of fallen Soviet soldiers.

A Soviet memorial in Klaipeda, Lithuania
The dismantling of Soviet memorials in Lithuania began in KlaipedaImage: Reinhard Kaufhold/picture alliance

Originally, experts from the local authority had proposed simply removing elements such as the sword or the five-pointed star.

Finland: Tarred and feathered

The debate about the monuments from Moscow is also in full swing in Finland's capital Helsinki. At the beginning of August, the "World Peace" monument was removed and put into storage by the Helsinki Art Museum. It was a gift from the Soviet Union in 1989 and was first unveiled to the public in 1990.

The World Peace sculpture in Helsinki
This is one of many replicas of a World Peace sculpture, but it's the only one not on former Soviet territoryImage: Matti Mattila/CC BY 2.5

The sculpture is one of many copies but the only one outside of the former Soviet Union. Its erection was controversial from the start, with students tarring and feathering it in 1991. Then in 2010, there was a failed attempt to blow it up.

Germany: Obligation to honor monuments

Soviet-era monuments in eastern Germany have also been the subject of lively debate. Some have been vandalized, others have been wrapped in flags. In March of this year, CDU lawmaker Stefanie Bung called for guns and tanks to be removed from one memorial in Berlin, but the city senate rejected her request.

In Dresden the same month, the FDP politician Stefan Scharf wrote on Twitter that the Soviet memorial in his city could not stay. "Not because of 1945, but because of 1953, 1968 and 2022," he said. The 1st Guards Tank Army of the USSR, which was stationed in Dresden until 1993, was involved in the crackdown on the East German 1953 Uprising, as well as on the Prague Spring of 1968.

The Soviet war memorial in Dresden
Some have called for this momument in Dresden to be removedImage: Wolfram Kastl/picture alliance

But this call fell on deaf ears: According to the Two Plus Four Treaty concluded in 1990 between the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the GDR (East Germany) and the four main victor nations of World War II, Germany has an obligation to respect and maintain Soviet monuments on its territory.

In Stralsund in eastern Germany, a different approach was sought. The bronze relief of a Soviet monument that had been removed as part of a restauration process in February was recently restored. It was said that the Russian attack on Ukraine had nothing to do with the restoration.

A bronze relief in Stralsund is taken away by two males
This bronze relief was removed from a Soviet memorial in Stralsund as part of efforts to restore itImage: Stefan Sauer/picture alliance/dpa

This article was originally written in German.