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Lithuania topples last Soviet monuments

September 4, 2022

Statues of Lenin and other communists were removed shortly after independence in 1991. But since the start of the war in Ukraine this year, other sculptures have also disappeared — and reappeared next to goats and birds.

Lenin statue in Vilinius being toppled
Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was removed from his pedestal in Vilnius on August 23, 1991Image: AFP/dpa/picture alliance

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the revolutionary Bolshevik and founder of the Soviet Union, died in 1924 but remained omnipresent decades after his death. Carved in stone and cast in iron, he stood larger than life in the most prominent places of cities all over Lithuania.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, his cult of personality was over. As elsewhere in formerly communist countries, Lenin sculptures and those of other dictators were taken down from their pedestals and removed from sight.

"After the rapid demolition of many monuments in the early 1990s and the renaming of streets and squares, the issue of monuments then fell into obscurity for a long time," said Arunas Bubnys, the director of the Genocide and Resistance Research Center in Vilnius.

But with the start of the Russian war in Ukraine on February 24, resentment against the former Soviet Union and current Russian policies has once again increased. People in Lithuania are afraid of being attacked by Putin's troops.

An empty pedestal in a public place that used to hold the statue of a Russian soldier
In the small town of Merkine, the statue of a Soviet soldier was removed from its pedestal in MayImage: Marcel Fürstenau/DW

Memories of the occupation of Lithuania, which began in 1940 — a product of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — are newly present. Ultimately, the occupation ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But until 1953, mass deportations took place, particularly to Siberia.

The ambivalent history of the country also includes the fact that many antisemitic Lithuanians participated in the murder of around 200,000 Jews during the German occupation from 1941 to 1944. The Genocide and Resistance Research Center, led by the historian and archivist Bubnys, covers Lithuanian antisemitism, but also focuses on resistance to the Soviet regime.

Lithuanian paramilitary groups

This scientific center includes the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, where Soviet secret services tortured and murdered prisoners in the building in the middle of Vilnius. The Nazis also used the building for the same purpose during their temporary occupation during World War II.

The exhibitions focus on Lithuania's oppression, which lasted nearly 50 years, when the country, like all Baltic states, was a Soviet republic. During this time, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians ended up in prisons and labor camps for political reasons, or were killed outright.

Sculptures removed from cemeteries

When Lithuania won its independence in 1991, it quickly rid itself of most of its prominent Soviet propaganda heritage: statues of Lenin and monuments with tanks and soldiers. In some places, however, Soviet monuments remained. But thanks to the ongoing war in Ukraine, there are now plans to remove remaining symbols like the red star, and the hammer and sickle, said Bubnys. Sculptures in cemeteries are also being removed.

Stone statue of Soviet soldiers on the Antakalnis cemetery in Vilnius
This memorial to Soviet soldiers at the Antakalnis cemetery in Vilnius is scheduled to be removed in SeptemberImage: Marcel Fürstenau/DW

But Violeta Davoliute, a professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University, thinks this could be problematic. She wants to see an unemotional debate on how to deal with symbols from the past. "Is it just a wreath or are there other symbols? If they don't symbolize Soviet military power, then they should be left standing," she said.

In the small town of Merkine, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of Vilnius, the decision was different — there, those in charge decided to remove a 2-meter high statue of a Russian solider from its pedestal back in May. Davoliute would have preferred to leave it in place. Such statues would be good for documentation purposes, she argues. "You could use the statue to try to explain and present complicated history."

Gvidas Rutkauskas is also against removing all Soviet traces in Lithuania — yet he could have every reason to want their removal. He was born in Siberia, where his parents had been deported. Nevertheless, the chairman of the Lithuanian Union of Political Prisoners and Deportees is against disposing of all communist relics.

Gvidas Rutkauskas standing in front a wall hung with historic photographs
Gvidas Rutkauskas doesn't agree with removing everything from the past — 'after all, it's part of our history'Image: Marcel Fürstenau/DW

Accepting history

Rutkauskas believes it isn't necessary to remove everything from the past — "after all, it's part of our history," he told DW. Future generations should know what came before them. But he left no doubt as to when a line would be crossed for him. "If there is a Soviet tank or symbols with the Soviet star on an important square in a city, then they should be removed," he said.

However, due to the threat posed to Lithuania by the war in Ukraine, the argument for removal has solidified — most are in favor of removing all evidence of communism. Liucija Verveckiene of The (Post)Soviet Memory Studies Center, TSPMI, however, noticed the shift in opinion before the war. According to her, 2014 was a turning point.

At that time, Russia annexed Crimea, and since then, pro-Russian separatists and regular Ukrainian troops have been fighting in eastern Ukraine. This changed the debate about removing Soviet relics from public space, she said.

Liucija Verveckiene standing in front of a display screen
The Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula changed Lithuanians' attitudes, said Liucija VerveckieneImage: Marcel Fürstenau/DW

Another question is how to deal with personalities from arts and culture who were said to be close to the Soviet leadership. As an example, the historian mentions Lithuanian writer Petras Cvirka, who died in 1947, and who, as a communist, supported Soviet policies. The monument erected in his honor in Vilnius was removed in November 2021.

The novellas, short stories and children's books by the controversial author have been translated into English, Chinese and many Eastern European languages. Verveckiene considers his case to be exemplary when it comes to the difficult question of what is meant by collaboration with the former Soviet regime. Cvirka did not harm anyone personally, but he did support the Soviet system.

Reunion with Marx and Stalin in Grutas Park

If one day all traces of communism disappear from Lithuania's streets, squares and cemeteries, those interested in the communist past could still visit Grutas Park in the country's south. Since the turn of the millennium, unwanted sculptures have been collected on the park's extensive grounds — works depicting Lenin, the dictator and mass murderer Josef Stalin, the head of the secret service Feliks Dzierzynski, German philosopher Karl Marx, and many others.

Stalin statue in a forest
This statue of Josef Stalin stands alongside other discarded monuments in Grutas Park, southern LithuaniaImage: Marcel Fürstenau/DW

Currently, 87 monuments stand among fir, pine and birch trees. Barbed wire entanglements and watchtowers can also be seen, as they were common in Siberian penal camps. For the older visitors to the park, there are photo boards with information about the origin of the sculptures and when they were removed. For the younger guests, there is a children's playground. In neighboring meadows, goats graze and ostriches strut.

Critics consider the privately run open-air museum to be a mix of Disneyland and a house of horrors. Historian Davoliute from Vilnius University, on the other hand, is more positive. On her first visit to Grutas Park, she and her colleagues viewed the sculptures in a "humorous light."

The researcher said this kind of presentation can seem to be trivialize, especially to foreign visitors. For the people of Lithuania, on the other hand, the Soviet monuments gathered in Grutas Park made it easier to look at their past. "You can also laugh about it," she explained.

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.
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