Soviet Monuments Become Latest Target of Backlash Against War in Ukraine

REZEKNE, Latvia — Deported to Siberia by the Soviet secret police as a child and stranded there for more than a decade, Dr. Juris Vidins has for years cursed the large statue of a Red Army soldier looming over the center of his hometown in eastern Latvia. An inscription at its base honors the Soviet “liberators” who drove out the Nazis in 1944 — and who sent his father to a prison camp and the rest of the family to a frozen wilderness.

“This was not liberation, but occupation,” Dr. Vidins, 84, said, glowering at the statue of a Soviet soldier cradling a machine gun.

“They liberated me from my family, they liberated us from our property and everything we had,” he said. “If that is liberation, I don’t want a monument to it.”

After trying in vain for years to get the statue torn down, the doctor is now rejoicing that, thanks to a wave of revulsion over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and everything connected with its military, he may soon see his dream come true.

Across Eastern and Central Europe, dominated by Moscow for nearly a half-century after the end of World War II, a long-running memory war over whether the Soviet Union liberated the region from fascism or enslaved it anew has reached a decisive turn, just as what had been a grinding military stalemate in Ukraine has turned significantly against Russian forces.

Statues honoring Soviet troops have in recent weeks come down or been slated for demolition in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic, all NATO members that have rallied to help Ukraine on the battlefield with weapons and gone on the offensive at home against what they see as abhorrent tributes to Russian power.

“Monuments to a foreign army that has committed terrible crimes” have “no place in a democratic society,” President Egils Levits of Latvia said.Credit…Katrina Kepule for The New York Times

President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, justified by false claims that the country was awash with Nazis who must be crushed just as Hitler’s real Nazis were, has sapped his country’s military and economic strength. Mr. Putin has also drained its most potent source of moral and political legitimacy: Russia’s claim, as the Soviet Union’s successor state, to the respect due the more than 25 million Soviet citizens who died fighting Hitler’s Germany.

“Monuments to a foreign army that has committed terrible crimes” have “no place in a democratic society,” President Egils Levits of Latvia said in an interview in Riga, the country’s capital.

Russia responded with fury last month when the authorities in Riga demolished a nearly 260-foot-tall obelisk that was built in 1985 as a memorial to Soviet soldiers killed during World War II. The Russian Foreign Ministry fired off a barrage of angry diplomatic complaints that Latvia, which has been free of domination by Moscow since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, had violated a 1994 pledge to respect war memorials. The ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, accused Baltic States of indulging in “neo-Nazi bacchanalia.”

“Of course, Russia tried to intimidate us by using the same vocabulary they used during Soviet times to justify deportations and repression,” Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s defense minister, said in an interview. “They want to scare us.”

The war in Ukraine has largely vindicated longstanding warnings by Baltic States that Russia is an aggressive power that cannot be trusted. But it has also blunted its capacity to terrify its neighbors, reducing the willingness of ethnic Russians abroad to rally publicly to Moscow’s side and exposing the weaknesses of its military machine.

The Jewish cemetery in Rezekne. Thousands of Jews in the town were murdered by Nazi soldiers, aided by local collaborators, during World War II.Credit…Katrina Kepule for The New York Times

“If they are not crazy, they will not try to touch us militarily,” said the Latvian defense minister, Mr. Pabriks. “Most of their troops next to us have now been sent to Ukraine,” he added, referring to soldiers previously massed along Russia’s western border who were redeployed.

The demolition of Soviet war monuments, he added, “is good and necessary” and means that “our Russian minority has a choice to make: They have to either support this country and be patriots or support Putin.”

“There will be zero tolerance of anyone supporting his war regime,” Mr. Pabriks said.

Many of the ethnic Russians living in Latvia, about a quarter of the country’s population, insist they want to keep the war monuments not out of support for Mr. Putin but to honor relatives who died fighting with the Soviet army.

But Russia has itself turned World War II into a political cult and touchstone of loyalty to the Kremlin. Instead of showing solemn reverence for those killed fighting the Nazis, Mr. Putin has exploited their memory to fortify his grip on power and demonize his foes as traitors and fascists.

A law adopted in June by Latvia’s Parliament prohibited the public display of “objects glorifying the Soviet and Nazi regimes” and ordered their removal by Nov. 15. The ban does not apply to cemeteries or war graves, only monuments to Soviet power, which first reached Latvia in 1940 with the arrival of the Red Army after a 1939 nonaggression pact between Stalin and Hitler that included a secret protocol carving up Poland and the Baltic States between Moscow and Berlin.

That occupation resulted in the arrest of Dr. Vidins’s father, also a doctor, and the deportation to Siberia of the rest of the family. More than 15,000 Latvians, including 2,400 children, were deported in 1941.

Soviet rule ended with the Nazi invasion of June 1941, which some Latvians greeted with relief. “Many people could not imagine that life could be worse under the Nazis than the Soviets,” said Gints Apals, the head of the history department at Latvia’s Occupation Museum, a national shrine to the country’s suffering under Soviet and Nazi rule.

There were more than 90,000 Jews in Latvia before World War II, but only a few hundred were left at the end of the Nazi occupation; most were killed, and many others fled.

The Red Army returned to Latvia in 1944 as it swept west toward Germany, and it rounded up thousands more for deportation. By 1949, around 42,000 people — more than 2 percent of the country’s population — had been sent to Siberia, with thousands more executed and jailed as suspected “fascists” and Nazi collaborators. This second period of Soviet occupation continued until 1991.

Dr. Vidins, left, and his friend Vadim Gilis, an ethnic Russian who thinks that demolishing the Red Army statue, as Dr. Vidins would like to do, would defile the memory of Russia’s war dead.Credit…Katrina Kepule for The New York Times

Latvia’s official position, Mr. Apals said, is that “both totalitarian systems were equally bad,” not because they each killed the same number of people, but because “both used ideological mass murder.”

Saying that is illegal in Russia, where an opposition politician, Leonid Gozman, was jailed last week for a second time for stating that Stalin was “even worse” than Hitler.

Edgars Engizers, a historian who advises the Latvian Foreign Ministry, said that Mr. Putin’s politicization of history had squandered much of the respect once accorded Russia for its role in defeating the Nazis. Undermined by a torrent of “fake history,” Latvia’s previous tolerance of war monuments, he said, had been swamped by disgust at the Kremlin’s “ideologized cult of World War II.”

“The glorification of Russia’s military heritage has turned into a glorification of war crimes,” Mr. Engizers said.

When Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania broke away from the Soviet Union and regained their independence in 1991, they all quickly toppled statues of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, but left intact World War II monuments like the Riga obelisk and the statue in Rezekne.

This lingering respect for Soviet sacrifice in Latvia was swept aside in June with the new law.

Small pockets of resistance remain, particularly among the large ethnic Russian populations of places like Rezekne, Dr. Vidins’s hometown, and the eastern city of Daugavpils, Latvia’s largest concentration of ethnic Russians, which is hoping to protect its own World War II monument.

Aleksei Vasiliev, the first vice mayor of Daugavpils and head of the local chapter of the “Russian Union of Latvia,” said he owed it to relatives killed during the war to protect the monument, an unadorned metal spire that makes no mention of “liberation” by the Soviet Union. The city, claiming that the monument has artistic and cultural value, has appealed to the courts to try to save it from demolition.

“I will not lie down in front of bulldozers if they come, but I will kneel and pray that they stop,” Mr. Vasiliev said.

Aleksei Vasiliev, the first vice mayor of Daugavpils, said he owed it to relatives killed during the war to protect the city’s World War II monument. Credit…Katrina Kepule for The New York Times

With the deadline for the demolition of their own monument approaching and the government in Riga threatening legal action against towns that disobey the prohibition law, municipal authorities in Rezekne recently conducted an online survey of public opinion, but got no clear answer: 52 percent said they wanted the statue dismantled, 43 percent said they did not and 4 percent said they wanted it moved from the central park.

Rezekne’s mayor, caught between the law and a divided public, has not yet said publicly what will happen to the statue.

Dr. Vidins said he was confident that the mayor would have to demolish it. “It should have gone long ago,” he said, “and I’m delighted that it will, I hope, soon go.”

But many local Russians, including an old friend of the doctor’s, Vadim Gilis, think that would be an assault on their own identities and the memory of Russia’s war dead.

On a visit to the town’s sprawling Jewish cemetery, Mr. Gilis pointed to a grassy riverbank where Nazi soldiers, helped by local collaborators, murdered thousands of Jews. “This is why Soviet soldiers came here,” he said. “But we are still all fighting over what happened in World War II.”

He said he respected Dr. Vidins and his position. “We get along well,” Mr. Gilis said. “Only when we start talking about history do all the problems start.”

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