Monumental Makeover in Bulgaria Illustrates the Contested Status of Soviet-Era War Memorials
On the morning of 18 June 2011, residents of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, awoke to discover that one of their monuments had been treated to a rather colourful makeover. The Second World War Monument to the Soviet Army (Pametnik na Savetskata armia), built in 1954 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Soviet ‘liberation’ of Nazi-allied Bulgaria and depicting Red Army soldiers heroically fighting alongside the Bulgarian people in typical socialist-realist architectural style, had been spray painted by an anonymous artist (subsequently dubbed ‘the Bansky of Bulgaria’ by the media). The tarnished, bronzed, Red Army soldiers had been transformed into popular American icons including Superman, The Joker, Captain America, Ronald McDonald and Santa Claus. The flag held aloft by the soldiers had also been adorned with the US stars and stripes. A telling slogan was boldly written in black spray paint below the monument to accompany the statue’s makeover: ‘Moving with the Times’.
A wonderful 360 degree panoramic of the repainted monument can also be viewed here (click on the arrows to circle around!): http://bg360.net/pano/sofia/popart-soviet-army.php
The newly painted statues proved popular with many, quickly becoming a tourist magnet as people flocked to have photographs taken with them. However, not everybody was amused by the monument’s impromptu makeover. Bulgarian Minister of Culture Vezhdi Rashidov quickly denounced the re-sprayed statues as an ‘act of vandalism’ and said he ‘considered it a crime’. The Russian Foreign Ministry also issued a statement condemning ‘the hooligans behind the vandalism’ for their ‘mockery of the memory of Soviet soldiers who died in the name of freeing Bulgaria and Europe from Nazism’ and urging the Bulgarian authorities to ‘expose and punish’ those responsible. The fact that the 22 June marked the 70th anniversary of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, the German invasion of the USSR, made the timing of the incident particularly sensitive.
The monument retained its new look for a few days, before being quietly cleaned and restored to its former state. However, the nature of the re-spray has prompted questions about the true motivation behind the makeover. Was this art or vandalism? Does the slogan hint at a more political message? Was the artist suggesting that American pop culture icons were the ‘new heroes’ of Eastern Europe? Or was the true message to suggest that today, in post-communist Bulgaria, one ‘imperialist ally’ has simply been replaced with another?
Conflicting Interpretations of Soviet-era War Monuments
In the aftermath of Soviet victory in World War II, a proliferation of monuments were erected across the territories of the (newly-enlarged) USSR and across Eastern Europe. During the communist era, these were protected by law, so although citizens often privately referred to the monuments in rather derogatory terms (such as the ‘Looters Memorial’ or ‘Tribute to the Unknown Rapist’) there were relatively few serious attempts to tamper with them. In the post-communist period however, many Soviet monuments have become targets for vandalism and graffiti (which is often much less sophisticated than the recent Bulgarian makeover!).
The status of these Soviet-era war monuments has also fuelled political debate, both within many former Soviet bloc countries and between their national governments and the contemporary Russian leadership, as both sides attempt to tentatively negotiate and re-negotiate their communist pasts. At the heart of this debate lie two very different interpretations of history.
Russia maintains that the monuments symbolise Soviet sacrifice and heroism in World War II, celebrating the prestige of their hard-fought victory over Germanyand their historic role in the liberation of Eastern Europe from Nazi tyranny. Lev Gudkov argues that victory in World War II remains ‘the most potent symbol of identification’ in present-day Russia. This is supported by evidence from a variety of other quarters. In 2003 87% of Russians surveyed mentioned victory in the Second World War in response to the question ‘what makes you personally proud in our history?’ and in a list of the most important events shaping Russia’s fate in the twentieth century compiled in 2005, victory in World War II was named by 78% of respondents. Statistics such as these have led to allegations that today, many Russians continue to promote their victory in World War II as a means of legitimising or justifying many of the darker aspects of the Stalinist era.
In 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement of the establishment of a new Commission to ‘guard against the falsification of History’ specifically related to attempts to revise, question or challenge certain aspects of the Soviet role in World War II in the post-communist era. When announcing the formation of the Commission, Medvedev emphasised that: ‘We will never forget that our country, the Soviet Union, made the decisive contribution to the outcome of World War II, that it was precisely our people who destroyed Nazism and determined the fate of the whole world’. Medvedev even suggested that expressing doubts that the Soviets came to Eastern Europe in any other guise than that of liberators at the end of the Second World War should be considered a criminal offense, similar to that of Holocaust denial. The importance of World War II for many contemporary Russians is also illustrated by the continuation of the traditional Soviet-era ‘victory parade’ in Moscow on 9th May each year in the post-Soviet period, a military spectacular that was traditionally designed to act as a combined celebration of Soviet victory in World War II and a contemporary display of Russian military might (for some video coverage of the most recent parade in May 2011, see HERE ).
Many of the countries from the Former Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe who gained independence from Soviet influence when communism collapsed take a rather different stance however; viewing the Soviet-era monuments as symbolic of occupation and repression following World War II and as a painful reminder of the hardship they endured under communist rule. Reuben Fowkes argues that after 1945, war memorials were erected for primarily geo-political reasons across Eastern Europe, to ‘mark on the map the area liberated by the Soviets and to claim that territory as part of the Soviet zone of influence’. Fowkes goes on to suggest that it was ‘no coincidence that some of the earliest monuments were erected at the extremities of Soviet military activity … and often have a visibly aggressive character’.
Speaking in an interview conducted by RFE/RL in 2007, Kadri Liik, a journalist and analyst at the Estonian International Center for Defense Studies, succinctly summarised the views held by many across the former Soviet bloc when he explained that, in the Estonian case:
“It [the monument] was erected in the 1940s to commemorate the so-called liberation of Tallinn … the Soviet troops entered Tallinn in 1944, in autumn. And they called it liberation. Estonians have always regarded it quite differently. Liberators leave — occupiers do not … The Soviet “liberators” stayed inEstonia until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991″.
Since the collapse of communism and the break-up of the USSR, several countries have moved to displace or destroy Soviet war monuments, a policy which has persistently prompted strong objections from Russia. This forms part of a wider policy to remove communist-era monuments and symbols (such as the traditional hammer and sickle) from public buildings, however the status of war monuments has been particularly contested, for obvious reasons. The recent Bulgarian ‘paint job’ is thus far from the first controversial case to hit the headlines in recent years.
Perhaps the best documented example is that of the 2007 Estonian decision to move their ‘Monument to the Fallen in the Second World War’ – a 2 metre (6.5ft) statue unveiled by Soviet authorities in September 1944 to mark the third anniversary of the Red Army’s entry into Tallinn, which was more commonly known as ‘the Bronze Soldier’ – away from its original location in the centre of Tallinn to a small military cemetery on the outskirts of the capital. This decision proved particularly contentious given the sizeable Russian minority still resident in Estonia (accounting for around one third of the total 1.3 million Estonian population today). The relocation of the statue provoked two days of violent rioting and widespread looting inTallinn, during which police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, ultimately resulting in one death, 153 injured and over 800 arrests.
A second recent example was the December 2009 demolition of a World War II Soviet war memorial in the Georgian city of Kutaisi, a towering 46 metre high concrete and bronze structure which was built to commemorate the estimated 300,000 Georgians who were killed while fighting for the Red Army. Despite sustained protests by Russian officials, Red Army veterans and pro-Russian political groups in Georgia, the government decided to destroy the monument and build a new national parliament on the site. The demolition of the monument, already a politically sensitive issue, was then further marred by the violation of safety regulations during the controlled explosion, which led to flying chunks of concrete killing two people and wounding another four. Following the destruction of the monument Russian Prime Minister Putin condemned the move as ‘another attempt to erase the former Soviet peoples’ memory of their common and heroic past’ and announced that a replica of the monument would be built in Moscow.
Such politically and emotionally charged issues clearly need to be handled with sensitivity, particularly while the impact of World War II and its aftermath remains within living memory for many in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. Certainly, Soviet sacrifices in World War II – in terms of both soldiers and civillian casualties – should not be disregarded, with a total Soviet death toll estimated at around 27 million, more than the combined death toll of all of their wartime allies. Many contemporary Russians thus perceive attempts to displace and destroy Soviet war memorials as a humiliation and an attempt to desecrate the memory of those who died. However, Nina Tumarkin is correct when she states that the traditional Soviet version of their ‘Great Patriotic War’ contains a mixture of ‘truth, lies and unforgivable blank spots’. Much of the historical evidence that has come to light in the post-Soviet period demonstrates that this can no longer be ignored. For citizens of the Baltic states, which were first ‘claimed’ by the Soviet Union in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 (something which the Soviet Union continued to deny for decades afterwards) and later forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union after their ‘liberation’ from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II; or for citizens of the East European countries where communism was imposed and maintained – at times forcibly, most obviously in Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968 – as a result of Soviet dominance until 1989, it is easy to see how the aftermath of the Second World War soon came to be viewed less as a ‘liberation’ and more as an ‘occupation’, something which the continued presence of Soviet-era memorials may serve to emphasise.
06/07/2011 – Edit:
In the last couple of days I have also come across these two timely, recently posted online articles:
This short post on Maria Popova’s excellent ‘Brainpickings’ blog in relation to Spomenik, a compilation of photographs of communist-era monuments in the Balkans by Jan Kempenaers
This interesting article published by Transitions Online, where Ioana Caloianu demonstrates, using a number of examples of monuments from across the East European and Central Asian region, the ways in which statues and monuments can represent ‘an uncanny guide to a people’s vices, grievances and insecurities’.
A Few Further Articles on this Topic:
Reuben Fowkes, Soviet War Memorials in Eastern Europe
‘Getting Involved in the Messy Politics of War Memorials’ in the European Voice
‘Why is the Bronze Soldier so Controversial?’ in The Times
M Ignatieff, ‘Soviet War Memorials’, History Workshop Journal, 17 (1984), 157-163
K Bruggemann and A Kasekamp, ‘The Politics of History and the ‘War of Monuments’ in Estonia’, Nationalities Papers, 36/3 (2008) 425-448
M Evans, ‘Memories, Monuments, Histories: The Re-thinking of the Second World War Since 1989’, National Identities, 8/4 (2006) 317-348
S Kattago, ‘Commemorating Liberation and Occupation: War Memorials Along the Road to Narva’, Journal of Baltic Studies, 39/4 (2008), 431-449.
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