The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Hot Pink Protest: Bulgarian Monument Repainted as ‘Artistic Apology’ for 1968 Czechoslovakian Invasion.

This week marked the 45th anniversary of ‘Operation Danube’, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Overnight on 20-21 August 1968 a combined force of up to 200,000 Soviet, Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian and Polish troops entered and occupied Czechoslovakia to crush the political liberalisation sparked by communist leader Alexander Dubcek’s reformist ‘Prague Spring’ and implement a period of ‘normalisation’. You can read more about the failure of the Prague Spring and the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion in a previous blog post here.

Of course, the 45th anniversary of the invasion was commemorated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In Prague, several top Czech officials (including current Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok, lower house speaker Miroslava Němcová and Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček) marked the occasion in a ceremony that took place outside the Czech Radio building that had formed one of the centres of resistance in 1968.

A prominent monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia was anonymously painted pink earlier this week as an 'artistic apology' for Bulgaria's role in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Photo Credit: Assen Genov, Facebook, via novinite.com: http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=153005

A prominent monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia was anonymously painted pink earlier this week as an ‘artistic apology’ for Bulgaria’s role in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Photo Credit: Assen Genov, Facebook, via novinite.com: http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=153005

However, this year domestic remembrance was overshadowed by developments in Bulgaria, where anonymous artists spray painted a prominent monument to the Soviet Army pink with the accompanying slogan ‘Bulgaria Aplogises’ (written in both Czech and Bulgarian) indicating remorse for Bulgarian involvement in the invasion. Back in 1968 Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov was the leading advocate of hard-line intervention to quell Dubcek’s reforms, and critics have since pointed out that Bulgaria was the first Warsaw Pact country to insist on military intervention in 1968 and the last communist-bloc country to formally apologise for their involvement, in 1990. This week, a Bulgarian blogger interviewed one of the anonymous artists, who confirmed that choosing pink paint was a deliberate nod to Czech artist David Černý, who famously painted a Soviet tank dedicated to the memory of the 1945 liberation of Prague pink in 1991, an act which sparked controversy and ultimately led to the tank’s removal to a military museum.

Close-up of the Bulgarian memorial, which was painted to correspond with the 45th anniversary of 'Operation Danube' - the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

Close-up of the Bulgarian memorial, which was painted to correspond with the 45th anniversary of ‘Operation Danube’ – the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Photo Credit: ArtDaily.Org http://artdaily.com/news/64528/Pink-makeover-for-Warsaw-Pact-invasion-of-Czechoslovakia-monument-in-Bulgaria-#.UheT6X_3PN6

Photos of the freshly re-painted monument quickly spread around the world via social networking sites and the story was also picked up by several international media organisations. The Bulgarian authorities moved quickly to try to ensure damage limitation: the monument was cleaned the following night (an operation allegedly conducted by volunteers from the ‘Forum Bulgaria-Russia’), while the Regional Prosecutor’s Office in Sofia swiftly announced the launch of pre-trial proceedings against the (still unknown) perpetrators on charges of ‘hooliganism’ which could result in a sentence of up to two years in jail if pursued, although this seems unlikely unless they are identified. However, Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman from the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said that the Russian government intend to formally request that the Bulgarian authorities take action to punish those responsible and prevent the recurrence of any similar incidents in future. His statement demanded ‘the adoption of effective measures to prevent the mockery of the memory of the Soviet soldiers who died for the liberation of Europe from Nazism and Bulgaria, to identify and punish those responsible’.

This was not the first time that the Soviet Army monument in Sofia has been the subject of a controversial makeover. It has been subject to repeated graffiti, most famously in June 2011 when the statues were  re-painted to resemble a collection of well-known Western pop culture heroes including Superman, The Joker, Captain America and Ronald McDonald, the flag held by the soldiers was painted with the US stars and stripes and an accompanying

The same monument was famously subjected to a superhero themed makeover in June 2011. Photo Credit: http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2011/06/graffiti-artist-turns-bulgarian-war-memorial-into-superhero-monument/

The same monument was famously subjected to a superhero themed makeover in June 2011. Photo Credit: http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2011/06/graffiti-artist-turns-bulgarian-war-memorial-into-superhero-monument/

slogan proclaimed that the makeover was ‘In Step With The Times’. I also wrote about this in an old blog post here. The Soviet monument has long divided opinion in Bulgaria – many view the statue as a symbol of communist repression, and there have been several calls for it to be destroyed, or at least moved from its current (prominent) location in central Sofia to the city’s museum of communism which opened in 2011. But these proposals are opposed by others who argue that the statue represents Bulgaria’s liberation from fascism in WWII and charge those who want the statue removed with ‘historical revisionism’. Of course, this debate is not just taking place within Bulgaria; over twenty years after the collapse of communism, the status of Soviet WWII memorials as symbols of liberation or oppression are still frequently contested throughout the former communist bloc. For more on this topic see my previous blog post here.

The latest ‘attack’ on the Soviet memorial in Sofia must also be understood in the context of growing domestic unrest in Bulgaria, where large-scale protests against the current government (which is dominated by the former communist party) have been occurring on a daily basis since June. Interestingly, photos of the on-going anti-government protests in Sofia following the controversial repainting of the memorial earlier this week show demonstrators brandishing a cardboard cut-out of Černý’s ‘pink tank’.

Anti-government protestors in Bulgaria this week holding a cardboard cut-out of David Cerny's 'pink tank'. Phto Credit: photo by journalist Nayo Titzin, Facebook via novinite.com http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=153077

Anti-government protestors in Bulgaria this week holding a cardboard cut-out of David Cerny’s ‘pink tank’. Phto Credit: photo by journalist Nayo Titzin, Facebook via novinite.com http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=153077

However, the Czechs have also experienced a summer of political turmoil, triggered by the collapse of Petr Necas’s government following a corruption scandal in June. Czech MPs recently passed a vote of no-confidence, dissolving parliament and triggering an early election this autumn that threatens to return the communist party to power. Some Czech officials used the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion earlier this week, to warn against the return of the communists to political power, with Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček commenting that:

 “This day is important for all of us because many people of my age and younger don’t know what the communist era was like. They don’t remember the shortages of oranges and bananas but also more important issues – the lack of freedom, the lack of responsibility for one’s actions, and so on. I believe that marking this anniversary will help us remember all these things of the past … Many things have not changed since the fall of communism in 1989. Changing people’s way of thinking is so much more difficult than changing the way the streets and cities look, for example”.

August 23, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Curious Case of the Poisoned Umbrella: The Murder of Georgi Markov

 

This week marks 33 years since the murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was poisoned in London on 7 September 1978. Markov’s assassination, an operation conducted by the Bulgarian Secret Services (the Darzhavna Sigurnost or DS) under the guidance of the Soviet KGB, contained all the essential ingredients of a Cold War spy thriller: mystery, intrigue, nameless, faceless assassins and a nifty James Bond style gadget used as a murder weapon. Markov’s murder also led to widespread outrage and concern – after all, he was killed in the centre of London, in broad daylight, during rush hour, by communist secret agents who appeared to be able to kill with impunity, before vanishing into thin air …

 

Georgi Markov

 

Georgi Markov, author, broadcaster and communist-era dissident, who was murdered in extraordinary circumstances in London on 7 September 1978.

 

Born in Sofia in 1929, Georgi Markov studied industrial chemistry at university in the 1940s, before working as a chemical engineer and technical school teacher. However, Markov’s true love was literature and he went on to become an acclaimed novelist, playwright and TV script writer.  Many of his works were critical of communist Bulgaria – Markov had described his novel ‘The Great Roof’ as ‘a symbol of the roof of lies … that the communist regime has constructed over Bulgaria’ – and as a result, were often prohibited from publication. In 1969 Markov left Bulgaria for the West, travelling first to Italy before settling in Londonin the 1970s, where he learned English and worked as a broadcaster and journalist for the Bulgarian section of the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe. Several of Markov’s novels were published and his plays were performed to critical acclaim in the UK during the 1970s.

 

Markov’s defection to the West meant that he quickly became persona non grata back in Bulgaria. In 1972 his membership in the Union of Bulgarian Writers was suspended and he was sentenced (in absentia) to a six year prison sentence for his defection. Markov’s previously published works were withdrawn from libraries and bookshops and his name was not permitted to be mentioned in the official Bulgarian media until 1989. Even from afar however, Markov proved a continuing thorn in the side of the Bulgarian Communist Party, criticising the regime in radio broadcasts for the BBC Bulgarian service. Between 1975 and 1978 Markov worked on a series of ‘In Absentia’ reports – analysis of life in Communist Bulgaria, broadcast weekly on Radio Free Europe. His continued criticism of the Communist government and personal attacks against party leader, Todor Zhivkov, made Markov an enemy of the regime. A recently declassified letter, sent from the DS to the KGB in 1975 complained that Markov’s radio broadcasts ‘insolently mocked’ the communist party, and ‘encouraged dissidence’ in Bulgaria. The DS kept a surveillance file on Markov using the code name ‘Wanderer’ and whilst in London he received several death threats via telephone. Markov’s publisher, David Farrer, later said that ‘he (Markov) knew his activities made him a possible target for assassination’.

 

The Case of the Poisoned Umbrella.

 

On the morning of 7 September 1978, Georgi Markov was on his way to work at the BBC. While waiting at a bus stop near Waterloo bridge alongside several other commuters, he felt a sudden, sharp pain on the back of his right thigh, which he later described as ‘similar to an insect bite’. A nearby man (described as ‘heavy set with a foreign accent’) then briefly stooped to pick up an umbrella from the ground and mumbled ‘I’m sorry’, before hurriedly crossing the street and jumping into a taxi. Upon closer examination after he arrived at work, Markov discovered a small, painful red bump on the back of his leg. Over the course of the working day he became progressively sicker and was admitted to hospital that evening, suffering from a high fever. He died a few days later, on 11 September.

 

Georgi Markov had been poisoned by a small pellet fired into his leg on that fateful morning. During the subsequent autopsy, forensic pathologists discovered a spherical metal pellet the size of a pin-head embedded in his leg, containing holes drilled at right angles to each other, to form an “X” shaped well inside the pellet. The pellet had been filled with 0.2mg of the deadly poison Ricin and then covered with a waxy coating that was designed to melt at 37 degrees celsius (the temperature of the human body), thus triggering the release of the poison into the bloodstream.

 

Suspicion that a specially designed ‘umbrella-gun’ had been used as the murder weapon led to Markov’s assassination being dubbed ‘The case of the poisoned umbrella’. Diagrams were even produced to demonstrate how the umbrella may have been adapted into a lethal killing machine with a ‘poisoned tip’, and former KGB officers have since claimed that such a device had indeed been designed. However, subsequent theories have suggested that the poisonous pellet may have been directly injected by hypodermic needle or fired into Markov’s leg by a specially adapted pen, with the umbrella being dropped nearby as a distraction. Following the autopsy, the coroners’ ruling determined that Markov had been ‘unlawfully killed’.

 

 

Diagram depicting the small metal pellet found embedded in Georgi Markov's leg after his death.

 

 

Diagram depicting the 'umbrella-gun' that many people believe was used to fire the poisoned pellet into Georgi Markov's leg while he stood waiting for a London bus.

 

 

The Murder.

 

Evidence suggests that Markov’s assassination was ordered from the highest levels, with the full knowledge and involvement of both the Bulgarian DS and the Soviet KGB. Prior to the events of 7 September 1978, the DS had sought advice from the KGB about how best to ‘neutralise’ Markov, and two previous attempts had been made on his life: a toxin slipped into his drink at a dinner party and a previous attempt on his life during a visit to Sardinia, both of which had failed. It has been suggested that the date chosen for the third assassination attempt – 7 September – was because this was Zhivkov’s birthday, and Markov’s murder was to act as some sort of ‘gift’ to the Bulgarian leader.

 

Recently declassified Bulgarian Secret Service files have confirmed the close nature of the relationship between the DS and KGB, although KGB representatives were keen to ensure there was no ‘trail’ directly linking Markov’s death toMoscow. However, the files show that two high-level Bulgarian secret-service delegations visited Moscow in the months leading up to the murder, where the dynamics of the Markov case were specifically discussed with technical experts from KGB laboratories. According to the files, an Italian-born, Dane Francesco Gullino, codenamed ‘Piccadilly’, was recruited by the DS to act as the assassin, with records also documenting training and a series of payments made to ‘Picadilly’.

 

Even today, mystery and controversy still surround Markov’s death. In 2010 TIME Magazine listed Markov’s murder as one of their ‘Top 10 Assassination Plots’ and in 1998, Bulgarian President Peter Stoyanov, described the assassination as ‘one of the darkest moments’ in communist Bulgaria. No charges have ever been bought though, despite renewed interest in the case in the post-Cold War period. In September 2008 a team of counter-terrorism experts from Scotland Yard  travelled to Bulgaria to access archived documents on the Markov case. Much of the evidence has been destroyed however, leading to accusations of a Bulgarian cover up – in 1992 General Vladimir Todorov, former Bulgarian intelligence chief, was sentenced to 16 months in jail for destroying 10 volumes of material relating to Markov’s death while two other individuals suspected of involvement in the assassination both died in mysterious circumstances in the 1990s – and Bulgarian prosecutors have now officially closed the investigation, under legislation which allows unsolved criminal cases to be dropped after 30 years.

 

Interestingly, ten days before Markov’s murder, a similar assassination attempt was made on another Bulgarian exile, Vladimir Kostov, while he was waiting at a Paris metro station. Like Markov, Kostov came down with a high fever and was hospitalized, where Doctors found the same kind of metal pellet embedded in his skin. On this occasion however, Kostov survived: possibly because he had not been shot at point blank range; possibly because the coating on the pellet had failed to fully dissolve, meaning that only a small quantity of Ricin was able to enter his blood or possibly because he was wearing a thick sweater on the day of the attack, which may have provided enough resistance to prevent the pellet completely penetrating his skin. However, Kostov’s case suggests that the attack on Markov may not have been an isolated case, but was perhaps intended as part of a wider strategy aimed at ‘silencing’ troublesome dissidents overseas. In the post-Cold War era, numerous cases including the dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian opposition leader (and later President) Viktor Yushchenko in the run-up to the 2004 elections; the still unsolved October 2006 murder of Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya and the November 2006 death of former KGB and FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko from radiation poisoning after exposure to polonium in London have drawn fresh comparisons with the Markov case, suggesting that when it comes to politically-motivated assassination, old communist-era habits may be hard to break.

 

(For a more detailed overview of recent cases suspected of involving politically motivated poisoning, see THIS Open Democracy article by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski).

 

 

September 9, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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’.

 

This photograph illustrates the recently repainted Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia Berlin (above) compared to its usual appearance (below).

 

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.

 

One of the best known Soviet war memorials stands in Treptower Park, Berlin. A 12 foot tall bronze Russian soldier holds a young German girl in his arms while his sword cuts through the Nazi swastika, which he crushes underfoot. The monument was removed for renovation in 2003 but restored in 2004.

 

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.

 

The 'Bronze Soldier' in Tallinn, Estonia. The monument depicts a Red Army soldier in uniform, his helmet in one hand, his head slightly bowed and his rifle slung over his back. Relocation of the statue in 2007 led to several days of violent protests and rioting in Tallinn.

 

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.

 

The 2009 demolition of a monument in Kutaisi, Georgia, 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 caused controversy, particularly as the violation of safety regulations led to two deaths.

 

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.

 

 

July 4, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Czech Artist Courts Controversy.

Czech artist David Černý (recently dubbed the ‘enfant terrible’ of the Czech art world by the BBC’s Rob Cameron) has courted fresh controversy with his most recent exhibit entitled ‘Entropa’, a play on ‘Evropa’ (the Czech word for ‘Europe’) and ‘Entropy’ meaning ‘disorder’.  Installed in the EU Council headquarters in Brussels, and unveiled on 12 January to celebrate the Czech Republic’s assumption of the EU Presidency from 1st January 2009, it wasn’t long before the 16 metre square, seven tonne framework raised not only eyebrows, but also indignation and anger.

Why? While the Czech government thought they had spent $ 500,000 USD commissioning a collaborative effort between artists drawn from all 27 countries depicted in the piece to celebrate and promote modern Europe, the end product transpired to be the work of Černý and a couple of Czech compatriots, who chose to ‘celebrate’ Europe by drawing on a number of popular cliches and crude prejudices to represent EU member states. As a result, France was depicted as ‘Greve!’ (a country ‘on strike’), Italy as a giant football field, Romania as a Dracula theme park and the UK found itself excluded from the European ‘map’ altogether, in a clear reference to its perceived Euroscepticism:

Czech it out! Cerny's contraversial art installation 'Entropa'

In a statement released shortly after the true nature of Entropa  was revealed, Černý said the following:

“Grotesque exaggeration and mystification are signs of Czech culture and the creation of false identities is one of the strategies of current arts … The work thus parodies socially committed art that balances on the brink of would-be controversial attacks on national characters and an innocent decoration of official spaces.We knew that the truth will be uncovered. Still before we wanted to find out whether Europe is capable of laughing at itself”

Some EU countries however, have failed to see the funny side. Bulgaria (depicted as a Turkish squat toilet) certainly don’t appear to be laughing. After expressing ‘profound indignation’ about their unflattering depiction,  the Bulgarian Government formally requested the immediate removal of their ‘country’ from the piece, resulting in ‘Bulgaria’ being covered over with a black shroud and somberly concealed from view from 20th January:

The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

Toilet Humour? The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

The Czechs aren’t laughing that much either.  Leading government  ministers claim to be outraged,  having been ‘misled’ about the nature of the piece and it’s origins. Czech President Vaclav Klaus initially pledged his support for the installation, but following the controversy generated after its unveiling, he moved quickly to distance himself from the scandal, claiming that Entropa was ‘neither funny nor good’ and offering a public apology to Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.

Elsewhere however, the response to the scandal has been more muted. While some EU diplomats half-heartedly called for the removal of the Entropa exhibition, the  official launch went ahead on 15 January, and two weeks on from the initial furore it remains on view in the EC headquarters (minus Bulgaria). No other country have filed an official protest about their image, despite some depictions having the potential to prove equally controversial and detrimental. Germany, for example, is illustrated as a series of autobahns described as ‘resembling a swastika’:

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

So why aren’t the German government also clamouring in outrage? After all, if we’re dealing in national stereotypes, the Germans are all too frequently accused of humourlessness. It is interesting that those most offended by Entropa are among the newest members of the ‘European club’. Most of the former East European states who have joined the EU in recent years saw their accession to membership as a real turning point, a ‘return to Europe’ after the decades of communist rule. Perhaps this is an indication that these countries are still afraid they aren’t being taken seriously as ‘Europeans’, still having to prove their worth, and not yet secure enough in their post-communist identity to be able to shrug off such negative stereotypes. Bulgaria, who only joined the EU in January 2007, are still smarting after the recent European Commission decision to suspend almost EUR 500 million of their EU funding in July 2008, due to their failure to combat organised crime and corruption in line with EU accession requirements, while the Czech Republic are obviously anxious to be seen to be taking their first stint in the EU Presidency seriously.

Whenever art and politics combine there will be controversy, and the Entropa exhibition also raised another issue: that of censorship and freedom of speech.  Alexandr Vonda, Czech Deputy Prime Minister, while publically apologising for any offence caused by the exhibition, also defended the piece by claiming that ‘art is freedom of expression’ and that this demonstrates that ‘twenty years after the iron curtain, there is no place for censorship in the EU’.

You can see a video clip of Cerny explaining the inspiration behing Entropa courtesy of the BBC website here:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7829453.stm

And Wikipedia have a full listing of the images used to represent each of the 27 countries, and their symbolism here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropa


January 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments