Freeing yourself from the past, one Soviet monument at a time | War in Ukraine
The Government of Latvia has ordered the demolition of Soviet monuments by mid-November, much to the chagrin of the Russian-speaking population.
There are many tributes at the foot of the monument.
It looks like a funeral on this Sunday afternoon in Daugavpils. Residents parade one after another with bouquets of flowers and candles on the large Victory Square.
The atmosphere is heavy, the mines are long. They have come to say goodbye to their monument and to meditate for one last time. Some cry and swallow their tears; their necks stretched to the sky, they don't take their eyes off it.
“Look how handsome he is!” It doesn't bother anyone, it's a tribute to our men who sacrificed themselves to free us from the Nazis.
— Nadia, Russian speaker from Daugavpils
Nadia, an old lady wrapped in a woolen coat, hands in her pockets, says she has nothing but respect for this monument that sits in the middle of the park and that she is viscerally attached to it. It is a silver obelisk 15 meters high, surrounded by a copper ring on which the faces of Red Army soldiers are engraved.
She takes a picture of him and makes a sign of the cross.
Daugavpils City Hall has given residents a few days to say goodbye to him, because if everything goes as planned, in a few hours the structure will be dismantled.
Lanterns burn at the foot of the monument.
“It's vandalism, nothing less than vandalism,” said Larisa, another sixty-something who had just lit and placed a candle at the foot of the monument.
She says she gathers there every year on May 9 to celebrate Victory Day, that of the Soviet army against the Nazis, in homage to which hundreds of monuments like this have been erected in Europe and the former Soviet republics.
These symbols have now been dividing people in Eastern European countries for decades. Since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, which paved the way for their independence, several countries have opted to remove hundreds of them from their public spaces.
This is the case , among others, Poland and the Czech Republic.
However, in the three Baltic countries, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the debate continues and reflects two very different visions of history.
< p class="e-p">If, for Russian speakers like Larissa and Nadia, who form almost a third of the Latvian population, these monuments are the symbol of liberation, for the Latvian majority, they are also and above all a reminder of the Soviet occupation that they have endured after World War II. A time marked by repression and mass deportations to the gulags.
It is a symbol of oppression, lies, abuse of power, says Andrejs Faibusevics, a Latvian who has campaigned for years for the dismantling of Soviet emblems in his country.
Andrejs Faibusevics has been campaigning for years for the demolition of structures that glorify the Soviet era in Latvia.
Her smile contrasts with the tears flowing at the foot of the monument just opposite. He can't hide his joy.
“Telling you how happy I am to not have to meet him every day, such a toxic emblem…it's a relief. it was time! »
— Andrejs Faibusevics
Indeed, according to the law passed by the Latvian Parliament, all monuments that glorify authoritarian regimes as was that of the USSR must be removed from public space by mid-November.
Only structures that house cemeteries are exempt under this law passed in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. At least 70 structures have been targeted and are slated to disappear this fall.
The war in Ukraine was the last straw and gave us a historic opportunity to say: "This is it. is, that's enough, we take them away”, explains Andrejs Faibusevics.
In the same way that Germany denazified itself after 1945, we too must achieve de-Sovietization of the Baltic countries, and that is what we are doing, says Andrejs Faibusevics.
Estonia and Lithuania also intend to follow in the footsteps of Latvia where, since the summer, cities, large and small, have been getting rid of their past.
Russia has also called on the international community to condemn the decision to get rid of the war monuments by accusing the ruling elite in Latvia of cynically mocking the memory of the heroes who [.. .] saved ethnic Latvians from total extermination, the Russian ambassador announced.
Two women gather.
In August, the demolition of the war monument in Riga, the tallest and most imposing in the country, will have been the most spectacular. The 80-meter-high obelisk collapsed in broad daylight in front of the cameras.
In Daugavpils, the dismantling operation has been preparing for a few weeks, but it is particularly controversial and feared by the population.
Located 30 kilometers from the border with Russia, this city is the second in Latvia. Additionally, 90% of residents are Russian speakers whose ancestors participated in the battle to drive the Nazis out of Latvia.
The mayor of Daugavpils will have tried until the very end to oppose this demolition, but in vain. In a message posted on Facebook last weekend, he claimed to be torn between confusion, rage and a sense of deep injustice while adding that the monument will be dismantled at night with the greatest of respect, without staging brutal as was the case in Riga a few weeks earlier.
That didn't stop hundreds of residents from coming out to show their anger after dark.
Anna, a 30-year-old woman, arrived with flowers. She explained to us in tears that it is a cruel gesture to demolish this monument which honors the sacrifice of our grandfathers.
A woman mourns the demolition of the monument erected to the glory of Soviet soldiers, like her grandfather.
It's like spitting in our faces, says Andei, a man in his 50s . This monument is a memory and not at all a support for Russia. We are guilty by association, he adds, making clear that he categorically opposes Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
One can oppose the war in Ukraine, but honoring the exploits of the Soviet army, one does not prevent the other, he says, pointing to dozens of police officers dispatched to the big square and who go after a group of young men in their twenties who have come to sing in Russian old tunes from the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is called in Russia.
It's politics and it's going too far. It's as if we no longer have the right to exist, says Andrei.
The police even warned the crowd that any symbol of support for Russia would not be tolerated.
Police prohibit any show of support for Russia. This woman had to remove her coat, otherwise she would be expelled from the site.
Reflecting on her feet, a woman in a sports jacket emblazoned with the Russian emblem told us she had nothing to be ashamed of. A few minutes later, the police force escorted her out of the park. ” I am Russian. It's written on my passport. Is this a crime? cried the outraged woman, arguing with law enforcement.
I don't wear a Z, I don't wear any symbols in support of the war, she said. Can you tell me what crime I'm guilty of, what law I broke? This is complete nonsense!
A young mother who came with her daughter to see the monument shook her head in disbelief. I no longer recognize my country, I don't understand what is happening. I am Latvian, but I speak Russian like my ancestors. We are not allowed to sing in Russian! I am disgusted. I come home sad and bitter.
From the heavy machinery detaches the copper ring where the faces of the soldiers of the army are carved. 'Red Army.
If she left to spare her daughter the heated exchanges between residents and police, others remained at the bedside of their monument until the early morning to see the bulldozers go into action, attacking first at the copper ring.
Many wondered if it will go to the city's war museum or the junkyard.
A few minutes later, at 4 a.m., the obelisk fell before our eyes, stiff as a tree.
The monument is destroyed.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia will have brought back to Latvia this urgent need to turn the page and erase all glorification of the motherland.
Today the Soviet monument of Daugavpils is no more, but tensions remain.