Saturday, May 21, 2022

Soviet Monuments in Central and Eastern Europe

Guest Blogger

This post was prepared for a roundtable on Public Memory and Public Monuments, convened as part of LevinsonFest 2022—a year-long series gathering scholars from diverse disciplines and viewpoints to reflect on Sandy Levinson’s influential work in constitutional law.

Aleksandra Kuczynska-Zonik

Following World War II, huge statues of Stalin began to appear in all state socialist countries of Central Eastern Europe. Monumental sculptures were a part of a “multi-media propaganda machine,” which sought to create a new collective identity. It was meant to counteract and deconstruct national memory in the states of the Eastern Bloc and to replace them by memory of the Bolshevik revolution personified by Lenin and extended through the liberation of countries by the Red Army. Initiated by communist leaders from the Soviet Union together with local activists from other East European states, “monument propaganda” was administrated by the governments at the national, regional and local levels. The initial idea was to educate masses of people. It was not only to overcome the diversity of the different nations’ beliefs, opinions and behavior. The concept was universal and total, and was directed to all residents with a view to taking control of the entire public space.

In the 1990s, social movements initiated the bottom-up process of removing or leaving the Soviet monuments. The process of reorganizing urban space, decoding and giving new meanings to remnants of the former regime, proceeded differently in the individual countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The “de-Sovietization” has meant the ideological “purification” of public space by destroying and removing monuments and plaques, and changing the names of objects and streets. The phenomenon of tearing down monuments was a typical element of the system change in these countries. As a consequence, empty space began to be recreated. New meanings and categories were sought for the existing landscape elements. This process of transforming the functions of the objects and the places where they are exhibited in order to shape national identity and the sense of community has been called “heritagization” by Kevin Walsh.

The process of monument demolition was most intense in the 1990s. At that time, the removal seemed to result from a lack of state control over the politics of memory, which in fact caused acts of vandalism in some cases. The most radical acts related to the largest, most distinctive monuments standing in central areas or city squares. Less controversial local monuments remained forgotten. However, both at the local and national levels, there was no consensus about the future of the monuments and historical policy. Currently, this process involving the removal or maintenance of monuments is unfolding as a more orderly and controlled approach to the politics of memory. After a period of chaotic acts aimed against Soviet statues, many states have decided to normalize the monuments’ legal status, sanction the former acts and establish strategies and policies to manage the heritage for the future. Central and Eastern European states made the rejection of Soviet symbols into a part of the de-communization process. In some countries, they are protected as genuine monuments to the anti-fascist struggle or at least in order to maintain good relations with Russia. The different attitudes of Central and Eastern European societies toward monuments reflect the complexity of the political, economic and social process of transformation. Establishing a homogeneous memory policy is much more difficult in ethnically, politically or socially divided nations. The supporters of right-wing and nationalist parties represent the most radical attitudes. And for the young generation in most Central and Eastern European countries, the Soviet regime still has negative connotations. It represents lack of freedom in general and of expression, opinion, information and of choice in particular, as well as the state of fear and the rationing of food.

The category of “dissonant” is often used to describe the ambiguous character of the Soviet monuments. The term “dissonance” as used in music theory describes the clash between two tones that do not blend harmonically, which results in a feeling of tension. In cultural theory the term describes the situation in which different groups attribute different stories to the same object or landscape. The same object or place can stimulate a positive or negative sensation. For example, in the Baltic states, conflicts concerning the purpose and meaning behind certain Soviet monuments have been taking place since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian speaking minority in the Baltic states has posed a dilemma for each of the governments. Russian speakers make up approximately 6 percent of the Lithuanian population, 30 percent of the Latvian and 27 percent of the Estonian. A relatively large portion of them is not well integrated into society, and in Latvia and Estonia, there is a significant problem with a lack of citizenship of Russian speakers. Many of them support Russia’s political activity in the region, which mainly stems from a poor command of the local language. They are also more inclined to be acquainted with Russian language media. There is a trend for nostalgia and sentimentalism towards Soviet times, and for a commemoration of the Red Army heroes. Some members of Russian minorities support Vladimir Putin’s policy regarding the annexation of Crimea and have supported Russia’s invasion against Ukraine. The lack of cultural and political integration viewing through the prism of insufficient policy of citizenship and social cohesion in the country of residence promotes negative feelings to the state authorities and strengthen belonging to Russia. Additionally, Russian-speakers’ Russian cultural identity strengthened by Russia’s memory policy may be perceived as a danger to the state where they reside both in political and cultural sense.

The controversial nature of the dissonant heritage represents a challenge for national policies. After state socialism collapsed, national strategies involved demolishing or adapting the Soviet monuments in order to construct national identity. All countries in post-Soviet space had to face this dissonant heritage, although national strategies for heritage management varied.

The debate around the Soviet monuments is only a part of the broader discussion of the meaning of the state socialist period. This exploration shows that there is no clear and coherent opinion when it comes to these monuments. The differing attitudes are related to the attitudes toward state socialism as a whole, which are shaped by forces and experiences related to different ideological, political, economic and social categories. In other words, these factors influence the bizarre and transitional status of Soviet monuments, as a result of which their perception has been strongly politicized, leading to the disappearance of their original context.

The dissonant heritage is a matter of permanent political and social discourse, seeing Soviet monuments as a dissonant heritage in the context of the ongoing process of de-communization. It has been polarizing post-socialist societies as well.

For further reading I recommend:

Kattago, S., Memory, Pluralism and the Agony of Politics, Journal of Baltic Studies 2010, 41.3, pp. 383–394.

Kuczynska-Zonik, A., Dissonant heritage. Soviet monuments in Central and Eastern Europe [in:] Historical Memory of Central and East European Communism, A. Mrozik and S. Holubec (eds.), Routledge 2018, pp. 101-121.

Tunbridge, J.E., and Ashworth G.J., Dissonant Heritage: The Management of the Past as a Resource in Conflict, John Wiley 1996.

Walsh, K., The Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Postmodern World, Routledge 1992.

Aleksandra Kuczynska-Zonik is a Political Scientist and Archaeologist at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin and Head of the Baltic Department of the Institute of Central Europe in Poland. You can contact her at


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