From acceptance to negation: how Soviet war memorials are treated in Europe

Alyosha monument opened in Plovdiv on 5 November. For this reason, Realnoe Vremya remembers this and other Soviet war memorials of the former Soviet bloc

A monument to the Soviet liberator soldier nicknamed by people Alyosha solemnly opened in Bulgarian Plovdiv Bunarjik (Liberator's Hill) on 5 November in 1957. Read in Realnoe Vremya’s report how Alyosha survived decommunisation in Eastern Europe and how other foreign monuments to Soviet warriors are doing.

Locals both erected Alyosha in Bulgaria and protected it

The 11,5-metre tall reinforced concrete sculpture of the soldier has stood on one of the three Plovdiv hills for 62 years already. He holds a PPSh-41 in his hand, which is put down, and Alyosha looks at the East. There is a viewing platform around the monument, 100 steps of wide stairs lead to it. Alyosha is visible from any point of Plovdiv, it is one of its bright sightseeing points.

Initially, the idea of placing a monument to the Soviet liberator warrior belonged to the citizens of Plovdiv, not Communist authorities that came to power in the country after the Second World War. The sculpture of the soldier was installed on a high six-metre pedestal adorned with carvings in 1954. Private of the composite company of 3rd Ukrainian Front Aleksey Skurlatov, signalman who reconstructed the phone line from Plovdiv to Sofia in 1944, became the prototype of the monument. Author of the monument Vasil Rodoslavov created the sculpture from his photo.

There was a wave of de-Sovietisation across all Eastern Europe by the late 20th century. Together with the withdrawal of Soviet troops, European cities got rid of “symbols of Soviet occupation”, and, of course, first of all, it was monuments. The Plovdiv Province Council tried to demolish the monument in 1989, but Plovdiv citizens protected Alyosha: citizens even spent several nights next to it. In 1993, the mayor of Plovdiv decided to dismantle the monument again — tens of public organisations were against. The next attempt to ruin the monument was made in 1996 — the regional court interfered in the process and overruled the decision of the provincial council. And finally the Supreme Court of Bulgaria ruled that Alyosha was a Second World War monument and it couldn’t be touched.

However, the wave of anti-Soviet moods didn’t bypass Bulgaria, this is why we can’t say that all Plovdiv unanimously loves Alyosha.

Citizen of Plovdiv Gelena Belyayeva told Realnoe Vremya:

“Older people treat the monument better than the youth — the attitude to the Soviet legacy is complicated in general here. Those who are older say that life was good in the Union and is worse in the European Union. The youth consider those events in general as genocide. Now Bulgaria has a lot of monuments of Socialism victims. A photo has recently gone viral in social networks where Alyosha was struck by lightning — there were a lot of comments like “It would be good if lightning had shattered it completely”. There are a lot of snide comments in this respect here because there weren’t battles in Bulgaria, Soviet soldiers didn’t die here.

The issue of demolition was raised when other monuments to Socialism were dismantled. But Alyosha’s case was different: he had already managed to become a symbol of Plovdiv. It is certainly present in all selections of photos of the city, and it is visible from everywhere except new dormitory suburbs.”

Germany allocates over €8 million to repair the Treptower Park memorial

Berlin has three monuments to Soviet soldiers, the most famous of which is in the memorial complex in Treptower Park. The monument to the Warrior Liberator in Treptower Park is part of a sculptural trilogy, which apart from it consists of the monument Rear-Front in Magnitogorsk and The Motherland Calls in Volgograd. A sword unites the three monuments: it was moulded in Magnitogorsk, in Volgograd, it is raised above the Motherland’s head and in Berlin, it is stuck in the ground — the war ended. The 12-metre liberator warrior with a rescued girl in his arms in Treptower Park is at the top of the hill, its pedestal has a memorial hall with mosaics inside that harbours a jewellery box with a memory book: it includes the names of Soviet soldiers who were killed in battles for Berlin and buried in mass graves.

The sculpture was made in the spring of 1949 in Leningrad, the memorial was created in the same year. The Soviet Military Police handed over the duties to take care and maintain the monument to Berlin City Council. Issues of feasibility of conservation of the monument in Germany haven’t been raised at the official level since then: in the early 1990s, Germany and Russia signed an agreement on maintenance of the soldiers’ graves located in numerous memorial zones in Germany, including in Treptower Park (about 7,000 Soviet soldiers are buried here). This agreement is still in force. During the Ukrainian events, several German newspapers required to remove the tank T-34 from the pedestal, which is situated in another memorial in Berlin — in Tiergarten. But authorities of the country and the city council didn’t even discuss this issue.

The sculpture in Treptower Park was dismantled in 2003-2004 to restore it. It was put back in place on 2 May 2004: it was covered with special wax, and its parts worn out with time were substituted. Now a global reconstruction of the memorial is underway: the German authorities allocated over €8 million for it.

Almost all Soviet monuments are to be demolished except those standing on soldiers’ graves

The law On the Prohibition of Propagation of Communism or Any Other Totalitarian System Through The Names of All Public Buildings, Structures and Facilities has been in force in Poland since 1 April 2016. Since 2017, this law has allowed Soviet monuments to be demolished — all but those standing on soldiers’ graves. The last monument to Soviet soldiers who liberated Warsaw — the memorial in Skaryszewski Park — was demolished on 18 October last year. 229 monuments to Soviet soldiers were to be demolished in the country. Either local self-governments or voivodeship leaders get rid of them.

Such a firm decision was made in Poland in accordance with the official standpoint of the country according to which Soviet troops not only liberated Poland from Fascism but also brought a new wave of occupation. Monuments were desecrated across the country, Polish authorities reacted to the happenings quite slow. Now, during the demolition, the Main Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation of the Institute of National Remembrance is looking for the most interesting sculptures from an artistic perspective to place them in the Cold War Museum in Podborsko.

But there are Russian-Polish agreements in cemeteries and war graves: according to them, memorials in such places won’t be touched (they haven’t been touched so far). So Warsaw still has a mausoleum of Soviet warriors. 21,586 fighters who died when liberating Poland in 1944-1945 are here. There is a tall slim obelisk in the cemetery, several sculptures. Municipal authorities do a clean-up here once in two months, and one of the three-quarters of the cemetery was reconstructed in 2017. In 2017, the memorial zone was desecrated, the guilty haven’t been found.

Desecrated monument to Marshal Konev in Prague is going to move to a museum

The Czech Republic has 903 cemeteries of Russian and Soviet soldiers, 840 of whom refer to the WWII period. One of the biggest is in Olšany Cemetery in Prague. There are over 800 monuments and memorials in honour of Russian warriors. Here it isn’t that strict as it is in Poland: according to several agreements between Russia and the Czech Republic, the countries have mutual obligations to protect war monuments and maintain war cemeteries. Czech authorities allocate about $0,5 million a year to take care of Russian and Soviet soldiers’ graves.

But vandals often visit the monuments: the Czechs have a vivid remembrance of the Prague Spring and haven’t forgiven those decades when the Soviet Union wore the trousers in the country. A handful of the laymen agree with the liberation from the sway of Hitler’s Germany and the invasion of Soviet tanks to Prague: for many, these events have the same scale. Moreover, the monument to Soviet tankers — the Soviet tank IS-2, which was on the pedestal in Praha from 1945 — was painted in pink in 1991 and declared a symbol of the end of Soviet occupation. Now the pink tank is located in one of the military technical museums in the Czech Republic.

Generally speaking, Czech authorities are quite neutral about Soviet memorials, but only the inscription on the famous monument to Marshal Ivan Konev changed. Earlier, it was written that he liberated Prague in May 1945, and then it was added to this text that Konev also chaired the suppression of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956 and planned an invasion to Czechoslovakia in 1968. The embassy of Russia expressed a protest in this respect, and that’s it. Moreover, new information about the monument appeared in September 2019. On 2 September, about 200 people participated in a protest in Prague against the desecration and transfer of the monument. One of the Prague museums is so far called as the most suitable site for Konev’s sculpture, but the accurate decision in this issue hasn’t been made yet.

By Lyudmila Abramova