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Monument divides society on Victory Day

  • 2002-05-16
  • Tim Ochser
RIGA

There can be few more dramatic symbols of national division in Latvia than the Victory Monument. Bombed five years ago by Latvian nationalists, restored at the expense of the Russian Embassy, on May 9 it became a seething focal point for Russian war veterans and campaigners for human rights in Latvia.

The monument was built with public money in 1985 by three Latvian architects and given pride of place in what was called the Park of the 22nd Congress of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), in Pardaugava.

In true Soviet style, three mesomorphic bronze soldiers are in the act of liberating an equally muscular bronze woman. One brandishes a machine gun that looks more like a beacon. The woman's hand stretches out toward three towering columns crowned with Soviet stars.

A landscaped pond encircles it from behind and a long path approaches it from the front. It's a truly imposing spectacle.

May 9 brought the annual Victory Day commemorations at the monument. A crowds of about 2,000 people, many of whom were veterans in uniform, laid flowers all around the site, and carried banners with the words "Fame to the Soviet Army" and "Fame to the defenders of the homeland, the U.S.S.R."

Russian fury

The monument is clearly a potent political symbol for politicians and public alike.

"Russians have a bad situation in this country," said Ivan Anotonov, 78, a veteran of the Latvian Corps of the Red Army. "There are many hard-line nationalists in government, and they want to deny us all our rights."

Asked about the monument and what it means to him, he shed a ready tear. "That monument is for the memory of all the people who died for the freedom of this country."

Anotonov was born in Ludza, eastern Latvia, and has lived his whole life there and in Riga. But he doesn't have Latvian citizenship.

Latvia officially marks V-day on March 8, together with most countries in Europe, but local Russians celebrate it on May 9 together with Russia.

A special stage was set up beneath the monument by the left-wing For Human Rights in a United Latvia coalition. Among the many speakers was Soviet-era leader Alfred Rubiks, who was imprisoned in the early 1990s for trying to prevent Latvia's independence, and Tatiana Zhdanok, who leads the Equality Party in the For Human Rights coalition.

"Fascism is walking again around Europe and even the world," warned Rubiks, condemning "foolish" politicians who want to join NATO at any cost.

"Some day war veterans will be addressed by the state president, or at least the prime minister, or even a minister," said coalition leader Janis Jurkans.

Dainis Ivans, Latvian independence leader turned chairman of Riga City Council's Committee of Culture, Arts and Religious Matters, was a curious bystander at the event. He is in little doubt about the controversial monument's future.

"It's true most Latvians don't like this monument, and there are some radicals who really want to see it destroyed. But I think it should be left as a sign of our country's history. It will be historically interesting for future generations to see. And anyway, it's not the worst example of Soviet sculpture."

Five years ago a group of young Latvian nationalists operating under the name of Perkonkrusts ("thunder-cross"), was behind a bomb attack on the monument. But far from toppling the Soviet icons, the bomb only succeeded in causing minor structural damage to the base, while one of the bombers was killed.

It seems that the greatest threat to the monument is from within rather than without.

"The monument is destroying itself because it was made with such poor quality materials," according to Ivans.

Every year the Russian Embassy has to meet the cost of undertaking any necessary repair work, while Riga City Council allocates a tiny annual sum of a few hundred lats to keep the surrounding grass trimmed.

Dainis Ivans was dismissive, however, of the various anti-Latvian sentiments being voiced on stage. "It's just political preparation for the next election. The problem is that many of these people simply lost the privileges they enjoyed under the Soviet Union, but they take that to mean they've lost their human rights."

Two pillars

As Latvia struggles to create an equal and inclusive society, both the Victory Monument and the more centrally located Freedom Monument, which is at the very heart of Latvian identity, share a peculiar irony. Neither has a sound legal footing. During major renovation of the Freedom Monument last year, the council discovered that no one actually legally owned it.

And although the Victory Monument was funded by the "willing" contributions of a few rubles from workers around the country, its legal status is equally obscure.

But, according to Ivans, these matters are being rectified with the creation of a new database that will thoroughly account for every public sculpture and monument in Latvia.

There is little doubt the Victory Monument will remain an intriguing feature of Riga. A treaty signed in 1991 to precipitate the complete withdrawal of Russian troops stipulated the preservation of the monument. There, at least, it enjoys some legal protection.

Perhaps in time it will become integrated into Latvian iconography and may serve as a harmless reminder of all things to all people. Some cultural commentators point out that the brave bronze soldiers might be seen to be attacking the woman, rather than liberating her. It's all a question of perspective.