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RIGA, Latvia — Every year on May 9, Russia’s Victory Day, thousands of Russian-speaking Latvians gather under this capital city’s 24-story Victory Monument to commemorate the Soviet soldiers who They died fighting the Nazis in World War II.
“There’s a concert, fireworks and marches. It’s a big celebration,” says Riga resident Brigita Petrova.
But he says Russia’s war in Ukraine cast a shadow over this year’s celebration. “They leave flowers at this monument,” she says, “but they are thinking about how their homeland is bombing and killing people in Ukraine.”
The city also seems troubled. The morning after the festival, Riga broke with tradition and sent a bulldozer to remove the flowers as quickly as possible. Hundreds of the city’s ethnic Russian population responded by returning to lay more flowers at the monument, which then prompted Russia’s war in Ukraine protesters to arrive, leading to clashes between the two groups which were later broken up by the police. That led to resignation of the country’s interior minister.
The event prompted many Latvians to renew calls to destroy the monument, and a month later, Latvia parliament voted to do just that.
Petrova, one of the near the city quarter million ethnic Russians, thinks it’s the right thing to do. “Before I would have said ‘no,’ but given the war, I think yes, we should remove it,” she says.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine continues, former Soviet republics such as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are grappling with their history and, in many cases, renouncing it, often demolishing Soviet-era monuments. But none of the attempts is as big as Latvia’s plans to dismantle Riga’s Victory Monument, which is exposing long-standing tensions between Latvians and their large Russian ethnic minority.
Delete history or a necessary act?
“This is nonsense. This is such a stupid decision,” complains Svetlana, a retired Riga resident who speaks Russian and does not want to give her last name for fear of being attacked due to the controversy over the monument.
She says the reassessment of Russian memorials and her country’s street names is erasing valuable history.
“Every year I came here with flowers and a portrait of my grandfather, who fought in the Soviet army and was injured,” he says. “It is very sad to see what is happening to him now.”
Svetlana stands across the street from the monument in Victory Park, the grounds of which are now overgrown. The Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German fascist invaders is a 260-foot-tall concrete spire topped with a star. It was built in 1985, during the last years of the Soviet regime.
Since the end of May, the monument has been surrounded by a temporary wall patrolled 24 hours a day by the police. The city says it will dismantle the monument sometime before November 15.
Ieva Berzina, a senior investigator at the Latvian National Defense Academy, says the country’s ethnic Latvian majority, who make up nearly two-thirds of the population, see the monument as a symbol of decades of harsh Soviet rule.
“For Latvians, it is a symbol of occupation and all the pain associated with that,” he says. “For Russian speakers, it is the commemoration of their ancestors who fought against Nazi Germany.”
But Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks says that those who want to remember war veterans and their sacrifices can do so in several other places. “Many people who support the continued existence of these types of monuments are simply pro-Putin people, because this monument is not a monument to fallen soldiers,” says Pabriks. “This monument is not in a cemetery.”
Alberto Pezzali / AP
Instead, Pabriks calls Riga’s Victory Monument an ideological symbol. “And of course, in the current situation where Russia is waging a more aggressive war against its neighbors, I think it’s a legitimate question: Why do we keep ideological monuments of the time of occupation in our country? What is the reason from this?”. he says.
Fears of Russian retaliation
A survey of the Latvian public broadcaster LSM shows that only 9% of ethnic Russians in the country support the demolition of the monument, compared to 72% of ethnic Latvians.
Christina, who does not give her last name due to the monument controversy, supports the demolition but fears that Putin could retaliate against Latvia. This week, Russian hackers made cyber attacks on Estonian government after removed soviet era monuments
“Russia can take [the removal of monuments] and use it as a kind of tool or reason why they would react,” she says. “Because, you see, it’s very hard to predict what’s in this guy’s mind, if there is a mind at all.”
She is also concerned about protests at the monument once it is dismantled, but Riga city officials have kept the date of the monument’s destruction secret to try to prevent things from getting out of hand.
Janis Laizans contributed to this report from Riga.