The construction of cultural-historic monuments are always subject to political ideology, which conveys a political message. The purpose of a monument can be found in the linguistic origin of the Latin word monumentum: a reminder of the significance of an historic event or personality. In this way, monuments maintain a connection to important historic events and are the cornerstone for historic identity. Each cultural-historic monument is both a part of society, as well as a representation of current politics. The role played by the Victory Monument, built during the Soviet occupation, in interpretations of Latvian history is a clear example.
FROM PETER’S PARK TO VICTORY PARK
Victory Park is located on the left bank of the Daugava River; during the 17th century, the location was part of Riga’s fortification system. This area was part of the esplanade until 1908, and in compliance with military requirements, was not allowed to be built upon. Changes in the early 20th century allowed the city to gain this space upon which it could build a park, similar to the situation that occurred half a century earlier on the other side of the river when the fortifications were dismantled. Georg Kuphaldt, Riga’s Director of Parks and Gardens, was entrusted with the task of creating this park. His plan included a segment of the 52.25 ha area to be set aside for construction of private homes; proceeds from the sale of these homes would fund the building of the park. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on 5 July 1910 during a visit by Nicholas II to Riga. The future park was named Peter’s Park, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Russian rule over Riga and Vidzeme province. Thus, before the construction of the park had begun, it already expressed a political ideology through its politically motivated name.
Construction of the park had not been completed before World War I began, and in 1919, the area proposed for construction of family homes was converted to city gardens for use by local residents. Riga had become the capital of an independent Latvia, and its city planning experienced changes as a result. The location of Peter’s Park in the Pārdaugava region was quite advantageous, so the city decided to build socially significant buildings in this location. The park was renamed “Victory Park” by the city in 1923 to commemorate “the liberation of Latvia” and in 1930, Riga’s Parks Department, under the direction of the director Andrejs Zeidaks, began construction of the park.
The next phase of development of the park took place during the authoritarian regime of Kārlis Ulmanis and grand building plans were developed at this time. A special law was passed in 1936 regarding the construction of Victory Park in Riga, and since this time, this has been the official designation of the park.
Two years later, the Victory Park building committee, headed by Ulmanis, declared a national competition for its design. Requirements stipulated that the design clearly indicate “…monumental documentation of renewed Latvia’s growth”. In the summer of 1938, the 9th Latvian Song Festival took place in the park. The project needed to include areas for army parades, space for 200 000 Song Festival participants, a central stadium with seating for 2500, separate sports and training fields, as well as symbolically significant “memorial buildings” and meeting halls. Thus, Victory Park unified the representation of the nation through this complex of public buildings meant for both sport and also culture.
The competition ended on 30 December 1938; a total of 44 projects were submitted, but the jury chose that of architects Frīdrihs Skujiņš and Georgs Dauge. All the submitted projects included plans for the construction of various monuments to be placed in several locations in the park. Construction of the park was partially funded by society through donations and a lottery, and by January 1940, over 8 million lats had been collected, but construction of the park was interrupted by the Soviet occupation in 1940.
ALTERATIONS DURING OCCUPATION
During World War II, Victory Park maintained its official name during the first Soviet occupation (1940–1941) and the following German occupation (1941–1944). After WWII and the reoccupation by the Soviets, the park was the site of the public hanging of seven convicted German army officers on 3 February 1946. Among those sentenced to death was Friedrich Jeckeln, commander of the SS and police in Ostland. The hurriedly organized show trial and execution was quickly followed by an architect’s suggestion to create a culture and leisure park, including an open-air stage for song festivals. But the Mežaparks area of Riga was chosen for this purpose, and Soviet authorities lost interest in Victory Park for the next 15 years.
The park area was slowly taken over by small city gardens, but they began to be liquidated in the 1950s. The first real changes in this area took place in 1961 when Riga City Council decided to rename the park CPSU XXII Congress Park. The development plan, adopted in 1963, projected a grand plan for sports and leisure activities and facilities. However, this plan was too ambitious and was declared untenable in the late 1960s.
Development of CPSU XXII Congress Park did not include any plans for monuments associated with historic events. The idea for the Victory Monument only came about in 1975 when the USSR embarked on a grand campaign to celebrate the “Great Patriotic War”. The competition in 1976 resulted in 33 projects, of which two were chosen to be combined – both these designs had won third place in the competition. In this way, the monument gained a unified ideological motif, but was artistically clichéd and contradictory in appearance. Nevertheless, the creation of this monument partially solved the long-standing problem of the park’s completion. Victory Monument served as a tool for Soviet ideology and propaganda, symbolically strengthening the Soviet position in Latvia.
The creation of monuments during Soviet occupation was meant to “rewrite society’s memories”, by dismantling those monuments that did not adhere to the regime’s ideology, as well as building monuments to illustrate accepted ideology. Particular significance was attributed to those memorial sites that were associated with the Great Patriotic War, which accented motifs of war and victory but paid relatively little attention to maintaining the memory of the victims of the war.
The monument was unveiled on 5 November 1985 and received the long official title of Monument to Soviet Army Soldiers – Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders. It is quite surprising that the original name of Victory Park was restored. Perhaps this was associated with downplaying the unrealized building goals of the communist building program heralded by the CPSU XXII congress. One of the then most prominent specialists evaluated the name change: “… this is a fine example of the sensitivity towards local traditions and local landscape features [author’s highlight]. The placement of the Victory Monument in the territory of CPSU XXII Congress Park is the logical conclusion of the long search for spatial perfection (Victory Park – Victory Monument!) and gives the park an appropriate ideological centre.” With this tactic, Soviet ideologues attempted to use the symbolism of the monument to transform the significance of the place.
Yet, this attempt cannot be construed as successful: During Mikhail Gorbachov’s period of ‘perestroika’, in 1989, artist Miervalds Polis organized a modern art performance/demonstration – “Bronze human against occupation”. This political action was reported upon by West German correspondents for the magazine Die Zeit. This action also revealed the attitude of most ethnic Latvians towards the symbolic meaning of the monument. However, the monument continued to stand after the renewal of Latvian independence for several reasons.
“MONUMENT WARS” AND THE POLITICS OF HISTORY
The restoration of the Republic of Latvia liquidated the political rituals of the Soviet occupation era – USSR holidays and remembrances, including the celebration of 9 May. In the early 1990s, society believed that the Victory Monument had lost its significance and that it would remain as a relic of Soviet culture, “at the foot of which… Soviet army veterans and supporters of communist ideology would regularly meet”. Exile Latvian architect Raimonds Slaidiņš’ call for the creation of Soviet occupation memorial park by the Victory Monument did not gain local public support. Members of the radical Pērkoņkrusts [Thundercross] organization attempted to blow up the monument, which served only to attract renewed attention not only to the monument itself, but also to its symbolism. The suggestion to dismantle the damaged monument was dismissed, as this would have contravened the agreement reached with the Russian Federation in 1994 to protect the monument as a memorial to Russian military personnel, as well other Soviet memorials and mass gravesites.
At this time, discussion began to appear in the press about possible changes to the Victory Monument, in order to change its symbolism. Some of the creators of the monument (architect Viktors Zilgalvis, designer Aleksandrs Bugajevs, and sculptor Leonīds Kristovskis) suggested it be recreated as an “anti-fascist coalition memorial site”, but others rebuffed this proposal and offered the addition of an informative plaque that would explain the Soviet context for the monument. Yet others completely disagreed with any alterations to the monument. These conflicting opinions about the fate of the Victory Monument expressed in the beginning of the 21st century indicated the unresolved conflicts and lack of public debate about historic events that continues to plague Latvia’s society.
After the collapse of the USSR, the newly-democratic nations of Central and Eastern Europe attempted to “cleanse” the public space of ideologized monuments and place names, by dismantling monuments that reflected Soviet ideology and restoring place names to inhabited areas, streets, and squares. Most members of these countries’ societies quickly accepted the changes because the Soviet monuments and places names were associated with a regime that had been imposed upon them by the USSR. The creation of collective social values and cultural memories was important to society in Latvia, as well. The conflict over monuments, or ‘heritage wars’, reflect the conflicting views of the past in society, particularly when these historic events and their monuments become the embodiment of a conflicting version of history. The use of the Victory Monument in political demonstrations that were directed against education reform that required an increase in the number of Latvian language lessons in Russian schools, as well as 9 May remembrance ceremonies in which not only representatives from the Russian Federation, but also Riga City Council members participated, reveals the nature of this conflict. If we realize that we are currently living in a post-colonial situation, where conflicting groups in society have their own goals and priorities, it is clear that the Victory Monument has become a catalyst in the on-going debate about history and politics. A name change, initiated by Riga City Council in 2003 in order to neutralize the conflict, is clearly not a solution and is only a repetition of Soviet era manipulations to change the historic name of this space.
This situation also has an international context: Since 2000, Russia’s history politics have systematically stressed imperialist ideas and the significance of the USSR’s victory in WWII. The use of the Victory Monument for social and political protests to express the views of many of Latvia’s Russian-speakers has resulted in the strengthening of the perception of the monument as a symbol of Soviet oppression for many Latvians. Perhaps it is time to return to the recreation of the Victory Monument to show the other side of the Soviet Union’s “spoils of war” and remind society of the crimes committed by the Soviet totalitarian regime, which have not yet received international condemnation.