True Lithuania

Kaunas Soviet symbols removed, Vilnius “struggle” continues

2015 03 05. Downtown Kaunas is currently having its final public Soviet symbols removed, in preparations for celebrating 25th anniversary of Lithuanian independence declaration. These hammer-and-sickles had been put on Aleksotas Bridge during its reconstruction of 1948.

The "legal struggle" to remove them has been long however, as the bridge had been inscribed as heritage. After a minister's decree banning protection of Soviet and Nazi German symbols the status has been reconsidered and this week construction workers are moving down the bas-reliefs one after another.

Such success of a massive campaign against the remnants of Soviet propaganda put additional attention on a similar "bridge struggle" that still rages on in Vilnius (igniting a regular media coverage equal to that of some major foreign events). The socialist statues of Žaliasis Bridge are "under fire" there - but the powers-that-be have so far defended them.

Arguements for/against Žaliasis bridge statues

Žaliasis bridge statues survived the 25 years of independence largely because some prominent architects express the view that they are pieces of architecture that should be protected, drawing similarities to Berlin Olympic Stadium and Tempelhof Airport which are held in high esteem even if built by the National socialist German regime.

The opponents, however, say the situations are extremely different. In fact, thousands of functional Stalinist buildings survive in Lithuania with no calls to demolish them. What makes Žaliasis bridge sculptures unique is that their main purpose is promoting the totalitarian communist regime and ideology, the symbols of which they bear (and there are no sculptures with Nationalsocialist swastikas in German public areas).

Žaliasis bridge in Vilnius with the sculpture of Soviet army. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Moreover, the opponents do not call for the destruction of the statues but rather seek to move them to Grūtas park, a repository of Soviet propaganda art which makes it accessible to everybody, yet away from the glorifying city center context. The owner of Grūtas park promised to "build a new bridge" for the sculptures.

As such, some opponents view those safeguarding the current location of the sculptures to be dishonest about their true motives, accusing them of being pro-Soviet.

For example, on 2015 02 11 the chairman of Immovable Cultural Heritage Council Romas Pakalnis resigned after his institution voted (7-to-3) to keep the heritage status of Žaliasis bridge sculptures intact (even after the minister of culture decree required otherwise). Romas Pakalnis (himself a relative of anti-Soviet partisans) claimed that he could no longer work among people who hold such beliefs. He said: "I did not expect that they would vote so but I remember how hard it was to get Baltic Way recognized as heritage. Therefore there were symptoms of what their true values are" [source].

The artistic value of the sculptures is also questioned by some as every Lithuanian artist had to produce some canonical propaganda art under Soviet occupation, meaning such art was not a product of the usual artistic independence.

There are four statue groups on Žaliasis bridge, each dedicated to a particular cherished group of the Soviet society. The most controversial one among them represents the Soviet army and even includes hammer and sickle, which is a banned symbol in Lithuania.

Žaliasis bridge sculptures are the final remaining piece of Soviet propaganda in central Vilnius. Just like Aleksotas bridge in Kaunas, Žaliasis bridge far predates the Soviet regime, but it gained its current form during post-WW2 reconstruction.

The reignited campaign against the statues

As Lithuania regained independence in 1990 the most outrageous Soviet monuments were removed: there are no more Lenins, Marxs or Kapsukas anywhere outside Grūtas park. Some Soviet army monuments remained "in limbo" however, with a part of society claiming the soldiers were merely following orders while another part pointing at murders, rapes and other atrocities perpetrated by the invading Soviet army and, last but not the least, the occupation it started.

While the propaganda monuments that remained in prime locations continued to stir regular controversy, this controversy was never massive enough to actually lead to their demolition. That's how the supporters of the "bridges symbols" even managed to list them as heritage, making the demolition harder. Opponents, unable to remove the sculptures, then attempted to "put them into context" through "additional features". Some of them were temporary (e.g. a NATO flag overshadowing the Soviet army sculpture), others permanent (e.g. a plaque with information on the Soviet occupation), yet others never completed (e.g. a suggestion to put the statues in cages).

Žaliasis bridge Soviet sculpture with a temporary flag showing Vytis charging towards it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After the Russian aggression in Ukraine the calls to demolish the statues altogether became much louder once again. This is likely because an increasing part of the population no longer views the Russian occupation and dominance as an "issue of the past" (which used to be a popular view ~2005), but rather a tragedy that more and more Eastern European nations have to endure even today. A kind of "game of chess" began between institutions, where some of them seek to establish preconditions to remove the statues while others seek to curtail this.

The latter have been more successful so far. However, the tables may turn soon, as mayor Artūras Zuokas (who traditionally supported retainment of the statues) will face an uphill battle on 2015 03 15 runoff and the Immovable Cultural Heritage Council will have new members as its tenure ends.

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