Monuments | Latvia

Goodbye, Putin!

During the Second World War, Latvia was occupied by the Red Army. This legacy casts a long shadow but, amid the war in Ukraine, perceptions are suddenly shifting.

A monument of three men in Soviet military uniform in a victory pose stands against a blue sky. The foremost man holds his rifle in the air.

After the Second World War, some Soviet monuments were erected in Latvia

A total of 250,000 euros were donated in just three days. And this in Latvia, a state where most citizens live on low wages; a country where you don't spend money on things that have no practical use. A country with a population of 1.9 million people. A quarter of a million euros in just three days with the aim of toppling a monument. Why exactly?

It hinges on a problem that is deeply rooted in history. During the Second World War, the Red Army occupied Latvia and the other Baltic states - a state of affairs that was to last for almost half a century. This was not something my grandmother and grandfather had asked for. For me it was simple: From the very beginning, my life unfolded under iron-cast Soviet laws.

I knew there was a bigger world out there, but there was simply no hope of getting there. We adapted ourselves to the foreigners, the occupiers: those people who were born somewhere else, thought differently. We imitated them a bit to survive - after all, tens of thousands of people deported to Siberian camps provided us with a good argument to remain silent.

“We younger people had synchronised our thinking too much with that of the Soviet Union.”

We kept silent, not literally of course - we talked, and increasingly in Russian. In this language it was easier to remember the desires of the immigrants, it was a strategy for living together with our occupiers. When everything changed after the collapse of the USSR and our country became independent again, it was only the oldest generation that recognised their old homeland. We, the younger ones, had in the meantime synchronised our thinking with that of the Soviet Union.

We are an anxious generation that speaks in ready-made phrases more easily than think for ourselves. Outwardly, we are convinced of the new democratic order, but at the same time we are plagued by doubts and fears. Was the whole Soviet period really bad? Are we perhaps paranoid? Are the hundreds of thousands who immigrated during the occupation and never dreamed of learning our language now part of us? Should we allow these people to celebrate Russian national holidays? Where does tolerance end? Where does oppression begin?

“The war in Georgia? The annexation of Crimea? A week, a month of consternation, and that's it.”

My profession as a writer entails looking closely at my fellow human beings, and I've written a lot about the past in the hope that we will confront - and wake up from our history. At the same time, I always feel like an incorrigibly naive person. Nothing will happen again, I think. The war in Georgia? The annexation of Crimea? A week, a month of consternation, and that's it. But then ...

The quarter-million donation marks the moment when my people woke up: In just three days we raised this incredible sum to demolish the Soviet Victory Monument. It was taken down amid loud cheers at the end of August 2022. Before that, the discussion went back and forth for decades: Is the monument a symbol of liberation from the Nazis or of occupation by the USSR and the threat of Russia?

We first had to rid ourselves of the poison of doubt in our own consciousness before we could topple the monument. The trigger for accomplishing this feat was, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It erased our trepidation. With the donation, many Latvians who had long been silent made their view heard for the first time. Now it is time to keep reminding ourselves of our own spiritual strength.