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Latvia plans to destroy a Soviet-era monument, riling its ethnic Russian minority

A sea of flowers lies at the fenced-off Soviet Victory Monument in Riga, Latvia, on Victory Day, May 9. The site fully named The Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders is a 260-foot concrete spire topped with a star that was built in 1985, in the waning years of Soviet rule in Latvia.
Alexander Welscher
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DPA/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
A sea of flowers lies at the fenced-off Soviet Victory Monument in Riga, Latvia, on Victory Day, May 9. The site fully named The Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders is a 260-foot concrete spire topped with a star that was built in 1985, in the waning years of Soviet rule in Latvia.

Updated August 19, 2022 at 7:53 AM ET

RIGA, Latvia — Each year on May 9, Russia's Victory Day, thousands of Russian-speaking Latvians gather underneath this capital city's 24-story-tall Victory Monument to commemorate Soviet soldiers who died fighting Nazis in World War II.

"There is a concert, fireworks and marches. It's a huge celebration," says Riga resident Brigita Petrova.

But she says Russia's war in Ukraine cast a shadow over this year's celebration. "They lay flowers at this monument," she says, "but they're reckoning with how their homeland is bombing and killing people in Ukraine."

The city also seems conflicted. The morning after the holiday, Riga broke with tradition and sent a bulldozer to remove the flowers as quickly as it could. Hundreds among the city's ethnic Russian population responded by returning to lay more flowers at the monument, which then spurred protesters of Russia's war in Ukraine to arrive, resulting in clashes between the two groups that were later broken up by police. That led to the resignation of the country's interior minister.

People lay flowers at a monument commemorating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, in Riga, Latvia, on May 10.
Andrius Sytas / Reuters
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Reuters
People lay flowers at a monument commemorating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, in Riga, Latvia, on May 10.

The event prompted many Latvians to renew calls to destroy the monument, and a month later, Latvia's Parliament voted to do just that.

Petrova, one of the city's near quarter million ethnic Russians, thinks it's the right thing to do. "Previously I would have said 'no,' but given the war, I think yes, we should take it down," she says.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine rages on, former Soviet republics like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are contending with their history — and in many cases renouncing it, often by demolishing Soviet-era monuments. But none of the attempts loom as large as Latvia's plans to dismantle Riga's Victory Monument, which is exposing long-held tensions between Latvians and their large ethnic Russian minority.

Erasing history or a necessary act?

"This is silly. It's such a stupid decision," gripes Svetlana, a retired Russian-speaking resident of Riga who doesn't want to give her last name for fear of being targeted because of the controversy over the monument.

She says her country's reassessment of Russian memorials and street names is erasing valuable history.

"Each year, I'd come here with flowers and a portrait of my grandfather, who fought in the Soviet army, and was wounded," she says. "It's very sad to see what's happening to it now."

Svetlana stands across the street from the monument in Victory Park, whose grounds are now overgrown with weeds. 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 waning years of Soviet rule.

Victory Monument is now surrounded by a police barricade after protests broke out following the May 9 celebrations of Russia's Victory Day, in Riga, Latvia, Aug. 2.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
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NPR
Victory Monument is now surrounded by a police barricade after protests broke out following the May 9 celebrations of Russia's Victory Day, in Riga, Latvia, Aug. 2.

Since late May, the monument has been surrounded by a temporary wall patrolled around the clock by police. The city says it will dismantle the monument sometime before Nov. 15.

Ieva Berzina, a senior researcher at Latvia's National Defense Academy, says the ethnic Latvian majority of the country, who make up nearly two-thirds of the population, sees the monument as a symbol of the decades of harsh Soviet rule.

"For Latvians, it's a symbol of occupation and all the pain associated with that," she says. "For Russian speakers, it's commemoration of their ancestors that fought against Nazi Germany."

But Latvia's Defense Minister Artis Pabriks says those who want to remember war veterans, and their sacrifices, can do so at several other places. "Many people who support the continuous existence of such type of monument are simply pro-Putin people, because this monument is not a monument to fallen soldiers," says Pabriks. "This monument is not in a cemetery."

Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks speaks to The Associated Press during a conference of defense ministers, at Belvoir Castle, in Grantham, England, on Feb. 22.
Alberto Pezzali / AP
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AP
Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks speaks to The Associated Press during a conference of defense ministers, at Belvoir Castle, in Grantham, England, on Feb. 22.

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 any ideological monuments of occupation time in our country? What is the reason for this?" he says.

Fears of Russian retaliation

A poll by Latvia's public broadcaster LSM shows just 9% of the country's ethnic Russians support the demolition of the monument, compared with 72% of ethnic Latvians.

Christina, who doesn't give her surname due to the monument controversy, supports the demolition but worries that Putin may retaliate against Latvia. This week, Russian hackers conducted cyberattacks on Estonia's government after it removed Soviet-era monuments.

Workers remove a Soviet T-34 tank installed as a monument in Narva, Estonia, on Tuesday. Estonia's government said it decided to remove a Soviet-era monument in a border town sitting in the Baltic country's Russian-speaking part, with the prime minister saying the reason for the dismantling is that it represents a risk for public order.
Sergei Stepanov / AP
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AP
Workers remove a Soviet T-34 tank installed as a monument in Narva, Estonia, on Tuesday. Estonia's government said it decided to remove a Soviet-era monument in a border town sitting in the Baltic country's Russian-speaking part, with the prime minister saying the reason for the dismantling is that it represents a risk for public order.

"Russia can take [the removal of monuments] and use it as some kind of tool or reason why they would react," she says. "Because, as you see, it's very hard to predict what is up in this guy's mind, if there is a mind."

She's also worried about protests at the monument once it is dismantled, but Riga city officials have kept the date of the monument's destruction secret in order to try to prevent things from getting further out of hand.

Janis Laizans contributed to this report from Riga.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.