The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed – it is a process of elimination. (Elbert Hubbard 1856-1915)
As I stood before the Uzvaras piemineklis (Soviet Victory Monument) in Riga last week and watched a newly married couple lay flowers at its base and then pose for photos, I thought it most peculiar. Strange, even. In Budapest, all communist statues were banished to Memento Park and yet in Latvia, they still stand on their pedestals.
This depiction of Mother Russia is quite something to behold and on reflection, not having lived through those times in these places, who am I to judge the merits of communism. If the Soviets liberated the city, so be it. Let the statues declaim the victorious.
The monument, with its five gold stars, one for each year of the Second World War, was erected in 1985 to commemorate the Russian victory over Nazi Germany. Why does the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’ come immediately to mind? Apparently it was bombed in 1997 by members of the Latvian neo-Nazi group Pērkonkrusts, two of whom died that day. Yet it still stands tall and people still pay homage.
Elsewhere in the city, Brivibas Piemineklis (Freedom Monument) was built in 1935, paid for by the citizens of Riga and erected in honour of soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918–1920). Standing 42 metres high, it is the tallest of its kind in Europe. It managed to survive Soviet rule intact, and now reigns over the capitalist edifices surrounding it. Apparently, during the Communist era, the monument was jokingly referred to as a travel agent: to leave flowers at it resulted in a one-way ticket to Siberia. The Soviets may have let it stand, but they kept a sharp eye on who chose to visit it. And apparently they reinterpreted its symbolism: the three stars were said to stand for the newly created Baltic Soviet Republics – Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR – held aloft by Mother Russia and the monument was said to have been erected after World War II (which it wasn’t) as a sign of popular gratitude toward the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for the liberation of the Baltic States.
Another interesting and divisive statue from that period is Strēlnieku piemineklis (the Latvian Riflemen monument). It was originally dedicated apparently to the Red Riflemen who became Lenin’s bodyguards but is now said to commemorate all Latvian riflemen, red and white, who fought in the First World War. This towering piece of red granite is very impressive. And again, there’s a joke: it is said that the three men, looking so seriously into the distance, are waiting for the fourth to arrive with a bottle of booze.
And, pre-dating any of the above (albeit it a modern version of an old stone) is the copy 5/6th century Livs idol, which was apparently found in 1851 by a farmer ploughing a field near Salaspils. A bit of light relief in comparison.