VEIKO SPOLITIS Major cleanup across Latvia: cities remove references to Pushkin and Turgenev

Veiko Spolitis
, political scientist
In addition to Soviet red monuments, street names harking back to the yoke of the Russian Empire are also being removed in Riga. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In addition to Soviet red monuments, street names harking back to the yoke of the Russian Empire are also being removed in Riga. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • The only point of debate has arisen around the street named after Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol.
  • In the past year, monuments to Pushkin and M. Keldysh have vanished from the streets of Riga.
  • A debate about the female figures of the Romanov dynasty is likely forthcoming.

During the Singing Revolution, statues of Lenin disappeared from Latvia's public spaces, in line with other nations freed from the Soviet yoke. The occupation monument in Riga, much like the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn, became a major point of contention, political scientist Veiko Spolitis writes.

The full-scale war by Russia against Ukraine has intensified calls for its removal. Following the enactment of a law by the Latvian Saeima in January 2022, Riga's occupation monument was dismantled in August that year. Additionally, 313 Soviet monuments were removed from the public spaces of Latvian cities and towns.

Similarly to those in Estonia, Latvian municipal leaders began investigating archives, discovering numerous Soviet cemeteries built for propaganda purposes. Riga's new city council also questioned why former mayor and social democrat Nils Ušakovs had authorized the erection of a monument to Pushkin in Riga (given that none of the Russian classics has ties to Riga). Moreover, Riga's city councilors sought clarity on the presence of other geopolitical symbols from the Soviet Union and Russian Empire in Riga's urban landscape.

In Vidzeme, Semigallia, and Kurzeme, the removal of Soviet monuments prompted no debate. Conversely, in the Latgale region, cities like Rēzekne and Daugavpils saw local pro-Russian politicians remove Soviet monuments but retained a red monument in Dubrovin Park in Daugavpils, rationalizing it as a site of a mass grave for Red soldiers. All in all, the process of removing these monuments from Latvia's public spaces has been smooth, rekindling discussions on collaboration with the occupiers.

At the close of 2022, the Riga city council's heritage committee received requests to rename the streets named after Pushkin, Lomonossov, Gogol, and Turgenev, as well as Moscow Street. There was also a petition from the Repressed Persons' Club to remove a monument to Andrejs Upīts, the Latvian version of Estonian Juhan Smuul, from in front of the Latvian Congress Hall. Suggestions were also made to rename several streets after Latvian collaborators.

In remembrance of the March 25 deportations, the non-profit organization "Center for Public Memory" requested that the Latvian Chapter of Orders strip the highest state awards from a Latvian prime minister and five ministers who collaborated with the Soviet occupiers in 1940.

The last hopes for Russia are fading

The debate on stripping state awards has only begun, revealing from its outset that the legacy of Soviet occupation has left several ethical issues unresolved.

Despite the ongoing debates over state decorations, consensus has been reached regarding the removal of the Russian Empire's legacy in Riga. On February 21 this year, the Riga city council decided to rename streets bearing the names of Russian classics to those of eminent figures in the Latvian cultural canon. The medieval Lastadija port area on the Daugava River was reverted to its Hanseatic-era street name, and the remainder of Moscow Street was renamed back to Latgale, as it was from 1935 until July 1940. The only issue that arose during the discussion was about Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, but the Ukrainian embassy gave its approval, considering the Russian embassy has been located on Ukrainian Independence Street since the summer of 2022.

It is evident that Russia's policy of revanchism in Ukraine is irreversibly altering Latvia's policy on its collective memory.

The discussions have also highlighted that Riga's city leaders from 1920 failed to properly recognize in the streetscape the contributions of female Latvian state and cultural figures. This has now been rectified, as Riga's streets proudly bear the names of Emīlija Benjamiņa, dubbed the queen of the Latvian press, and Valērija Seile, the first academically educated woman from Latgale and a member of the 1918 Latvian People's Council. These street names have been updated in electronic databases and maps. Those in Estonia with a nostalgia for classics from the Russian Empire should hurry to visit Riga, as the city government plans to replace about 580 street signs by the start of summer, at an estimated cost of around 80,000 euros.

In March 2023, the Riga city council decided that the bronze statue of Andrejs Upīts, chairman of the Latvian SSR writers' union, will likely be moved to his home museum in the Skrīveri municipality. It is expected that a prominent figure in Latvian music will replace Upīts in downtown Riga. The city government has decided to repurpose the former congress hall into Riga's new philharmonic, expected to be completed by 2029.

Over the last year, monuments to Pushkin and Keldysh (founder of the Soviet military-industrial complex) have also disappeared from Riga's streets. While Marijas Street and Elizabetes Street still remain, a debate over the female figures of the Romanov dynasty is likely on the horizon. However, it is evident that Russia's policy of revanchism in Ukraine is irreversibly altering Latvia's policy on its collective memory. The fading hopes for Russia as a European nation in Latvia signal a positive shift, allowing for a focus on European historical roots without the shadow of Russian official history.

Ultimately, unlike Russia, European history demonstrates that EU democracies justify changes in their historical narratives not by the whims of autocrats but through scholarly research and democratic discourse with society.