Many who visits Riga surely will notice the large National Library building still under construction, at the opposite bank of river Daugava. A large scenic glass building resembling the Hill of Glass from the famous play by Rainis The Golden Horse. But, they might notice a tall phallic spire just behind the National Library building. This large spire monument that for some resembles the Citadel complex from the game Half Life 2. Who knows since many say that Half Life 2 game environment was inspired by the city of Riga, this large spire might be a prime inspiration for the Citadel complex.
But, what the spire stands for? The answer is the Soviet Victory in the WW2 and the “liberation of Riga”. Last 20 years this monument with its park called Victory park, has become the object of political controversy, the symbol of national collisions between the Latvian society. For some see this a symbol of the soviet occupation, when others considers it as sacred site for their relatives who fought in WW2 and symbol of “good soviet times”. There have been attempts to blow up this monument, many important statesmen including the Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks have suggested to remove this monument. Recently a petition calling for removal of this monument has gathered 11471 sign ups within the social initiative platform enough to send it to Latvian parliament Saeima. The supporters of this monument who gather near it every May 9, including major of Riga Nil Ushakov has reacted angrily expressing insults like “the initiators of this petitions belongs to the zoo”. Radical Russian nationalists have even threatened with blood if anyone dares to harm the “Russian monument”. Meanwhile the Latvian Foreign Ministry is worried that treaty made with Russia in 1994 actually prevents the demolition of this monument. However, the historical background of this monument and its park is long and complicated and will be explained here.
The territory where the park and monument now stands before WWI was simply a wide empty space. It was called the Peter Park and was not within no plans of construction. After the Riga became the capital of Latvia, some suggested to turn it into building space. However, clear plan was not set and for many years this territory remained as a space for private gardening. However, after 1934 when Kārlis Ulmanis took power by coup the Peter Park was destined for grand transformations. Kārlis Ulmanis was inspired by grandioze buildings in Nazi Germany and Soviet Union as it was common trend to build gigantic buildings that represents the regime.
On 1936 Kārlis Ulmanis issued a law about the building of the Victory Square. The victory for those days were considered the Latvian and allied forces victory over the Army of Bermnont-Avalov on 1919. On 1938 a project competition was issued. The guidelines suggested a set of gigantic buildings that would oversize the Berlin Olympic stadium of 1936. The celebration square fit for 200 000 visitors, stadium with 25 000 seats, sports fields, velodrom, swimming pool, shooting range, port in the bay of Āgenskalns, the Assembly Hall with 10 000 seats and central memorial sign. Such ambitious project as mentioned were nothing uncommon in those days. Hitler and Stalin both had plans for their own fantasy buildings. While Ulmanis was neither a Nazi or a Communist, the monumentalism was imperative in his propaganda. He also wanted to build a new town hall in the opposite site with a large tower that would be tallest building in Riga in those days.
Few weeks after the project competition was issued in the territory of the new Victory Square the IX Annual Song and Dance festival was held with portable arena with seats and infrastructure. 44 projects were sent to competition. The prize for three first awards were 4000 Lats, while three secondary awards were 3000 Lats each. The winners were three collectives of G Dauge, F Skujiņš, J Leimanis, student E Krūmiņš, V Paegle. The further realization of the project was given to F Skujiņs who already was known for his Court Palace building. Skujiņš and Dauge visioned a Victory Alley that would continue the Ponton Bridge (now the Stone Bridge). From the main Victory Alley all main traffic routes around the Victory Square would alling. In case of mass festivities tram lines would circulate around it. The Square would contain flower gardens and water pools with fountains. At the end of the victory alley a 60 meter tall Victory tower would be built. Underneath it a Commemorative Shrine for the heroes of the Latvian nation. At the top of the tower an eternal flame would rise. A symbolic Torch Rally would end there. On the left side of the Valley a large walled representative parade square was to placed. At the right side large Song and Festival arena was intended.
Also a Sports Palace, sports field, gardens, and swimming pools. And to add the least the bay of Āgenskals would be turned in to yachtclub. If this plan would ever be realized it would make one part of left bank of Riga into grandioze complex. No doubt the Victory Square project was intended as the main center of the Kārlis Ulmanis cult of personality. The preparations for project were underway. Massive “voluntary fund-raising” was underway. Every school including very small and poorly funded Jewish School in Viesīte gave their share of donations to the Victory monument project. If the WW2 had never occurred this project would be realized in complete or in smaller scale. For instance the foundations for Riga Town Hall tower were erected on 1940.
However, after occupation of Latvia on 1940, the Soviets cancelled these plans. The Square was left empty during both Soviet and Nazi Occupation. On 1944 Soviets kept the Victory Square name, but now it was no longer 1919 victory over Bermont-Avalov it was victory over Nazi Germany. On February 3 1946 in front of some 4000 spectators the Nazi war criminal SS Obergruppenfuhrer Friedrich Jeckeln along with four others were hanged in the Victory Square. It was last public execution in Riga. Jeckeln was responsible for Babi-Jar massacre in Ukraine and Rumbula massacre in Latvia.
After the end of the war nobody rushed to create a new victory square since the ideology of the Great Soviet Victory was not fully designed. Neither Stalin or Khrushchev regarded May 9 as festivity. Instead architect V Shnitikov suggested to build massive Song and Dance festival arena. However, the communist party decided to build the arena in Mežaparks instead. On 1961 during the Khrushchev Thaw the park was renamed to Soviet Socialist Communist Party XXII congress park. XXII congress was important for the ruling elite as it set the new plans for future Soviet policy. It was designed as a park with lots of green areas, playing fields, assembly hall with cafeterias. The project was partly realized, as the ideas for buildings and pavilions were abandoned.
After Khrushchev’s demise the new Brezhnev ideology centered around the Great Victory. May 9 became public holiday and monuments commemorating the Soviet soldiers were built-in every major town in USSR. On 1976 new project was set for the Victory monument. The monument was designed by Lev Bukovsky who ironically served the Latvian Waffen SS Legion during the WW2. Even more ironically the 79 meter tall spire was placed at the approximate place where Jeckeln was hanged. The monument was finished on 1985 during the anniversary of the Great Victory. And once again it was renamed as the Victory park since on 1985 at the height of the stagnation the ideas of XXII congress were no longer realizable. The 1985 was the last mass event of victory celebration as in next year the Gorbachev’s reforms diverted the peoples attention from the Great Victory cult.
A large 79 obelisk a spire as I call it with two stars, two sculptures and a swimming pool was not the center of attention during the National revival. Maybe because of this nobody bordered to remove it after the regaining of independence. People were more concerned with the removal of Lenin’s statue. It may be that if the monument would be removed at the same night as the Lenin’s statue, nobody would not protest.
However, the situation changed during the nighties. People with Soviet nostalgia and resentment about the new Latvian state, started to gather there either at May 9 or October 13 (1944 Soviet “liberation” of Riga). This happened simply these people had no other symbol to identify themselves as all the Lenin monuments were removed. Also the Citizenship law on 1995 boosted the rift in Latvian society. However, these were a small groups of people. The fire was directly set alight by national radical organization “Pērkonkrusts” a revival movement of pre war nationalist movement. On 1997 at the night of June 5 they placed explosives near the spire to blow it up. However, the explosives malfunctioned and killed two plotters on the spot. The spire was damaged, but was still standing. This sparked a massive condemnation from the mainly Russian speaking part of society. The monument started to gain his lost never deserved attention.
Some people suggested to keep the monument, but modify it according to present needs. However, strongest voices called to remove it completely and restore the Ulmanis Victory Square project. Meanwhile the other side of the society became influenced by the revival of the Great Victory cult made by Putin’s regime. The local Russian speaking parties picked this up and used the monument for their festivities. The Harmony Center took the largest share of this and ever since early 2008 used the May 9 celebration as a massive voters boost. Assisted by funds from Russian organizations and using administrative resources the Harmony Center has taken over the May 9 celebrations for their own gain. On every May 9 the Victory Square turns into mass festivity with people celebrating the Great Victory. Portable arena with songs, food and drinks turned the Victory day into Victory Fiesta.
Since then, the monument has been became the symbol of all evil for nationalist Latvians. Since the city of Riga has been ruled for last four years by the Harmony Center the Victory Monument has been the point of rivalry. The 2007 Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn was a warning sign that similar thing may happen in Riga if someone might try to remove the monument. Bearing the fact that the Bronze Soldier riots were largely inspired by Russia. However, the cross ethnic rivalry in Estonia has not significantly worsened after this event.
Today a petition to remove the Victory monument and realize the original Ulmanis idea has entered the governmental level. The very idea that the Authoritarian style project may be realized in 21st century society sounds schizophrenic just as idea of the Great Soviet Victory. The history was shown that the Victory Square has served as ideological tool for every ruling regime. The best idea is the complete de-ideologization of this memorial complex. How it should be made its for architects and artists. For now the remarks by some people, that the removal of the “Russian monument” might spill blood its ridiculous, as the monument was designed for Soviet soldiers of all nationalities including Latvians. Threats that such move might even cause civil war and Russian interventions adds to the ideological ridicule around this monument. On the other hand the 2008 signed agreement with Russia about the mutual preservation of the soldiers grave sites that according to Latvian Foreign Ministry also does not do justice. The point 1 of this agreement clearly defines the “Russian burial sites” as sites with graves with soviet soldiers and civilians and the memorial sites built within these grave sites. As we know already there are no graves in the Victory Square and its surrounding park territory. So this agreement should not serve as valid argument not to remove the monument. Victory Square is not a grave site therefore does not go within this document if understood properly.
The Victory Square was intended as cult site for the Kārlis Ulmanis regime and ended up as cult site for the Soviet Victory. Whatever the events bring the best way is to remove all false ideologies from this site and make it apolitical park friendly for all people.
Lejnieks, Jānis. (1998) Rīga, kuras nav. Rīga. Zinātne.
Hanovs, Deniss, Tēraudkalns, Valdis. (2012) Laiks, Telpa, Vadonis: autoritārisma kultūra Latvijā 1934-1940. Rīga. Zinātne.
Zeļča, Vita, Muižnieks, Nils. (Ed) (2011) Karojošā piemiņa. 16. marts un 9. maijs. Rīga. Zinātne.
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