Seeing red! Across Poland Soviet war memorials are being vandalised and defaced
I never thought I’d say it, but I sure as hell miss the heyday of the pandemic.
Now known by many as the good old days, I’m certainly not alone in pining for those times – and no, just to clarify, I am not being flippant.
Much like the rest of the educated world, the war in Ukraine has left me staggered, shocked, seething and heartbroken; not even in my wildest, most hallucinatory nightmares did I ever think we’d be witness to such daily horrors presented on our doorstep.
Yet for all that, who cannot feel anything but a twinge of pride at the way Poland has rallied – the everyday displays of selfless humanity have been nothing if not stirring. But somewhat understandably, this kindness has been tempered by a strong sense of outrage.
As a result of this, across the country Soviet war memorials have been vandalised and defaced – in Gniezno, a Red Army obelisk found its five-pointed star repainted in the colours of Ukraine; in Malbork, a similar memorial was sprayed with a damning message directed to Putin; Olsztyn, meanwhile, has seen a Soviet landmark clothed with a pro-Ukrainian banner; and in Koszalin, a monument was toppled altogether.
Such examples have been many, though perhaps none of these statements have been as powerful as the one made in Poznań.
Though well-known to residents, I’ve always thought of its Citadel as one of the finer local secrets to be discovered in the city. A verdant oasis filled with leftover fortifications, for me it’s an essential Sunday visit to walk off any ills – doing so, never do I fail to be awed by the herd of 112 headless figures sculpted by Magdalena Abakanowicz. “What is man,” is the question posed by the work, “who are we and what direction are we headed?”
More pertinent than ever, it’s a question I sometimes ponder at the nearby Commonwealth Cemetery, a well-tended space featuring – among others – the graves of the Allied airmen executed for their role in The Great Escape.
But it is the equally solemn Soviet cemetery close by that now finds itself in the headlines. Containing the graves of 5,000 soldiers that died in the battle for the city, the start of March saw its dominant landmark – a soaring stone pillar – streaked and splattered with blood red paint.
Once crowned with a star that was removed in the dead of night by a team of firefighters in 1990, the obelisk’s latest misfortune was further compounded a few days ago when the monument was wrapped in blue and yellow materials. Plaques, too, were added featuring blunt messages such as ‘Glory to Ukraine’ and ‘F**k Russia’.
Infuriating the city’s Russian Consul, the act provoked the Consul General, Ivan Kosongov, to write to the Mayor demanding “immediate action” as well the punishment of “the perpetrators of this barbaric feat”.
The response from the city could not have been clearer. Releasing a statement to the press, City Hall replied: “Barbarism, cruelty and even genocide is being committed in Ukraine right now by the Russian army on the orders of President Putin. Civilians are being murdered, including women and children. And this is what we must deal with first – saving the lives of people being forced to flee their country.”
Touché. Others, too, have been quick to weigh in with the chairman of the city council raising a motion to remove the obelisk entirely.
Reigniting the entire debate as to what to do with the scores of Soviet memorials that remain standing in Poland, events in Ukraine promise to set off a fresh wave of iconoclasm.
But while the ruling party’s recent-ish push to “de-Communize” Poland was previously viewed by some as a sign of fertile paranoia, current circumstances have lent a new-found validity to the campaign. Where once many would have sought to defend such landmarks as valuable historic relics, it is Russia’s own actions that have seen this resistance significantly diluted.
Speaking to Radio Free Europe in 2017, it was Łukasz Kamiński, formerly of the Institute of National Remembrance, who said: “The first wave of changing street names and removing Soviet monuments came in the early 1990s.... If we want to build some basis for our future history, we need to finish it. It was our mistake that we didn’t do it completely in the 1990s, and that’s why we need to finish it now.”
Then seen in some quarters as overly-dramatic, today his words seem to carry a prescient logic. Yes, the graves of those who died should always remain sacred and respected, but should we be honouring the brutal regime under which these combatants served? Certainly, it's a question we'll be hearing more of in the coming weeks and months.