Back in the USSR | The Complex Legacy of Soviet-Era Monuments

Writer, photographer & skateboarder Daryl Mersom has spent the last year exploring the former Eastern Bloc through its monolithic statues

by Daryl Mersom
Oct 8 2018, 9:04pm

A Soviet soldier lunges forward, arms stretched out, protecting the distinctive walls of the Kremlin – the heart of the USSR. Behind him, he is backed up by soldiers from across their vast, multifaceted union. They wear stars on their helmets, have chiseled jaws, and brandish grenades. On this quiet weekday evening in Almaty, a solitary flame burns in front of the monument, and a girl squats for a picture in front of the war dead.

The USSR once consisted of over 100 ethnic groups: Kazakhs, Tajiks, Georgians, and Belorussians, to name just a few. Often in Central Asian monuments, these various peoples are represented standing together in solidarity against the enemy. Local elders are depicted waving off young Soviet soldiers as they leave to fight in Europe or Afghanistan. All were expected to work together to defend their homeland. This is the Friendship of the Peoples motif, an ideal for which an official medal was awarded.

Throughout 2018, I have wandered the former USSR, from Latvia to Kazakhstan, in search of Soviet-era monuments. Each tells its own story, and offers insights into the independent country in which it now sits. Was I in search of the relics of failed utopias, looking for a world beyond my own, or was I merely gawping at ruin porn?

One socialist realist frieze in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo: Daryl Mersom

There’s been a mixed crowd at the monuments I have visited this year. Patriots, tourists in bright anoraks, people of all ages. Soviet monuments now host political protests, feature in skateboarding videos, and are sometimes simply places for drunks to sit in peace. Far from being forgotten about, they are live cultural sites in former Soviet cities, to which people respond in all manner of ways.

At the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen in Almaty, the response tends to be shock and disbelief when Dennis Keen, founder of Walking Almaty, calls into question the official narrative that the memorialised soldiers died in heroic circumstances, defending Moscowagainst German tanks.

The etched faces of the multiethnic Red Army. Photo: Daryl Mersom

“Local Kazakhs are shocked to hear the ‘real story’, that all of this never happened quite as people were told”, he tells me. “They are still taught the Panfilov legend in school, and it is reinforced every year on holidays such as Victory Day. To question the myth is to question all the legends they’ve heard about the bravery of their parents and grandparents, and it strikes many here as provocative.”

Granite blocks near the main monument have since been updated to reflect our new understanding of the event. The dates for soldier Grigory Shemyakin were given as 1906-1941, with him dying in battle. “Shemyakin actually lived in Almaty for three decades after the war, and so his monument was later changed to read 1906-1973”, says Dennis.

The jagged, stark Monument to the Victims of Fascism in Kaunas, Lithuania. Photo: Daryl Mersom

But it’s wrong to think that people’s experiences of Soviet-era monuments are always clouded by contentious politics and history. With their granite ledges, benches, and stairs, Soviet memorials are also great for skateboarding. Growing up as an avid skateboarder myself, these perfect skate spots occasionally cropped up in the skate videos I watched, and rarely was any political or historical context given. These glimpses ignited my interest in Soviet architecture, which I was able to indulge earlier this year.

I travelled to Bratislava in April with Slovakian professional skateboarder Marek Zapraznyto produce a short documentary on the city’s Soviet-era architecture, and his engagements with it. (Slovakia was of course, outside of the Soviet Union itself, but as part of the satellite state of Czechoslovakia its architecture and monuments were heavily influenced by that of the USSR). “Growing up around Bratislava wasn’t the easiest for skating,” Marek told me, “we would skate the architecture built during the Soviet era because it was smooth.” Slavín memorial is both a striking example of Soviet architecture and a great skate spot.

Even functional architecture in the former Yugoslavia was often designed to be monumental – as with these apartment blocks in Zagreb, Croatia, known as the “Rakete”, meaning “rockets”. Photo: Daryl Mersom

When I visited Slavín memorial I walk to the top of the stairs, and circle it. It is ringed with the names of the Slovakian cities liberated by the Soviets – Bratislava, Dukla, Prešov, Košice, Liptovský Mikuláš – all in marble relief. From the steps on top of Slavín Hill the whole of Bratislava is visible: the UFO Tower, the colourful Petržalka micro-district over the Danube river, and the forests behind it. If it weren’t for the drone flying overhead, it would’ve been very peaceful.

The atmosphere on Slavín Hill was completely different to Ukraine, my next destination, where politics seemed to be very much in people’s minds, after the annexation of Crimea and the war in the east of the country. I was struck by how many blue and yellow national flags were on display in Kyiv. The debate over the monuments and what they represent was very much a live one.

The shimmering, dominant Motherland Monument in Kyiv, Ukraine, Photo: Daryl Mersom

In 2015, a law was passed that prohibited Soviet-era symbols from public spaces in Ukraine. They are now being removed in a process of decommunization. The Motherland Monument, with its hammer and sickle shield, stands prominent above the city, and is a rare exception.

One thing all of the memorials have in common is their vast scale, and their prominent positions in their respective cityscapes. They are positioned on top of the city’s highest point, at the end of its main prospect, or in the grounds of its largest park. They loom large, as they were intended, but have taken on different significance – to residents and tourists alike – since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Their legacies now divide, rather than unify: to some, they represent opportunity, ambition, and the pursuit of a classless, peaceful society free from want; to others, they embody repression, secrecy, and a life of fear and disconnection. Like grand, towering Rorschachs, they leave themselves open for interpretation – what you take from them reveals more about your own outlook than it does of their history.

The unusual jutting construction of the Kaunas monument. Photo: Daryl Mersom

It goes without saying that if you rock up to celebrate victory day with the veterans, as in Kazakhstan, you’ll see something different from the kids who merely want to skate the steps in Slovakia. But what’s fascinating about these monoliths is that wherever you encounter them, in whichever former Soviet state or satellite you visit, they still sit at the centre of something.

Daryl Mersom is a freelance journalist, based in Riga, Latvia. Keep up with him on Instagram. You can watch the video he filmed with Slovakian skateboarder Marek Zaprazney here.