The Poles have been removing memorials thanking the Soviet Union for liberating Poland from the Nazis, which were erected around the country after World War II. There are still 200 of these memorials in Poland and the government wants them all gone.
It is a natural and normal thing for communist symbols to disappear from public spaces in Poland. So says, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. At this time, though, no one seems to know just how many monuments need to come down. There are around 200 monuments that are very visible and Luka Kaminski, director of the Polish Institute for National Remembrance (INR) in Warsaw, thinks that they have to go. “Memorials in city centers and villages can send the wrong historical signal,” he said.
Pawel Ukielski is a historian with the INR. He would love to see the largest of the memorials removed: The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw is the country’s tallest building at 231 meters high. Many Poles find it distasteful. In 2009, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called for its demolishment. His reason was that it would be cathartic for Poles to symbolically bury the Soviet era.
There is a precedent, for these actions in Poland. In the 1920’s, the new Polish state destroyed all symbols of the Czarist period. They even demolished the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in central Warsaw with a series of controlled explosions. They can’t do the same, though for the Palace of Culture and Science, since it is under heritage protection.
Up until recently, the INR had another viewpoint. In 2015, they conducted the first survey of the “gratitude monuments.” Now the monuments they studied so closely are set to be removed.
“What do you think we got, when the Soviets liberated Poland from Hitler, if not a new yoke?” said Kaminski.
There is an argument that the monuments are not about honoring the Soviets but bearing witness to an era in Poland’s postwar history. But that argument does not get much traction in this debate. Cities across Poland are moving quickly to remove their monuments. Pieniezno mayor Krystof Keijdo got his wish to remove a memorial to the Soviet war hero .
Russians still consider the town to be symbolic, even without a statue to their hero. “It is still a place of remembrance for us and we will continue to visit it in future,” Russian ambassador Sergey Andreev told DW.com. Just this winter, Andreev laid a wreath to remember the death of the Russian general.
Warsaw is unmoved. It claims not to promote the destruction of cemeteries or gravestones. They just want Polish heroes on their monuments, not Russians. Ukielski has a suggestion for one: Poland’s “outcast soldiers.” These Poles fought against the communists for years after World War II and have never been honored, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.