In countries across the post-Soviet space – from Russia and Ukraine to Armenia and Azerbaijan – there is a struggle to define historical memory through the dedication of new monuments and removal of old ones.

A pro-Russian rebel reads a newspaper with portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin in central Donetsk, with a statue of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin on the right. Photo: AP

On June 16, with high-ranking Russian officials in attendance, a memorial plaque to Baron Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim (1867–1951) was placed on the façade of the Military Academy of Logistics in St. Petersburg. That might not seem like a controversial move - that is, until you consider the fascinating dual Russian-Finnish background of Mannerheim and Finland’s role in the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, one of the most important events in Russia’s collective historical memory.

Educated at the Nikolayev Cavalry School in St. Petersburg, General Mannerheim served in the Russian Imperial Army during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. During World War II, however, Mannerheim had commanded Finnish troops against the Soviet Union. He took part in the Siege of Leningrad, though he disregarded Nazi orders to advance his troops to the city from the north.

In August 1944, while still commander in chief of the Finnish army, Mannerheim was elected president of Finland. He then withdrew his troops and made peace with the Soviet Union. Thereafter, Finland enjoyed good post-war relations with the Soviet Union, which continued until Mannerheim’s death in 1952 and throughout the Cold War.

Nevertheless, there were protests in response to both the placing of the plaque and plans to expand the memorial to include the restoration of his apartment in the building. Police prevented mass protests on the streets but, three days after its unveiling, the plaque was splashed with red paint.

The initiative to memorialize Mannerheim seems to be a foreign policy gesture towards Finland that, particularly at the time of deterioration in relations with Europe, clearly ignored local sensitivities that the Russian government typically likes to highlight.

This episode demonstrates the difficult calculus of determining who deserves to have a monument and who does not, as erecting and destroying monuments is how public memory and consciousness are shaped and reshaped. Monuments are important landmarks that define a city’s landscape. They become indissolubly linked with their cities and figure in the memories of all who lived there in.

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With the Mannerheim monument, Russia aimed to improve relations with Finland, where Mannerheim is still a national hero. But it was hardly justifiable to unveil such a memorial in a city that suffered so tremendously, with Mannerheim’s participation, in World War II.

Shortly before that scandalous unveiling, another monument to a controversial historical figure was dedicated in the capital city of Armenia. On May 28, a statue of General Garegin Njdeh (1886–1955), who served in the Russian Imperial Army in World War I as the head of an Armenian volunteer unit, was unveiled in Yerevan. In 1921, he co-founded the short-lived Republic of Mountainous Armenia, an anti-Bolshevik state.

During World War II, he sided with the Nazis and established an Armenian Legion in the Wehrmacht, though the unit did not take part in military activity against the Soviet Union. [The Wehrmacht was the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1946 – Editor’s note] By 1944, as the Soviet forces advanced towards Bulgaria, Njdeh wrote a letter to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin offering cooperation against Turkey. Nevertheless, he was soon detained by new, pro-Soviet Bulgarian authorities and transferred to the Soviet Union, where in 1948 a court sentenced him to 25 years in prison for his anti-Soviet activities decades earlier, not for collaboration with the enemy.

The spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, stated that Moscow was “surprised” by the unveiling of such a monument in Armenia. Her Armenian counterpart, Tigran Balayan, as well as Eduard Sharmazanov, Vice President of the National Assembly, called her comment “inappropriate.” The dedication of the statue also caused outrage in Azerbaijan, where Njdeh was held responsible for mass killings in Azeri and Turkish villages.

Yet, the monuments policy has also been a focus of Azerbaijan authorities, which have demolished a number of Armenian monuments. Among the best-known cases were the destruction of the medieval Armenian cemetery in Nakhichevan that once included thousands of intricately carved stone crosses (khachkars) and a more recent Armenian cemetery in Baku. In 2009, the unique monument to 26 Baku Commissars, some of whom were Armenian, was also torn down in central Baku for their alleged crimes against the Azeri people. The Azeri authorities thus had, since 2000, been purging remnants of the Armenian presence in the republic.

In May 2011, a statue of another controversial Armenian, General Andranik (1865–1927), was erected in Sochi. Born in the Ottoman Empire, Andranik served in the armies of three countries: Bulgaria, Russia, and Armenia. He not only fought against the Ottomans and the Turkish Republican Army but, from 1918 to 1920, also burned Azeri and Turkish villages and massacred their inhabitants. Russian authorities reportedly had the monument dismantled in order to placate Turkish and Azerbaijani governments, particularly ahead of the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

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Another controversy occurred in 2014, when Yerevan authorities considered granting permission for a statue of Anastas Mikoyan, the highest-ranking Soviet official of Armenian descent under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Supporters of the monument pointed to Mikoyan’s role in the economic development of Soviet Armenia, as well as diplomatic efforts during the Cuban missile crisis. But the many critics noted his role in the Stalin-era great purges that cost millions of lives. Mikoyan was also accused of contributing to the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh, with a majority Armenian population, to Azerbaijan in 1923. Plans for the monument were eventually shelved.

Across the former Soviet Union, there are many examples of monuments, erected or proposed, that caused controversy. The monument to the notorious Stepan Bandera (1909–1959), a Nazi collaborator responsible for the deaths of thousands of Russians, Jews, and Poles in Ukraine, is one of the most prominent cases. In Georgia, there are many monuments to Ilia Chavchavadze (1837–1907), a famous Georgian writer, poet, and national hero, including one erected in 1957, in the center of Tbilisi. However, he was also known for his Armenophobia and xenophobia.

Activists dismantle Ukraine's biggest monument to Lenin at a pro-Ukrainian rally in the central square of the eastern city of Kharkiv, September. 28, 2014. Photo: AP

After major historical and social upheavals, people often turn their rage against monuments. This can be traced to the time of ancient Egypt and Rome. In Russia, after the October Revolution, the monument to Emperor Alexander III was torn down - as was the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877–1926), founder of the Soviet Emergency Committee (Cheka), the first Soviet state security organization, in 1991. The same happened with Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s statues in Kiev and other cities in Ukraine during and after the Euromaidan protests in 2013-2014.

The erection and destruction of monuments sits at the center of a complex field of relations between art, history, memory and politics. Changing monuments is an efficient way to shape and reshape public and individual consciousness. But those who make these decisions to build a monument should be aware that the historical memory of their neighbors should be respected. Men (and women) who are heroes for some are villains for the others. Those who decide to destroy them should remember the words of the famous Polish poet Stanislaw Lec, “When you're smashing monuments, save the pedestals. They always come in handy.”

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.