Friday, May 18, 2007

Window on Eurasia: War Memorials in Russia Suffer from Neglect, Vandalism, Exploitation

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 18 – Even as Moscow denounces other countries for failing to maintain and protect World War II Soviet war memorials and demands the international community step in to protect them, the Russian people now face a most unwelcome reality: their own country has a worse track record in this area than do most others.
This possibility was hinted at by the coverage the demontage of a monument in the Moscow suburb of Khimki to Soviet fliers from World War II and their clumsy exhumation and reburial by local officials to allow for the widening of a street (See, among many articles,
But an article in “Novyye izvestiya” yesterday not only suggested that Khimki is far from atypical but warned that the entire network of memorials to Soviets citizens who fought in World War II has suffered from official neglect, vandalism, and crude exploitation by entrepreneurs in the years since 1991 (
While the majority of Soviet war memorials under federal control are supervised in “a more or less serious” way by the Ministry of Culture, the paper said, even it devotes less than 500 million rubles (18 million U.S. dollars) each year to the maintenance and protection of all monuments, many of which of course are not related to the war.
But the situation in Russia’s regions, where a far larger number of war memorials exist, is far worse. The regional authorities have little or no money to devote to these tasks, often are unable to protect these monuments from vandals, and thus turn them over to private entrepreneurs who seek only profits generated from the tourist trade.
Just how bad the situation is country-wide is almost impossible to say: According to Yevgeniy Bulochnikov, the chef architect of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments (VOOPIK), the government does not even have a complete registry of military monuments.
But “Novyye izvestiyia” provided some telling, albeit anecdotal, evidence. In Novgorod oblast, it says, there are approximately 600 war memorials of various kinds, many of which were set up by individual collective farms in Soviet times. Now, the collective farms are gone, and there is no institution or funds to take their place.
Indeed, in one district there, the authorities are able to allocate only about 300 rubles (13 U.S. dollars) annually for the upkeep of each monument. Concerned private individuals make up some of the shortfall by contributing their own time and labor, but that is hardly enough.
Meanwhile, in Saratov oblast, there are more than 700 memorials and monuments dedicated to those who lost their lives in World War II, but “alas,” the newspaper says, “many of the graves of the warriors have simply disappeared or been transformed into trash dumps.”
“In Soviet times,” another VOOPIK activist told “Novyye izvestiya,” “funds for the restoration of monuments were allocated in every region. But now this practice does not exist.” And in contrast to earlier times, only seven of the country’s 89 regions don’t even have special offices devoted to the problems of monuments and memorials.
Such official neglect and lack of money are compounded by two other problems, the paper said. On the one hand, some monuments suffer from such frequent vandalism that local officials put up the metallic features of these monuments only on public holidays. Anything left longer is likely to be defaced or stolen, they said.
On the other, there are unconstrained private entrepreneurs who on occasion destroy the symbolism of such war monuments by opening bars and often entertainment centers not just near but on the grounds of these memorials, something that detracts from their meaning for the Russian people.
And all these problems are made still worse in the minds of many Russians because their own government not only has protected German war memorials on Russian territory via its laws but also failed to make the kind of investments Germany has in maintaining its military cemeteries there.
Last week, a Moscow plinth erected in memory of anti-Bolshevik White Russians who fought against Stalin was vandalized. But one news agency pointedly suggested that Russians had taken this step because officials had rejected demands that monument should be razed “by legal means” (
At the same time, “Novyye izvestiya” reported, Germany has poured money into protecting and maintaining its cemeteries and memorials on Russian territory. In 1997, for example, Berlin backed the development of a special German Soldiers Cemetery not far from Smolensk, a project that Russian architects help design.
When Russian veterans demanded that work on this cemetery be stopped, its Russian architect said he would be happy to work to build a Russian cemetery pro bono but that the veterans would have to come up with the money. They never did and so the well-maintained German cemetery there continues to be the only one there.
The architect said he was sure that the money could have been found but added, “Our authorities do not have any idea how necessary it is to get involved with this.” And he added, he is “ashamed that the German cemetery looks better than the Soviet one.”
Whether such reports will make the Russian government more critical or less of other countries where Soviet war memorials are located remains to be seen. But one thing seems clear: ever more Russians are likely to be outraged by this situation in their own country and to direct their anger not at foreigners but at their own government.

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