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Soviet History Can't Be Erased With a Bulldozer

Soviet era structures and monuments scattered across Russia and Eastern Europe are a poignant reminder of a shared history — and there are plenty of people for whom they mean a lot.  

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Last week, RT Russian reported on a list compiled by Business Insider of the ‘most absurd’ Soviet era buildings that are still standing today.

The article called the buildings ugly and bizarre — and let’s face it, some of them really are bizarre. Whether they’re ‘ugly’ or not really depends on your taste.

When I was in Bratislava last year, I got a pretty lengthy run-down on the city’s sights and architecture from the young man who manned the reception in the hostel I stayed in. When he came to the Most SNP bridge (Most Slovenského národného povstania) on the map, which spans the Danube, he said: “That’s the UFO bridge, one of the lasting scars of Communism on the landscape.”

Scars on the landscape or not, the Soviet era structures and monuments scattered across Russia and Eastern Europe are a poignant reminder of a shared history — and there are plenty of people for whom they mean a lot.

Unlike Business Insider, I don’t find it particularly absurd that they are still standing. How boring our cities would be if we just knocked everything down and started again whenever we got bored or found that our values and styles and governments had changed.

Particularly tone-deaf was the inclusion of Volgograd’s The Motherland Calls statue, commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad, which saw more than a million Soviet troops die fighting the Nazis. It's a powerful symbol of victory and pride to Russian people that was reduced to something weird and ‘absurd’ for the sake of a few clicks. Luckily, someone at Business Insider apparently had second thoughts, because The Motherland Calls statue has now been removed from the list. It would be like putting the Statue of Liberty on a list of weird American structures that are still standing today. See if that wouldn’t insult a few people.

In February this year, I spent some time in Tallinn, Estonia. It was a quick stopover after Moscow and Saint Petersburg while en route to Riga — and as lovely as the aesthetically pleasing parts of the city were, there was something I enjoyed more.

I spent an appropriately gray and dull late afternoon exploring the now-abandoned Linnahall.
Located just beyond the walls of the Old Town beside the harbor, this building could easily have made it into BI’s list of absurd Soviet structures.

With Moscow hosting the Olympics in 1980, and the city lacking a coastline, the Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport (now Linnahall) was built as a venue for the sailing events. The only part of the building still in use today is the heliport, which is used by Copterline for flights to Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland.

The place is desolate, bleak, graffiti-covered and by all accounts ‘ugly’ — and yet I’d recommend it as a must-see for anyone visiting Tallinn. Because it’s real, tangible history — and it’s more authentic than walking around a well put-together museum.

We might walk past these things in our daily lives and busily let them fade into the landscape, or we might bemoan the fact that they’ve become an irritating eyesore, but the fact that they still stand brings history to life a little bit every time we do stop and remember.

Whether they represent good, evil, or something in between, they tell stories that we should never forget. They allow us to briefly walk through another time. They give cities a sense of permanency and endurance.

I’m not talking about every crude and dilapidated Soviet era tower block. If they’re dangerous, old and too far gone for refurbishments, knock them down. Rather, I’m talking about the buildings or monuments that meant something more, that served a purpose, that were in some way a greater part of history.

This can be a touchy subject for cities, particularly in Eastern Europe where discussions of Soviet history are delicate, layered and complex. In fact, recent efforts to simplify that history by those who don’t understand its intricacies have done far more harm than good.

To understand just how touchy it can be, we needn’t look back further than 2007 when riots broke out over the removal of a Soviet war monument in Tallinn. While Estonian speakers felt the monument was a symbol of Soviet occupation, Russian speakers felt it symbolized their heroic defeat of the Nazis.

In a way, these questions of how to handle the past in the present can test a nation. They can determine whether or not a country has truly come to terms with its own history. Choosing to preserve and cherish even that which represents hardship and a troubled past can signal maturity and acceptance, whereas the instinct to destroy, erase or cover up can signal a lingering sense of insecurity — the reasons for which can be just as complex as the history itself.

But Soviet era monuments and structures represent more than just oppression and cruelty. They represent a victory which Europe could not have done without. They represent the millions of men and women who fought oppression from the outside and from within. Perhaps when it comes to Soviet architecture, the shades of gray are even unintentionally appropriate.

Clean them up, refurbish them, repurpose them or just let them be. But what use is it to tear them down? Once destroyed, they’re gone forever. History, however hard to accept, can’t be erased with a bulldozer — and it shouldn’t be.

My afternoon at Tallinn harbor would have been considerably less interesting if someone had told me “Oh yes, there used to be a building here, built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, but it’s gone now...we tore it down”.

The French writer Joseph Joubert wrote that “monuments are the grappling-irons that bind one generation to another”.

So Business Insider, that’s why they’re still standing - in all their weird, ugly and bizarre glory.

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