Vilnius Statues

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Silent Sentinels at Center of Lithuanian Debate on Bygone Era

Statues left from decades of Communist Party rule dot the Green Bridge over the Neris River in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

Published: November 11, 2013

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Watching over one of this city’s busiest thoroughfares are the sentinels of a loathed regime.

The statues of Red Army soldiers, workers, farmers and young scientists on Green Bridge, spanning the Neris River in the center of the city, are the last major monuments on public display here that still trumpet Communism, an ideology rejected by Lithuania more than two decades ago when it became the first part of the Soviet Union to declare independence.

With their shirts pushed against their broad torsos, and coats and skirts billowing around muscular legs, the statues in the mode of Socialist Realism have stood firm against the political storms that have plagued the nation’s capital. They have been less successful resisting the ravages of time. After more than six decades in the open, the iron is pockmarked and rusted. One soldier is held together by bolts and braces. A young scientist’s back is marred by a large fissure.

The decay of the statues has posed difficult questions for this still emerging country, both practical and philosophical. Should public money be spent to restore the works or should they be removed? Is it better to preserve the symbols of an ugly and unwanted past, or to try to forget?

“It would be no loss if they were demolished altogether,” said Kestutis Masiulis, a member of Parliament and a former deputy mayor of Vilnius. He said the statues insulted Lithuanians who suffered under a government that expropriated farms, quashed professional and academic freedoms and subjected more than 300,000 people to arrest, imprisonment and exile to Russian prison camps. “I sometimes feel that negative experience should somehow be erased,” he said.

Others, like Lolita Jablonskiene, the chief curator of the country’s National Gallery of Art, argue for a more “complicated attitude.”

She would not say whether she thinks the statues should stay or go. But she said they needed to be repaired, adding that she was “generally against destroying signs of memory,” particularly in a city where czarist-era Russians, Poles, Soviets and Lithuanians have taken turns demolishing one another’s monuments, and where there is now little trace of a once thriving Jewish community obliterated in the Holocaust.

“We still are discussing how public art should actually be done nowadays,” Ms. Jablonskiene said. Lithuanians, she said, need to decide if public art is “more about representation of certain state symbols, or it’s something done for the public so it feels comfortable in town.”

Lithuania, of course, is not the only country to confront such quandaries on a continent convulsed by Fascism and Communism for much of the 20th century. Yet in Vilnius, the tug of history and the desire for change compete especially vividly.

One of the best-known monuments to spring up since the departure of the Soviets is a tribute to Frank Zappa, the iconoclastic American musician, who has no connection to Lithuania. A group of Lithuanians lobbied for the bust, which sports a ponytail, shortly after independence as a way of marking a new era of free expression.

Elsewhere, a sculpture of John Lennon, the musician murdered in 1980, was erected last year on the spot formerly occupied by a vast monument to the Soviet leader Lenin. The piece, made of sand and titled “Imagine” after the song, has now been taken away for preservation, leaving the site, Lukiskes Square, next to the former headquarters for the K.G.B., eerily empty.

Several competitions have been held since the mid-1990s to devise plans to give the square a new purpose, though none of the entries won enough public support to be carried out.

The future of the statues on Green Bridge has hung in limbo since at least 2005, when the government used a beefed-up heritage law to declare the bridge and 6,000 other cultural sites protected landmarks. Opponents of the statues cite a subsequent law prohibiting symbols from the Soviet period and the Nazi occupation. Visible at the top of a flagpole held aloft by one of the soldiers is a hammer and sickle, the Soviet emblem.

Three years ago, Yuri M. Luzhkov, then Moscow’s mayor, offered to pay for the restoration of some of the statues ahead of the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by Soviet forces. Vilnius authorities flatly refused the offer.

In August, Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, announced a plan to refurbish the statues. He expects the project to take two years and cost up to $200,000, with no need to remove the statues, even temporarily.

To appease opponents, Mr. Zuokas has mounted a plaque — already rusted to look “blood red” — beneath the statues of the soldiers, to explain the brutality of the Soviet occupation, and has proposed adding similar plaques beneath the other figures. “It’s a kind of compromise,” he said. “We don’t need to act as the Soviets,” who “demolished almost everything from the past,” he said.

Another alternative, supported by the Lithuanian Political Prisoners and Deportees Union, a group representing former political prisoners, deportees and their families, is to take the statues to Grutas Park, a private theme park devoted to the Soviet era.

The park is the brainchild of Viliumas Malinauskas, a Lithuanian businessman who made a fortune trading berries and mushrooms. He now charges flocks of visitors 20 litas, or almost $8, to immerse themselves in Soviet-era memorabilia, complete with guides dressed in the red neckerchiefs of the Young Pioneers and a vast collection of art, iconography, medals, books, flags, posters and paintings.

The park’s highlights include the statue of Lenin that was removed from Vilnius. It now stands in a misty grove; its missing right thumb has become an entrance for nesting birds. Mr. Malinauskas says he has already selected a new home for the statues from Green Bridge, above a swamp, if the authorities decided to sell or loan them to him.

“I’ll build a new bridge for them,” he said.

A version of this article appears in print on November 12, 2013, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: At the Center of a Lithuanian Debate, Figures That Only Keep Silent.