Legnica (Pologne) (AFP) – For nearly 70 years, an imposing monument to Soviet Red Army soldiers dominated a central square in the southwestern Polish town of Legnica.
Known as Little Moscow, Legnica hosted the largest Soviet military base in Poland during the Cold War.
But one day recently, in the early hours, the classic example of Stalinist-era propaganda was hauled away to a warehouse to be mothballed with dozens of other monuments under a new decommunisation law.
According to town spokesman, Arkadiusz Rodek, Legnica acted in order to qualify for a state refund of the removal costs, which had included hiring a crane.
“After the (end-March) deadline, we would have paid out of our own pocket,” he told AFP.
Although the Soviet Union drove Nazi German forces out of occupied Poland towards the end of World War II, Moscow went on to impose its own brand of totalitarianism until the regime collapsed in 1989.
Now, nearly three decades on, Poland’s governing rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party is bent on removing all vestiges of the communist system, even judges who served during that era, as part of a series of controversial reforms.
From statues to street names, the government’s strong nationalist views underpin an enduring aversion to communism, which it views as primarily a form of foreign domination.
– ‘Glorifying communism’ –
Under the 2016 law, the PiS government put the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) — responsible for prosecuting Nazi and communist-era crimes — in charge of removing around 300 monuments nationwide.
“They glorify the communist regime in public spaces, so they must be dismantled and transferred to museums showcasing communist propaganda,” IPN chief and historian Maciej Korkuc told AFP.
In Legnica, the 2.5-tonne (5,500-pound) bronze statue is of a strapping Red Army soldier shaking a Polish soldier’s hand in a fraternal but dominant gesture of congratulations to Poland for its post-war “freedom”.
The soldiers also hold a little girl dressed as a communist youth pioneer, symbolising a bright future.
Dozens of communist monuments still stand across Poland, which has long been a European Union and NATO member, and their removal has rankled Russia.
Several statements by lower-level Russian officials have accused Poland of ingratitude as well as disrespecting Red Army soldiers.
– Soviet tanks –
Meanwhile, critics at home, including the liberal opposition, view the PiS’s decommunisation drive as a bid to impose its own version of history.
In the southern town of Lapanow, a memorial to the communist militia killed by the anti-communist resistance in 1946 has been rededicated to the so-called “cursed soldiers” of the Polish resistance, a group now promoted by the IPN.
But many municipalities oppose sweeping away relics of recent history.
In the northern city of Elblag, authorities circumvented the law and kept a Soviet T-34 tank in a park by donating it to a museum as a historical artifact.
The nearby town of Malbork tried to sell its tank but failed to find a buyer.
“It’s always been here; as children, we played cat and mouse or hide-and-seek around it. It never bothered anyone. It was always an attraction,” Malbork resident Mateusz Jablonski told AFP.
The PiS government is also working on a new draft law to demote communist-era generals, some posthumously.
“It’s unprecedented in Polish history; there have never been demotions, whether after World War I or World War II,” Monika Jaruzelska, daughter of the late General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s last communist leader, told AFP.
“If there were, it was over acts of treason and it was left up to the courts to decide,” she added.
– Re-writing history? –
The IPN has also compiled a list of 1,500 streets and organisations to be renamed, but the move faces grassroots opposition.
In Sosnowiec, a southern mining town, residents have been vocal about keeping a roundabout named after Edward Gierek, who was born nearby and became a firebrand communist working in the coal mines of northern France and Belgium before returning to Poland to become the communist party’s popular leader in 1970.
Veterans’ families have also protested against the renaming of streets dedicated to Poles who fought dictator Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
Warsaw residents complained when the Avenue of the People’s Army was switched to Lech Kaczynski Avenue after the late Polish president killed in a 2010 jet crash in Russia.
He was the identical twin of powerful PiS party chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a former communist-era dissident now widely regarded as Poland’s main powerbroker.
PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also says he “dreams” of demolishing the Palace of Culture and Science, a soaring Stalinist-era tower in the heart of Warsaw.
But while the PiS still regards this icon of Socialist-realist architecture “gifted” by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a symbol of foreign domination, polls show that residents want the landmark to stay put.