2022.07.24 10:00

Latvia’s decision to remove tribute to Soviet dissident Sakharov is ‘cultural barbarism’ – opinion

In Latvia, a decision was made to rename a street previously named after Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet dissident and 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. According to Robert van Voren, head of the Andrei Sakharov Research Center for Democratic Development in Lithuania, this is part of a new trend when everything related to Russian culture “needs to be eradicated out of protest against Putinism”.

A week ago, I unexpectedly received a copy of a decision by the mayor of Riga regarding the changing of Russian street names in the city. The move seemed somewhat odd. Why change the names of streets dedicated to Turgenev, Pushkin, and Lermontov? These writers had nothing to do with Russian imperialism – let alone with Putinism – just like streets named after Thomas Mann, Goethe, and Schiller have nothing to do with National Socialism in Nazi Germany. But then, one name caught my eye – the name of Andrei Sakharov, whose street was also suddenly changed to “Karja Skalbjiu street”.

The poet Karja Kārlis Skalbe undoubtedly deserves a street named after him, and I am sure there is plenty of reason why he has a museum in the Latvian village of Vecpiebalga. But why remove the name of Andrei Sakharov, the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was the leading figure in the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, who did so much for the liberation of the whole region of Central and Eastern Europe and the now former Soviet Union? And who, because of all his contributions to peace, progress, and stability, has a Prize of the European Parliament named after him?

Unfortunately, this unholy decision is part of a new trend – anything related to Russia, the Russian language, or Russian culture needs to be eradicated out of protest against Putinism and the threat coming from Moscow.

Like many of my colleagues and friends, I am disgusted by what is happening in Ukraine and Russia in general. Alas, as I foresaw long before Maidan and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, Putinism has become an existential threat to the whole region.

Among my warnings was an article in the Dutch newspaper NRC in 2015, in which I called Putin a pyromaniac who first sets fire and then pretends he is coming to the rescue. He was a pyromaniac then, and he continues to be one. Even now, he pretends to be a “peacekeeper” who is out to “save” the people of Donbas. Or, even more cynically, “the children of Donbas”, who he is killing in large numbers by dumping stockpiles of outdated Soviet missiles on Ukrainian territory as part of his scorched earth policy.

To me, Putin is a sort of reincarnation of Hitler. He is a person who would most probably be found to be mentally healthy, as were the 22 Nazi leaders who were on trial in Nurnberg. As my colleague put it, to call him mentally ill is an insult to people with mental illness. But because of his psychopathology, megalomania, and belief in his own historical role, he is condemning his nation to total destruction in exactly the same way Hitler did with the Germans at the end of the Second World War. I would not be surprised if in the end he, like Hitler, will decide that Russians are not worth surviving this war and thus should be wiped off the face of the earth.

However much I believe that the disintegration of Russia is the only solution to the current world crisis, I feel an increasing aversion to the process that is now ongoing. People waste their time changing street names, often without any historical knowledge. They refuse to speak Russian even when that is the only effective communication channel, and they try to show themselves as being “more Orthodox than the Pope”. In a recent altercation on Facebook, a person born in 1988 found it quite reasonable to eradicate from Kyiv’s history the name of Viktor Nekrasov, who was one of the prominent Ukrainian dissidents in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was forced into emigration in 1974. Viktor Platonovich Nekrasov was born in Kyiv, and anybody who knew him would have absolutely no doubt which side he would be on today. To link him to Putinist Russia is, in my view, an unforgivable insult.

I am becoming increasingly frustrated and worried about this trend. Yes, I speak Russian, and I try to understand Ukrainian to the best of my ability, yet I am not Putin’s agent, nor am I a proponent of Russian imperialism. Yes, I speak German, but that does not make me a fascist, and the fact that my uncle was killed by the Nazis doesn’t prevent me from using that language when needed. I am trying to fight this war in my own way, day and night, with the tools and abilities I have, and those who know me have no doubt on whose side I am.

But I am against this “Talibanism”, this hardline cultural barbarism, and I cannot keep silent. If the fight against Putinism turns into a form of “Talibanism”, it is not a sign of strength but weakness, and it is bound to fail. Narrow-minded, provincial, and uneducated Soviets changed street names in Soviet times. Soviets thought they could “re-write” history. And Soviets cut people out of photos because they were no longer desired.

What we are fighting against is Sovietism, which now has the face of Putinism but is not different from that of Stalinism or any of the other “isms” that have infected this part of the world. The only way to win this war is by not sinking to the level of the opponent but by remaining democratic, tolerant, and open-minded. And by opposing the actions of those who are as narrow-minded as our enemy. You cannot fight Putinism with Talibanism.

Robert van Voren, born in the Netherlands and living in Lithuania for many years, is a professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at the Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, and the Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and executive director of the Andrei Sakharov Research Center for Democratic Development in Lithuania.

UPDATE: Ivars Drulle, a councillor of Riga City and co-chair of the working group on street renaming issues, has reached out to after the publication of this opinion piece. According to him, no decision has been made in the Riga City Council to rename Sakharov Street.