A monument honoring Russian and Soviet soldiers has been unveiled in a military cemetery in Esztergom, Hungary, two weeks before Russian leader Vladimir Putin visits the country. The Russian ambassador to Hungary pointedly mentioned the timing at the unveiling ceremony, casting the monument as “an important part of a big cooperation” between the two countries. Obviously, the monument is more than just a piece of artwork commemorating long-ago events. But why is it so important?
The battle over monuments in Eastern Europe is intimately connected to the broader battle over history, memory, and the narrative of Soviet communism in the region. And this isn’t a battle waged by professors in the pages of low-circulation academic journals—it’s a matter of international affairs that has led to diplomatic fracases and even crippling cyberattacks. It’s a public battle over whether the truth will prevail in the public mind.
The facts of history are clear. On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a treaty to divide up Eastern Europe. The pact allowed Hitler to invade Poland on September 1, 1939 and the Soviet Army to invade on September 17. The fact that Hitler betrayed the Soviets’ trust a year later does not change the fact that Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany invaded Poland together.
When the Soviets began winning battles against Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front, they resumed conquering Eastern Europe where they had left off in 1939. The Soviet military expelled the Germans from Hungary and overthrew the Nazi-aligned Hungarian government by April 15, 1945. However, the Soviets never left. Instead, tanks brought political operatives and KGB agents, who from 1945-1946 deported over half a million Hungarians (approximately 200,000 of which were civilians) to labor camps in the Soviet Union.
In 1956, Hungarians rebelled against the Soviet-backed Hungarian communist government. For a fleeting few weeks in November, it looked like Hungary might gain its freedom. Famously, the Hungarians were the first communist country to tear down a giant statue of Stalin. In response to the revolution, the Soviets and other Warsaw Pact countries sent an army to Budapest to brutally repress the Hungarians. By November 10, 1956, they had killed about 3,000 Hungarian civilians and displaced nearly 200,000 others. Imre Nagy, the leader of the reform movement, was executed.
When Imre Nagy was reburied as a hero on June 16, 1989, a young Viktor Orbán addressed the massive Hungarian audience. He said: “We can put an end to the Communist dictatorship; if we are determined enough we can force the Party to submit itself to free elections; and if we don’t lose sight of the ideals of 1956, then we will be able to elect a government that will start immediate negotiations for the swift withdrawal of Russian troops.” The 55,000 Soviet troops still stationed in the country were forced to withdraw by June 19, 1991 to shouts and banners of “Russians, go home!”
After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the status of Soviet monuments in Hungary and elsewhere was ambiguous. The statues of Lenin were carted off, but some monuments to Red Army soldiers themselves—like the one in Budapest’s Freedom Square—stayed put. However, when Central and Eastern European countries have decided to move these monuments at later dates, the reaction has been explosive. When Estonia relocated a monument to its Soviet “liberators,” it suffered massive cyberattacks. Ukraine in 2015 passed a law banning all communist symbols, arousing Russia’s ire and leading to the farcical prosecution of individuals like filmmaker Oleg Sentsov for supposedly planning to demolish a statue of Lenin. Latvia and Poland have also considered laws to remove communist-era monuments.
What of Hungary’s new monument to Soviet soldiers? It was funded by the Peacemakers and Peace Russia Foundation, founded in 2010 as a spinoff of the League for Human Dignity and Security, an organization created by the late Soviet general Valentin Varennikov, who was infamous as a ringleader of 1991’s hardline communist coup d’état attempt and a vociferous defender of Joseph Stalin.
It’s certainly strange that a country that so recently applauded the “withdrawal of Russian troops” is now honoring them in ceremonies timed to coincide with Vladimir Putin’s visit. The pattern seems clear—countries that threaten the Soviet patriotic myth get punished, countries that embrace it get rewarded. But these rewards come at the cost of abandoning historical truth.