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Proposed Côte-des-Neiges Soviet war memorial called into question

07/23/2015 10:41 EDT | Updated 07/23/2016 05:59 EDT
A Soviet war memorial planned for a Montreal park is drawing fire from critics and prompting a review of the borough's policy on public monuments.

The Montreal Russian Organization of World War II Veterans has requested permission to build a monument in Parc MacKenzie King near the corner of St-Kevin and Westbury Avenues.

Sketches show two brownish granite pillars, one 170 centimetres tall, and the other 50 centimetres. 

The larger column has an abstract splash of green metal about halfway up and the date "1945" at the top.

But it's not the appearance of the structure that's creating an uproar in the city borough of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

Message disrespectful, critics say

The proposed inscription would read, "In memory of Soviet soldiers who fought for freedom and peace in the world."

That message has sparked condemnation from some in the Eastern European Diaspora who say it is disrespectful to those who suffered under Soviet rule.

Roman Serbyn, a retired Université du Québec à Montréal history professor, emigrated from Ukraine to Canada when he was a boy.  

He doesn't like the idea of putting up a monument to Joseph Stalin's army.  

"Freedom, not exactly," he said. 

"Because while the Western allies were liberating Europe, Soviet armies were actually conquering that part of Europe to become a part of the communist empire."

The Russian veterans group says it understands concerns but insists the monument is about people, not politics.

Organization president Mark Groysberg thinks it's important to commemorate the great sacrifice the Soviet Union made in defeating the Nazis.

"Canada lost 45,000 soldiers, the Soviet Union lost approximately 16 million.  Of course we can blame Stalin, we can blame some admirals and generals, but people who are fighting, they doesn't know about what goes on around them," he said.  

"They're fighting for freedom, they're fighting for their family, they're fighting for their land — this is for them."

The project was recently given a passing grade by borough administration.

They recommended council enter into an agreement in principle with the veterans who have promised to assume all construction and upkeep costs.

Signs pointed to a fall vote by council.  A "yes" by a majority of borough representatives would have allowed construction to begin by the end of the year.

That made some councilors uneasy, especially Projet Montréal's Madga Popeanu.  

Question of 'moral authority'

Popeanu thinks such a potentially divisive subject is too sensitive to be decided by a yes or no vote.  

"We came here, a lot of us, to have peace. To live in a nice and peaceful environment and not to bring with us the old European problems," she said.  

"My problem is I don't want to give my vote and the vote of my colleagues on an issue we don't understand. We don't have the moral authority to give it and I don't want to go further."

Popeanu wants guidelines to ensure that all proposed public memorials go through a formal process.

It seems like borough mayor Russell Copeman may agree.

Étienne Brunet, a political attaché for Copeman, said the proposal has caused the mayor to realize that the borough needs a proper review mechanism for public monuments.

Until that happens, it's unlikely this memorial will be on the council agenda.

Groysberg says the veterans are open to making changes to help ease peoples' concerns if needed.

An official number of Soviet military casualties in World War II has not been agreed upon but losses were in the millions.

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