Catching up with Political Correctness in Ukraine
Let’s Keep The Confederate Monuments, Part II
I recently wrote about Russian and Soviet monuments, some of which have been removed in recent decades. This is my second, and last, part of the essay.
Ukraine’s current adventure in monument demolition is not limited to Lenin devotionals. The country’s decommunization law, supported, according to one poll, by the whooping 10.5% of the population, prescribes removal of its entire catalog of the public Communist images, save for the Great Patriotic War (WWII) memorials. The lack of enthusiasm for the decommunization campaign has less to do with support for Russia or nostalgia for the Commie heritage than the desire of ordinary Ukrainians to be left alone.
The law requires erasure of every red star everywhere, but it’s application seems spotty. For instance, in Kharkov, a block away from the now empty Lenin pedestal stands the monument to Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko.
Shevchenko, who is accknoledged to be the founder of modern Ukranian literature, had authored some of the most melodic verses in the Ukrainian language. Born in serfdom, the young Taras was bought out by St. Petersburg intelligentsia once he had shown extraordinary potential as a painter. The poet is best described as a 19th century Romantic nationalists, and like many other nationalists of the time, he was also a socialist. That played well into the early Soviet korenization policy which sought to promote ethnic identity within the communist framework.
Kharkov’ glory days span 1917 to 1934 when the Bolsheviks made it the capital of Ukrainian Socialist Republic, expanding the city’s industrial and academic sectors, and beautifying its streets. That’s when the Shevchenko monument was commissioned.
Sculptor Matvei Manizer created the statue in style of Stalinist Baroque. (Yes, it’s a real thing, a subset of socialist realism, stylistically Baroque, but with the unmistakable communist propaganda angle.) The 16-meter sculptural group showcases the larger-than-life kobzar, or bard, surrounded by personages lifted from his life, poetry, and a kommissar’s pamphlet. As per Marxist view of history, the figures around the poet are arranged in an upward spiral. Historical panorama starts with the lowly serf Kateryna cradling an infant. Kateryna, who shares the first name with the kobzar’s own beloved mother, is the disowned unwed mother of his poem. A step above her is occupied by a male serf raging in agony, and some haidamacks breaking their bondage. Haidamacks were 18th century genocidal raiders in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth whom Shevchenko romanticised in his early eponymous early work.
These personages are followed by historical figures, one of them, like Shevchenko, is a soldier in the tzar’s army. We see toiling peasants and a worker picking up the banner of the abortive 1905 revolution, revolutionaries, and a Red Army soldier. On the top platform, the one representing the brave new world of socialism, are a collective farm worker (the statue was erected a few short years after Holodomor, mind you), a miner, and, finally, a female continuing student, proudly walking under the Soviet flag. The monument explained to Ukrainians how Shevchenko’s dreams came to be realised through revolutionary struggle of the long-suffering Ukrainian people.
Actors from a local theater modeled for Manizer’s sculpture, giving it an expressive, theatrical feel. The composition is harmonious, and the message is hard to miss. Totalitarian mindset rarely allows for ambiguity.
If the decommunisation law to be applied evenly, parts of the Shevchenko monument have to go. Even the most narrow reading of it mandates the removal of Communist stars, such as the one on the hat of the Red Army soldier. If the spirit of the law to be followed, the whole sculpture, which is, quite obviously an exercise in Stalinist propaganda, has to be uprooted.
This is Shevchenko, however, the founding father of Ukrainian nationalism. Not only the monument is safe, but Ukrainian nationalists like to rally in its shadow.
If judged by contemporary Socialist Realist standards, Manizer’s compelling Baroque piece falls short. The haidamacks are pretty darn unacceptable, and Ukraine’s neighbor and the EU member Poland, I’m sure, has something to say about them.
Moreover, the figures congregating around kobzar are presumed to be ethnic Ukrainians. Yet turn of the 20th century, Ukraine was 10% Jewish and 5% Polish, with many more Russians and multiple small minorities, most notably Tatars. Cossacks have Turkish roots. Where is that history?
Feminists, too, should have their differences with Manizer. The two female characters in the composition, the first and the last, represent the deepest suffering of Ukrainian people under the yoke of serfdom, and the bright future opened up by the Soviet order. They are not represented as historical actors, and yet the 1917 revolution was started by women.
I am willing to believe that Shevchenko was not personally anti-Semitic, or anti-Polish, or anti-anything, except maybe quite a bit of a misanthrope, and that he wrote Haidamacki to give voice to a nationalist Ukrainian perspective. Still, here is no denial that Shevchenko’s verses, whatever their intent, continue to inspire anti-Semitic outbreaks. For instance, on the eve of Passover in 2013 leaflets with portrait of Taras Shevchenko and quotations from Haidamacki and the stamp of Ukraine’s ultranationalist Svoboda Party were glued to Jewish landmarks in Kiev. Quotations in question:
Give me a Polak, give me a Yid! Too much is not enough! Let me draw blood out of the Polak, the wicked! A sea of blood! No sea too small!
Oh, I can’t drink vodka, can’t drink wine. Don’t you slay, oh cursed Jews!
I prefer to focus on Shevchenko’s Romantic beauty and Manizer’s drama. Did both men not tell us something essencial about the agony of slavery, or the sorrow of the abandoned woman for instance? They were faliable men, and men of their times, and their art should be judged as such. Yet the art they had created transcends their particulars; it’s universal.
With kobzar’s monument gone or partially destroyed, Kharkov would be just another provincial town. My childhood ideas of beauty will be assaulted, too.
I feel the same about the Confederate monuments. Is Charlottesville better off without the General Lee statue (and the Thomas Jefferson statue)? If we were to erect a pro-slavery sessassionalist public art today, I would be strongly opposed to it. I would remove the recent pieces as well. However, we are talking about statues that’s been part of landscape of the Southern cities for a long period of time, often more than a century. To me, their presence is a stamp of history, not a stamp of approval of anything that these figures did in their lifetime. They stand as witnesses, and as reminders. They tell us what it meant to end slavery, and just how attached the South was to the peculiar institution.
Depositing a symbol of past injustice might feel good. It’s worth noting, however, that people who topple monuments are hardly heroes themselves. It was true of those who destroyed Falconet’s work, it’s true of Ukrainian nationalist, and it’s true of Antifa. Antifas not the types willing to patiently work through our constitutional system, preferring psycho outbreaks, and ill-advised solutions. They don’t allow for ambiguities.
When I look at the Confederate monuments, I see them as an expression of weakness. They tell us of the wounded pride of a defeated faction. Confederacy, slavery, and Jim Crow were defeated on the battlefield, defeated in courts, and, most importantly, defeated in the court of public opinion. They have less impact on our political culture than Peter the Great on Russia’s. Instead of recontextualising Confederate monuments, we should bring the original context back: they are story not of victory, but of gradual, often violent, defeat.