Statuesque Lessons

Let’s Keep The Confederate Monuments, Part I

I grew up with a very particular idea of monuments. A good statue had to appear realistic, tell a story, and seem larger than life. For that, I hold three people responsible: Vladimir Lenin, Peter the Great, and Taras Shevchenko.

Soviet elevation of realist art notwithstanding, their conventional rendering of Lenin was not, strictly speaking, realistic. You see, dedushka was rather Asian-looking, with broad face and slightly narrow eyes. Unfortunately, such representation would be unacceptable in the “unbreakable union of free republics rallied by great Russia” (to quote the USSR national anthem). The architect of the Bolshevik revolution was pictured as your typical Slavic lad: still broad-faced, but with wide blue eyes, and, in his youth, blond locks. That practice was not racist at all because racism, you see, was a capitalist pathology.

That Euro Lenin was the real Lenin to kids like me. My bored eyes studied his face on the pictures hanging above the blackboards of my classrooms. For some reason the Leader looked a bit odd, not his usual self, in grainy old newsreels regularly shown on TV. Must be the light. Or the film quality.

The post-Soviet rediscovery of Lenin’s slightly Asian features and multi-ethnic family lineage came with a healthy dose of racism. But that’s a different story.

This story is about removal of those monuments. Like the Confederate monuments in the American South, Lenin imagery conjures up a regretful time in a national history.

Soviet Statuary: Lenin and the rest

American proponents of removing the Confederate monuments often invoke the Lenin precedent. What many Americans fail to understand about Lenin imagery in the USSR, however, is the ubiquity. The Confederate monuments in the American South don’t come close in this regard. For instance, Ukraine has recently finished the removal of its Lenin monuments, toppling 1320 of them. And that’s just the latest, final stage of removal; hundreds of Lenins were already torn down in the nineties and the aughts. Most cities accumulated several of them over the Soviet period — along with countless representations of other revolutionary leaders, writers, and soldiers.

Soviet devotional imagery was inside every public building as well. Construction bureaus, universities, convenience stores, and wedding palaces all had their fair share of Lenins. In addition to the customary portrait in every classroom, my school, for instance, had a humongous painting of him speaking to the masses, which was attached to the wall above the main staircase. The only way to avoid the Communist idolatry was to be at home, with the TV off, and with the school uniform off (the later was adorned with a Lenin pin).

At times, the Lenin monument on Kiev’s central Freedom Square had to be heavily guarded by riots cops

The largest Lenin statue in Ukraine was erected in Kharkov, the city where I was born and raised. The gargantuan 20-meter figure was proportionally placed in the largest city square in Europe. The Dzerzhinsky (now Freedom) Square’s enormity was a matter of pride in our provincial city. Why take pride in the size of an empty lot? I don’t know, a Russian thing, I guess, but the square was large. So large, that the Wehrmacht used it as an airfield during the WW2 occupation.

I thought all statues ought to be similarly Lenin-imposing. The quantity of mass has quality of its own: it conveyed importance, and let everyone know who’s in charge.

In the West public sculptures tend to be of modest dimensions. The General Lee statue that formerly stood in New Orleans, for instance, is slightly more than twice the human size. The Boy in Grey and Silent Sam dismantled by Antifa were only a little bigger than a human male.

Aesthetics-wise the Kharkov’s Freedom Square Lenin was your your average socialist realist monstrosity, if slightly on the impressionist side, which was quite typical for the time and place. The equally ill-fated Kiev’s Lenin was, according to Russians, on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. I couldn’t find that list, however. Nevertheless, it was generally agreed that the Kiev sculpture, created by Sergei Merkurov, was well executed for the genre. The subject wasn’t quite as domineering, and not doing any silly gestures, like pointing towards the bright communist future.

I initially got the 2014–15 Ukraine’s leninopad, or the removal of the Communist leader’s statues, reflexively wrong, and not just on account of aesthetics. I thought that the movement that toppled the idols was a popular liberal one. It wasn’t. Having made peace with their Lenins, majorities in Ukrainian cities, like Kharkov and Kiev, wanted to keep public art in place. The perpetrators of the demolition were, in fact, NeoNazis. Given that Ukraine was in the midst of major shake up I still hesitate to call revolution, it should come as no surprise that the loud minority got what it wanted.

And yet, three years down the road, Ukraine’s most pressing problem, corruption, remains unresolved. If anything, leninopad helped to shift the focus of the ideologically-minded away from the dangerous, unglamorous work of fighting the powerful to the easier work of fighting the metal idols, which of course could not shout back or offer bribes.

The lesson in the statue that (thankfully) survived

One Russian statue that managed to survive multiple coups and revolutions is Etienne Maurice Falconet’s monument to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Most of the French sculptor’s religious art was destroyed in his country’s revolution, but, fortunately for us, Peter fared better.

The masterpiece was commissioned by Catherine the Great, and unveiled in 1782, baring the inscription on its massive podium: Petro Primo Catharina Secunda (Catherine the Second to Peter the First). From one tyrant — to another.

Falconet shows Peter sitting atop of a bucking horse, pointing to the Neva river in which delta the tzar, in a fit of foolishness, has chosen to build his capital. The figure is exquisitely balanced — to put the rider on a horse standing on his hind legs was an engineering achievement. To keep the cast from tipping, Falconet sculpted a snake, representing some sort of treachery over which the tzar has triumphed, at the horse’s feet and tail.

Breathtaking!

If the monument is the most iconic statue in Russia, it’s Pushkin’s achievement, not Falconet’s. Alexander Pushkin was Russia’s greatest romantic poet who traveled in revolutionary circles. His 1833 poem The Bronze Horseman is set in the flooded St. Petersrsburg, the city which topographic features ensured that it fills with water every spring. The poem’s protagonist Evgenii is driven mad when the rising waters destroy his beloved, and haunted by Falconet’s statue of Peter the Great, the title’s Horseman, when it mysteriously comes to life.

Some American commentators want to recontextualize the Civil War monuments instead of removing them. Maybe put some freed slaves right next to them. It’s a clever idea, but hear this: Pushkin totally recontextualized Falconet. The poem, sensored in writer’s lifetime, is now so much of the staple crop of the Russian canon, that the monument that inspired it is colloquially known as the Bronze Horseman.

Pushkin‘s work may stand as one of the most powerful condemnation of autocracy, and yet it failed to prevent the creation of the GULAGS. To the contrary, as Soviet school children were required to commit to memory lengthy passages from The Bronze Horseman, Joseph Stalin was both unleashing his reign of terror, and idolising the fellow despot Peter. He, too, positioned himself as a leader who triumphed over treachery.

Today France is a democracy, and Russia is not, but it’s probably not because the former destroyed Falconet’s parochial art. Russia had its own stage with art destruction, more or less concurrent with the creation of the GULAGS. And France, of course, went through a century of tribulations, including Robespierre’s terror.

We can recontextualize. We can tear down. But really those two actions make it easier to do the one thing we should not do: forget.

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