Letter from Europe

The politics of memorials

Issue no. 2018/3

Picture above: Statue of Vladimir the Great on Borovitskaya Square in Moscow near the Kremlin (photo © Vladimir Zhuravlev / dreamstime.com).


In Russia, as more widely, the question of who is honoured in statues and memorials is deeply political. So too is the question of when the first memorial is erected and how long it remains. Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the feared Soviet secret police, is a good example. But what of Ivan the Terrible and Vladimir the Great?

Dear fellow travellers

It is sixty years since a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky was erected in Lubyanskaya Square in the heart of Moscow. The year was 1958. Stalin had been dead for over five years and Nikita Khrushchev was busy presiding over the Soviet Union’s Virgin Lands programme - helped along by the fact that the harvest in 1958 was unusually good.

Felix Dzerzhinsky was the first head of the feared Soviet secret police, the all-seeing force often known as the Cheka. He died in 1926. It took 32 years after his death for the Soviet leadership to commission the huge iron statue of Dzerzhinsky which was placed right in front of the Lubyanka interrogation centre and prison - at that time the KGB headquarters. It was a reminder that although Lavrentiy Beria may have been sidelined and executed in the squabble for power after Stalin's death, the spirit of Dzerzhinsky was still around. On the other side of the road, opposite the KGB Headquarters, was Moscow's largest toy shop, Detsky Mir, which had opened in 1957. Iron Felix (as the statue was known) looked over towards the toy shop.

Move on another 32 years, and a second, much smaller, memorial appeared next to Felix Dzerzhinsky in Lubyanskaya Square. It was a stone from the prison camp on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. In this tundra wasteland, opponents of the Soviet regime had been detained during Stalin's purges. The writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described the Solovki camp as "the mother of the GULAG."

With that reminder of Solovki so close at hand, it wasn't long before Dzerzhinsky was toppled from his plinth. That came in 1991. Across central and eastern Europe, other Dzerzhinsky memorials were quietly removed. Squares named in honour of Dzerzhinsky in his native Poland were renamed. One in Warsaw became Bank Square while one in Wroclaw was renamed in honour of the Dominicans. The new names together symbolized Poland's post-Communist pieties.

But the architect of red terror has not completely disappeared. A new Dzerzhinsky statue was unveiled in Kirov last September. Felix Dzerzhinsky spent some years in exile in the Kirov region, and many in that area evidently still revere Dzerzhinsky for his revolutionary credentials.

Some shudder at Dzerzhinsky's return to prominence in Kirov. But elsewhere in the Russian Federation, other historical figures of questionable repute are back in vogue. Ivan the Terrible seems to be enjoying a comeback with two new statues to the tyrant having been erected in Russian cities in the last 18 months. One was promptly stolen which may suggest that the Russian public has mixed views on Ivan. That sculpture subsequently turned up in Moscow where it's now on public display. The other Ivan statue is in Oryol, a provincial city south-west of Moscow.

Ivan the Terrible was certainly one of Russia's most divisive rulers. If Ilya Repin's celebrated painting is to be believed, Ivan even killed his own son. As the Oryol statue was unveiled, the regional governor presiding over the ceremony remarked that Ivan "only killed a few thousand people and most of those were members of the elite."

Meanwhile, back in Moscow another extraordinary statue appeared recently by one of the main entrances to the Kremlin - the gate regularly used by President Vladimir Putin. The new statue is of Vladimir the Great. We'll leave you to draw your own conclusions here.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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