Saturday, August 19, 2017

On historical monuments

Lenin in front of the hydroelectric dam in Zaporozhye, Ukraine
When Communism ended (if it has), monuments and statues began coming down.  More westerly countries like the Czech Republic and Poland led the way.  Then other countries like Hungary and the former Yugoslavia began to dismantle or take down monuments to Communism.

In Budapest, Hungary (Pest, I think) up on a hill above the Danube River, there is a park, Memento Park, which holds many of the monuments, which were taken down.  There was enough consensus to remove them, but not enough to destroy them outright.[1]

The words of architect Ákos Eleőd, the conceptual designer of Memento Park, serve as its motto: “This Park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described and built up, this Park is about democracy. After all, only democracy can provide an opportunity to think freely about dictatorship. Or about democracy, come to that! Or about anything!”

Lenin urging the troops forward in Memento Park, Budapest, Hungary

While the Hungarians have kept these statues, they didn’t leave them in the public square.  They have a place in historical memory and physical space, but they are not left to dominate public space.

In Yugoslavia streets were renamed, for instance, in Belgrade after the breakup of Yugoslavia.  The “Boulevard of the Red Army” became (once again) the “Southern Boulevard.”  We lived in Banovo Brdo (the hill above the Boulevard) in Belgrade for three years.  No one I knew ever called it “The Boulevard of the Red Army.”  It was always the “Southern Boulevard” (Južni Bulevar) in their minds. When I was there in Belgrade two summers ago, so many street names had changed that I'm sure I would get lost without a map.

Significantly, even the “House of Flowers”, Tito’s mausoleum, in Belgrade was closed.  It had hosted many groups of school children, Red Pioneers, coming to lay wreaths of flowers on his grave. The House of Flowers was closed for a decade and the guards removed.  However, after that period, it was reopened and people can once again visit.

The "House of Flowers", Tito't Mausoleum in Belgrade, Serbia

Though the House of Flowers is again open, streets dedicated to the Communist “revolution” in Belgrade (either February or November) have been renamed. Also, towns like Titove Užice [Titovo Uzheetse], Tito’s Užice, was renamed simply Užice. In Montenegro, a former republic of the former Yugoslavia, and now an independent nation, Titograd reverted to its previous name Podgorice.

In Ukraine, this discussion about monuments is a very live one.  Many people, who are Ukrainian citizens, are of Russian ethnic descent.

When I first went to Zaporozhye on the Dnieper River, there was a 30 ft (10 m) statue of Lenin on the dock of the deepest lock in Europe.  Lenin electrified the former Soviet Union, i.e. he promised to get electricity to every village.  Zaporozhye had one of the first and largest hydroelectric dams in the former Soviet Union.

Zaporozhye was an important town for the Soviet war effort in WWII.  It was a steel town and an auto maker.  It produced tanks and steel for weapons.

Vladimir Putin with a Zaporozhyets, the "Every man's car" of the former Soviet Union

Certainly, some of the dislike, even hate, of Soviet statues is that the people largely featured were ethnic Russians.  Ukrainians don’t like to be reminded of their Russian Imperial or Soviet past.

For a while, in the last six years, there was some tolerance for Lenin’s statue.  However, eventually the Parliament voted to remove all Soviet era statues.

So, Lenin came down.  The pedestal is still there, but it is wrapped in a blue and yellow cloth (the colors of the Ukrainian flag) and covered in flowers.

Lenin statue removed in Zaporozhye, Ukaine

Even in Russia Lenin isn’t so popular.  Leningrad is now known as St. Petersburg, as it was before the Communism and the Soviet Union.  Street names have likewise been changed.

Again, in Zaporozhye the bust of Felix Derzhinsky, who was the head of Lenin’s secret service, has also been removed.  Removing his bust wasn’t so controversial.

Statues and busts of Stalin still exist in places.  To some he was a war hero, saving the Soviet Union from the Nazis.  For others, he was a butcher, who ordered between 48-70 million deaths, if you include those sent to the gulags, who died there.

Are Lenin, Derzhinsky, Stalin and Tito historical figures?  Of course.  Do we or the Ukrainians or the Serbs want their monuments left up or streets and towns named after them?

History should tell the whole story.  Public monuments should be erected to people, who have stood for truth and justice, not slavery or butchery.

As my landlord in Belgrade used to joke, “Lenin said his goal was to electrify every village.  Well, now the villages are all electrified.  We can get rid of Communism!”

No comments:

Post a Comment