“And you, disdainful descendants …” —Lermontov
With the Russian-backed war in eastern Ukraine, the country’s government has responded with laws designed to rid Ukraine’s public spaces of communist relics. Their destruction proclaims a deep desire to change the cultural narrative.
Communist symbols of all kinds will be erased from the public consciousness, starting with statues of Lenin.
The Ukrainian government calls this vast social engineering project “de-communization.”
This re-staging of history is not new. Before the Russian Revolution, the tsars decorated villages, towns, cities and fields with ornate and outsized monuments to the glories of Imperial Russia, past and future. Statues, obelisks and other monumental constructions anchored every squares, on which streets large and small converged from all sides.
The Bolshevik victors tore these down.
After 1917, the Bolsheviks stated that monumental propaganda was, of course, a matter of great importance—Lenin himself had emphasized it was so, and initiated his Monumental Propaganda plan.
The ‘plan’ consisted of two main projects: (1) decorating buildings and other surfaces “traditionally used for banners and posters” with revolutionary slogans and memorial relief plaques; and (2) the erection of monuments to honour revolutionary leaders.
The ‘de-communization’ plan by the Ukrainian authorities is a traditional tactic, with no surprises. The people of the USSR were constantly obliged to tear pictures out of their books and remove framed portraits of former leaders of the Revolution and heroes of the Civil War. In 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a total restoration of capitalism began. The CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) was disbanded. It was proposed that Lenin be removed from the Mausoleum and the Tsar’s family be buried with full honours. There was no more Leningrad; it was now St. Petersburg.
The Soviet poet Mayakovsky once wrote: “Whoever does not sing with us today, he is against us.”
Across Ukraine today, the Soviet monuments are rapidly disappearing. Empty pedestals sit with an inscription someone has attempted to erase, but not completely: V. I. LENIN. How do these empty granite cubes affect people’s imaginations? Do they feel powerfully there ought to be someone standing on it? And if no one is standing on top, then how do these absences affect the references of the citizenry, the topographical and metaphysical sense of place, of belonging to something?
A common belief of every new generation is that they are inherently different and will never be like their ancestors. But that is not the way things seem to work out. The present generations are no better or worse than others; their beliefs, mistakes and behaviour depend on the historical and personal circumstances in which they grow up. It doesn’t take a prophet to predict that people will be blinded again, and more than once, by false teachings, will yield to the temptation of endowing certain individuals with superhuman qualities and glorify them, raise them up on a pedestal and then cast them down again.
Later generations will say that they were fools, and yet do the same. History hates empty pedestals.
Monumental Propaganda is a work in progress