Fallen Monuments, Then and Now

Photo by Steve Harvey

This morning I read a NYTimes article that evoked a powerful memory: arriving in Moscow by train in late summer of 1991, riding a bus to our institute, and seeing a crowd tearing down a statue. The bus driver (who took pulls of vodka from a bottle while he drove) told us the fallen figure was Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of what would later become the KGB.

Was that the Dzerzhinsky statue mentioned in this article? Not sure. Not even sure I can completely trust the memory.

“In Russia, They Tore Down Lots of Statues, but Little Changed,” by Andrew Higgins (NYT 7/7/20)

Freedom Monument (Photo: L O R A)

That fall more monuments came down. It was at once thrilling and disorienting: We were, quite often, literally lost, as streets, parks, and metro stations changed names, almost weekly. Our paper maps expired instantly.

I remember visiting the monument graveyard referred to in the article; someone had painted red fangs on the Stalin statue. We saw a few barricades, leftover from the August putsch, in Moscow and in the major Baltic cities. In Riga, people left thousands of flowers by the Freedom Monument. So many astonishing sights. An atmosphere of exultation pervaded those first weeks, but it soon evaporated, as shelves emptied in state stores and the black market exchange rate surged.

Rubles seemed like play money, and for dollars, we could buy anything. We could hire any vehicle as a taxi (buses, dump trucks, and once, even an ambulance). I see now that it was terrible for us to use our money that way. What felt like a game to us was real, inescapable life for others, in a catastrophically free-falling economy. I recall seeing an old woman weeping and shouting in the street because she could not shop at the hard currency grocery store we called the “Irish House” — it was, I believe, illegal for her to possess hard currency. Why didn’t I offer to buy her something? Instead, we indulged in ordinary (to us) foods that suddenly seemed like delicacies in a time of shortages, and escaped for a few hours into pints of Guinness and a bubble of abundance. This was a moral failure that shames me still.

By the first snowfall, exultation had given way to alarm. The city felt — and WAS — chaotic and unruly. Of the ten American students in our group, four were victims of random violence. This was no longer a tragedy tourism exercise. Until then, we had experienced it all as if looking in through a window, from an imagined place of safety.

The unease was palpable. One night, I had a long conversation with an elderly restroom attendant in St. Petersburg (another name change). A survivor of the siege of Leningrad, she told me that she had never been more afraid than she was right then, with “all these changes.” That seemed like madness to me, coming from a person whose city had been starved and shelled by Nazis for nearly 900 days. But it spoke to the fear and dislocation that had overtaken people, especially those of her generation.

It’s understandable that anyone who endured so much hardship might long for stability in any form, even an oppressive one. But the younger Russians we befriended also appeared wary, for different reasons. They didn’t buy into the foundational national mythology anymore and tended to view performative patriotism (and its associated slogans and statuary) as a sham. And they knew all too well that behind every dethroned monument stood another one, just as hollow, ready to be installed in its place.

Their cynicism was vindicated. As the NYTimes story points out, the jubilant protests that “made war on bronze men” in 1991 didn’t lead to sweeping, meaningful reforms in the long run (although things turned out very differently in Riga than they did in Moscow). This is a lesson worth remembering as we tear down our own false idols: It IS marvelous to see the bad-ole-days monuments toppled and names changed. But the joy is momentary, and the symbols are only a veneer. If we don’t start fixing the ways power is wielded and wealth is won, nothing vital will have been accomplished. After the idols fall, our society’s most harmful policies, beliefs, and institutions must be the next to go.

This quote captures the feeling:

“Mikhail Y. Schneider, a pro-democracy activist who led protesters to the K.G.B. headquarters in August 1991, said attacking Dzerzhinsky’s statue was a ‘great emotional release’ that ‘helped us believe we were living in a different country,’ but ‘it changed nothing.’

“For real change, he said, the removal of Soviet-era symbols needed to be accompanied by a program of exposing crimes, putting those responsible on trial and returning confiscated property.

“’It is now too late,’ he added.”

Will we realize this while there’s still time to capitalize on a groundswell of political will to build a fairer society? Or will we congratulate ourselves for scraping off the bronze veneer and move on before the real work starts?

I don’t know exactly what that will look like. What I DO know is that we’ve failed at truth, reconciliation, and reform too many times in America. It’s time to let go of our own foundational mythologies and write a new story that tells the whole truth and nothing but. This isn’t erasing history; it’s revising a national hagiography as a fuller tale of successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses. Performative patriotism is a sham here too, as it is always and everywhere.

I’m down with creating a monument graveyard in every state, at parks and battlefields, museums and cemeteries — places of reflection, not lost-cause rallying points. Hell, we can even give folks a little space to mourn for their shattered fairy tales, if that’s what they need.

And then, let us begin to remake the actual world.

See also:

Remembering the 1991 Coup—and What Came After

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