Sunday, November 2, 2014

Toppling Soviet Statues

Buryatia is a constituent republic in the Russian Federation. Located in Asia, its southern neighbor is Mongolia. It is home to both Russians and Buryats and is a center of Buddhism in Russia. Its capital, Ulan Ude, is a city of 400,000 people, mainly Russians and Buryats. It is known for a landmark statue of a Lenin Head. At 7.7 meters, this is easily the world’s biggest Lenin Head and is a primary attraction of Ulan Ude.
The Lenin Head in Ulan Ude. Different people treat Soviet statues differently. But the Russians treat them as part of their history and have no intention of toppling them.

Statues of Lenin and other Soviet era monuments have created a mixed legacy in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, similar to the mixed legacy the Soviet Union itself left the peoples of these countries. The feelings towards the Soviet Union vary from country to country, and individual to individual. However, generally the Russians have a different outlook than people of other countries concerned. One clear indication of this difference was seen recently in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine.

For most Russians, statues of Lenin are part of history. Some people, especially the older generation, have nostalgic feelings of the Soviet Union. As one Ukrainian friend told this writer, many older people compare the life under the Soviet rule with life during the Great War. Compared to the horrors of the war, Soviet Union was paradise, despite all the lack of freedom and censorship it entailed. “I think people were raised to hard work, silence and slavery,” she said. The slavery was not to the regime but also to an ideology. On the other hand, one should never forget that during the Soviet era, its leadership always referred to the war years as a benchmark to cover-up for their incompetence.

Nevertheless, during the times of the Soviet Union, there was a certain job security and at least somewhere to live. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the emerging states could not assure job security under the capitalist system which replaced the old socialist order. Russia, the biggest member of the former Soviet Republics, could not even pay its soldiers during the 1990s, resulting in many suicides among them. There were certain instances cited as success stories, especially in the Baltic States. However, many other states took longer to adjust to the new system. Therefore, it is no wonder that the older generation recalls the Soviet Union with some nostalgia. For the people of Russia, young and old, it was part of history which they recall with varying degrees of respect or indifference.

Many statues that still stand are those celebrating the Red Army. Lenin is the most celebrated individual in Soviet era statues. However, unlike Stalin, Lenin cannot be blamed for seeking personal prestige through monuments. His statues were erected after he died. Places named for him, including Leningrad (St. Petersburg) were given those names after his death. The monuments and statues were a legacy of the Stalinist idol-worship, and was not part of the Leninist Soviet Union. This Stalinist idol-worship was copied by many other egocentric leaders such as Saddam Hussein, and can still be seen in a gigantic scale in North Korea.

Iraqis jubilantly toppled Saddam’s statues in 2003 when his regime crumbled. However, Russians did not destroy Lenin’s statues when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Some former members of the Soviet Union and the former Eastern Bloc see the Soviet rule differently. There is no love lost between the Russians and some Eastern European countries. For many of them, Soviet era was an era of “Russification.” It was an era when Russian culture was forcibly imposed hidden behind a façade of equality of a socialist system. During the Soviet era, Red Army monuments were targeted on occasional attacks in Eastern Europe. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which ended with the Soviet invasion in early November that year, cheering crowds toppled giant statues of Stalin and danced on them.

Anti-Russian feelings have been running high in Ukraine from late last year. There were moves by the Ukrainian Parliament to ban the Communist Party of Ukraine, which opponents say is pro-Moscow than pro-Kiev. According to the results of the recently held parliamentary elections, the Communist Party will not be represented in the next Ukrainian Parliament (The Verkhovna Rada). The party in turn accuses that the “oligarcy” which now runs the country has treated it with repression.

In this backdrop, it is not strange to see Ukrainian nationalists toppling the Lenin statue in Kharkiv. This was not a singular act and was not especially directed at Lenin, although his statues throughout Ukraine have been toppling throughout this year. Destruction of monuments started with the fall of the Viktor Yanukovych government. One of the most striking examples was reported in late February this year when the monument to Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov was demolished in the city of Brody in Western Ukraine. Kutuzov is praised in Russia as one of the best military commanders in the country’s history, and was instrumental in the defeat of Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812. But for the Ukrainian nationalists, he was just another military leader who furthered the Russian imperial repression.

However, the majority of Russians are angry at the way the Lenin monument was removed, by unceremoniously toppling it. Despite the fact that many Ukrainians feel it to be a sign of repression, this act only angers the Russian populace even more. Russians and even some Ukrainians agree that this could have been done in a better manner. One could learn from perhaps the authorities of Kazakhstan, who have relocated statues of Lenin from roadsides to less prominent locations like public parks. Whatever said and done, the action of the Ukrainians could only be said as a publicity gimmick and an act which was perhaps done to deliberately hurt the Russian people.

Meanwhile, Lenin statues still proudly stand in Eastern Ukraine where the rebels hold sway and also in Crimea. They are all over Russia and in some other former Soviet Republics. As the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution approaches, the people of Russia once again remember their leaders from the Soviet era. Their statues, like that in Ulan Ude, will remain for a long time to come. Meanwhile, to their anger, the Ukrainians across the border have been destroying the same monuments.

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