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Reckoning with Public Monuments in Russia and the United States


Of all the dramatic political events taking place in the United States over the past few months, it is the toppling of historical monuments that has attracted the most attention in Russia. This fixation is unfortunate, as it allows many Russian observers to remain, or choose to remain, oblivious to the social, political, and economic context of these events. It is hardly surprising, however: after all, these are symbolically charged performative actions that are explicitly designed to draw attention and to stir up those who would have preferred to stay unstirred.  

Numerous Russians are quick to condemn these actions as the epitome of America’s malaise and decline—indeed, of America’s “madness.” Some of them, regrettably, adopt this line precisely because they understand the meaning of these actions only too well, because they actually do sympathize with the principles of white supremacy and imperial domination that the toppling of monuments is meant to challenge. However repugnant, their reasoning is quite transparent and should not concern us here. Yet there are also many voices in Russia who do not pause for a second to condemn wholeheartedly racial inequality, economic injustice, and police brutality but for whom the toppling of monuments becomes a stumbling block.

Explaining to them why they might want to look at these actions more sympathetically becomes a challenge—and it becomes even more of a challenge to explain to my progressive friends in the United States why these actions even require an explanation from people who claim not to be racists.

One way to try and explain to a sympathetic Russian listener the meaning of current American events is by referring to Russia’s own history of serfdom, which was abolished, after all, in 1861, just a few years ahead of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Serfdom affected an even larger share of Russia’s population than did US slavery. While in its mild forms Russia’s variety could be somewhat more benign than the chattel slavery in the United States, in its harshest forms, serfdom was every bit as brutal. The parallel seems obvious, but it would not work: if anything, for the Russian audience it would serve as an argument for a more, not less, “tolerant” attitude toward historical monuments. Few Russians today, however progressive, would suggest to remove from Moscow’s main street the statue of poet Aleksandr Pushkin, even though he owned serfs and benefited from the fruits of their labor. Obviously, nearly all Russian writers and poets of that era were serf owners too, as were, for example, the Decembrists, who attempted to rise against the absolute monarchy in 1825—and entertained (at least some did) plans to abolish Russia’s “peculiar institutions.”

The reasons for such a markedly indifferent attitude toward Russia’s own serf-owning past are numerous and entangled. One plausible reason is that the descendants of serfs had their revenge in 1917: the vast majority of former serf owners were massacred during the Civil War, emigrated, or were completely marginalized socially during the Stalin era. It probably matters, too, that serfdom did not operate along racial lines. It is much harder to tell whose ancestors were serfs and whose were the serf owners. For some, it might be more tempting to imagine oneself as a descendant, in a cultural sense, of dashing and cultured landlords than of uncouth peasants. The Soviet propaganda efforts that turned the study of oppressed social classes into a dull exercise in partyspeak also contributed to this unfortunate tendency.

Russia’s serf-holding past has not yet taken center stage in Russia’s historical debate; rather, that place is occupied by Stalin and Stalinism. Arguably, Stalinism is Russia’s nearest equivalent to the role that slavery plays in the US conversation about historical memory. As Issac J. Bailey pointed out recently, the fight in the United States is about acknowledging slavery not just as one of many ills of society past but as an “unequivocal evil,” on par with the Holocaust. This point very much applies to the struggle around Stalin in Russia: was he merely a “controversial” figure (and who is not controversial, after all?), or was he a piece of unredeemable evil? Is it possible to acknowledge the mass murders he organized and effected while also touting his “achievements,” be they building up Soviet heavy industry or defeating Hitler?

In Russia, there is no consensus when the questions are posed this way, but bringing up this perspective often does help. Not for everyone but for many in Russia, this parallel does help to imagine why someone would want to throw a statue of a historical figure into a river or delete a name from a public building. Now it’s clear, some would say: this is what a person of conscience would like to do with the statues of the mustachioed generalissimo that have lately begun to reappear in Russia’s cities.

How far does this analogy extend, however? Does it extend to Stalin’s henchmen, such as Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the secret police and the Gulag—and whom some people seek to normalize based on the strength of his “achievements,” which included directing the Soviet crash program to build the atomic bomb? It certainly does: no amount of “achievements,” real or not, can counterbalance his crimes, and there should be no room for any monuments to him in Russian cities, only to those of his victims. Does it extend to other leading figures of the Bolshevik regime who became victims themselves, but who earlier had organized mass executions? Yes, it does. How about the still earlier revolutionary figures who committed similar murders in the context of the Civil War? Probably it does: after all, the toppling of the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, in 1991 was a powerful visual symbol of the Soviet regime’s collapse.

How about Vladimir Lenin himself, however? If judged by his historical record, he was every bit as brutal and murderous as Dzerzhinsky, personally ordering mass executions and other repressions: that he did it in the context of the ongoing Civil War is important to remember but hardly enough to excuse his actions. Yet for many people his case is different, as he stands in their eyes not only for his actual actions as a revolutionary and statesmen but also for the lofty ideals his regime set forth but failed to achieve—ideals of freedom from oppression and exploitation, equality, socialism.

It is also these ideals, not his actual actions, that many left-leaning people abroad have in mind when they condemn the toppling of Lenin’s statutes in Ukraine after the Maidan, or even raise new statues of Lenin. In that sense, those liberal Russians who are disturbed by the removal of Woodrow Wilson or, increasingly, Thomas Jefferson from the American historical pantheon find themselves in a similar position: how to continue to celebrate those lofty ideals that these people used to be famous for, while acknowledging their racism or slaveholding? Or, going back to Lenin, is it possible to continue to cherish the ideals of socialism while admitting that their chief practical proponent in the twentieth century was a mass murderer? This is not an easy question—certainly not a psychologically easy one.

About the Author

Igor Fedyukin

Former Fellow;
Associate Professor of History, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more