Russia has lessons for Americans about tearing down statues

Russia has lessons for Americans about tearing down statues

September 1, 2020
  • The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s featured another kind of downfall: that of the country's many statues honoring Soviet leaders.
  • Some Russians say the way they've dealt with those statues, and the legacies they reflect, could inform how Americans grapple with the histories behind their own monuments.
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It's an iconic moment that signaled the symbolic, if not yet actual, end of the Soviet Union.

August 23, 1991. A crowd of thousands had gathered at Lubyanka Square just opposite the KGB headquarters.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia's future first president, had just rallied the public in a successful — and terrifying — three-day revolt against a coup by Soviet hard-liners against democratic reforms then sweeping the USSR.

Amid the rush of victory, the crowd stared up at a mammoth, 16-ton monument to "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, the founder and patron saint of the Soviet secret police.

Their one shared thought: "Tear — him — down."

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"It wasn't just any monument," said Irina Bogantseva, who was part of a group of new, democratically elected officials to the Moscow City Council watching the events unfold that day.

"It was a symbol of Soviet injustice, a symbol of a totalitarian system," she said.

As the crowd grew in numbers — some 20,000 — Moscow's new deputy mayor, Sergei Stankevich, was also called to the square.

"They woke me up with the call," he told The World. "I hadn't slept for three days because of the coup."

Once at Lubyanka, he quickly grew alarmed. Protesters were yanking and pulling on the statue with ropes tied to nearby cars.

As Felix swayed, Stankevich grew worried someone might get crushed. Then, he had another thought: Why don't elected officials hold a vote about what to do?

"The coup plotters had tried to overthrow [Mikhail] Gorbachev, but we were chosen and elected by the people," he said.

Calls were made, faxes were sent, and arguments were had. By early evening, a majority cast votes in favor of removing the monument. Lawmakers even went digging for the original construction plans.

"They showed a metal column went far up from the base into the statute — which meant Felix could only be lifted off his pedestal, not toppled."

Stankevich started making calls to find an industrial crane — eventually convincing a local construction company with a promise he wouldn't divulge their role in bringing down the patron saint of the Soviet KGB.

"No, he wasn't torn down," Stankevich said. "We raised him off his pedestal using two cranes because he was so heavy, you needed two. And so, we lowered him onto a truck bed and took him away."

In other words, what happened next: Felix dangling in the air, a rope around his neck. An image that encapsulated the end of an empire.

It was history shaped by city ordinance — not mob rule.

A new home

Felix ultimately ended up in Park Muzeon, a stretch of grassy land nestled along the Moscow River that's become an outdoor museum to discarded statues and busts of Soviet leaders — including the dictator Josef Stalin.

It's a place to reflect on the darker chapters of Soviet life, including Stalin's lethal repressions.

A work that memorializes victims of the gulag prison camps serves as a reminder of both how grim the past has been — and how much the new Russia has changed. At least in theory.

"He means nothing to me, if I'm being honest," said 22-year-old Darya, a recent university graduate, when asked about Dzerzhinsky's monument.

"I don't come to this park for the statues," she said. "Those events were before my time."

But Vera Timofeevna, 80, says she misses seeing Felix back at the old spot.

"We walked by him all through my childhood," she said. "It wasn't political at all."

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"And then those young idiots strung him up and took him away. What can you expect from uneducated people?"

As debate in the US has raged over the removal of Confederate and other monuments that celebrate a racist past, Alexander Verkhovsky has been thinking hard about how Russians confront their own history.

The director of the SOVA Center, an organization that tracks hate crimes and xenophobia in Russia, Verkhovsky notes even Russia's greatest 19th-century writers held serfs — akin to American slaves in the Russian empire.

Literary giants like Lev Tolstoy were often the progressive voices of their day — and still fell short by modern standards.

"They lived in a completely different world," Verkhovsky said. "Monuments are by nature always in the wrong place. Because at some point, they're put up … but time keeps moving forward."

Communist legacy

Today, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin still dots the Russian landscape — with statues, streets and squares in his honor so ubiquitous they're mostly ignored.

Even Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square, where a mummified Lenin still remains, is now mainly a curiosity to tourists, or those seeking a grim (and waxy) laugh.

But polls show Russians growing admiration for Stalin — despite the legacy of the Great Terror that led to an official Soviet, de-Stalinization campaign in the mid-1950s. And then there are Dzerzhinsky's descendants in the security services — once again a powerful force in Vladimir Putin's Russia today.

"In the heads of people who work in the security services, Dzerzhinsky has been mythologized into a symbol of honesty, order and principled values," warned former lawmaker, Bogentseva.

There are occasional calls, she notes, to return Dzerzhinsky back to Lubyanka Square.

Yet, through it all, Iron Felix has remained in the park — a fact that those who helped bring him here say is due to having preserved the monument.

"You can't allow these monuments to be desecrated because it provokes a desire for revenge, to return them back," said the former deputy mayor, Stankevich. "That's the price of desecration."

It's a message Stankevich thinks might prove helpful to Americans as they grapple with what to do about monuments from their own troubled history — deciding not only who deserves a pedestal, but who should be put out to pasture.

Editor's note: A couple of sources asked that their full names not be used so their partial names are used above.

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