On Statues, Memorials and Selective Memory.
Picture the scene: Soviet martial music plays from the loudspeakers, strategically positioned amidst the trees. Barbed wire fringes the moat, overlooked by a guard tower.
You enter a clearing, and are greeted by the sight of the Marxist pantheon...
...and another, a veritable graveyard of Lenins...
...then there's another Lenin, looking relaxed and approachable...
...and Comrade Stalin, standing sentinel in a quiet corner of the woods...
This is Grutas Parkas, one of my favourite corners of southern Lithuania, near the spa town of Druskininkai. In 2001, local mushroom magnate Vilinunas Malinauskas had the bright idea of gathering the Soviet statuary toppled in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and gathering it, along with other Soviet memorabilia, in one place, in an outdoor museum. The project has been very successful, and it's a place where former Soviet kids like me, who'd lived in the Soviet Union for long enough to absorb some of the nostalgia for a mythical past full of glory, but not long enough to experience its horrors, can go for a welcome dose of Soviet kitsch...
...such as this delightful Vladimir Ilyich wall rug...
...or suitably heroic-looking Lithuanian partisan monoliths.
At the entrance, you're greeted by a locomotive and a cattle car...
...of the kind used to transport Lithuanians and citizens of other Soviet republics into exile in Siberia and other inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union, in order to terrorise the absorbed republics and their populations into submission.
Malinauskas' original idea was that visitors would arrive at Grutas Parkas, crammed into the cattle car for a more 'authentic' Soviet experience, but that was vetoed as the height of too-muchery. Also, for my parents' and grandparents' generation, it's too close to the bone: the mass deportations and trauma of exile happened within their lifetimes, and they would no more wish to be crammed into a cattle car than they'd wish to experience an 'authentic' Soviet interrogation during an overnight stay at the Karosta Prison in Liepaja, Latvia - offered as a 'fun' activity for overseas stag groups. For the older generations of my family, Soviet history will always be too raw and such reenactments a source of genuine terror.
It's interesting that when the Soviet Union fell apart, and the fledgling Russian democracy took down the statues of Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky and other butchers, many of the Lenin statues remained where they were. I rather like the Lenin statues. During my travels across Russia, I've seen rather a lot of them. The giant Lenin head in Ulan-Ude, Lenin hailing a taxi, Lenin gazing longingly at the horizon a la Celine Dion in My Heart Will Go On (♬ looove can touch us one time/and last for a liiiiifetime... ♫), Lenin in a flowing cloak in Novosibirsk, and in Krasnoyarsk, multiple Lenins in a sculpture park in Moscow...
Perhaps it's precisely because I haven't lived through the worst of Soviet history that there's a certain amount of disconnect between my rational brain, that knows that Lenin was one of the key instigators of the Red Terror, that Lenin paved the way for Stalin, 1930s Terror, and thereby the deaths of over 20 million Russians in gulags, and the relatively benign Lenin who at least wasn't an antisemite like Stalin (Lenin's maternal grandfather was a Jew); young Volodya that we learned about at school - a boy who made a birdhouse for his mother on Mother's Day; a wise man whose portrait hung in our classroom, and whose visage graced the little star-shaped badge I wore as an Oktyabryonok (Young Octobrist). These anachronistic Lenin statues are part of the emotional bridge back to my Soviet childhood.
Recently I've been thinking about statues, and history, and what we choose to commemorate and why, prompted by the pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, in Bristol, during the Black Lives Matter protests.
I've posed this question to various friends: "What do you think of statues that exalt something abhorrent, like the slave trade? Should they be toppled, or would that be 'erasing history'?"
Responses were mixed:
"It’s not erasing history. Statues aren’t a history text that people stop and read, they’re the symbolic glorification of an individual. The city museum can offer a display explaining the man’s local historical significance, but Black Bristolians have had to walk past this whitewashed celebration of their collective trauma every day, while it’s doubtful that local white residents gave the statue a second (or even first) thought. Why should any Bristolians have to live with that traumatic reminder on a daily basis? I certainly wouldn’t want to live with a statue of Hitler on my block. Tear it down, and tear down all the Confederate statutes in the US while we’re at it."
"It's been argued about for decades with petitions calling for its removal from a substantial amount of Bristolians, yet nothing was done about it until now. There's a reason why there aren't statues of Hitler in public squares now, statues are to be admired/looked up to positively. Auschwitz on the other hand, is a memorial rightly associated with tragedy, not to be forgotten. Arguments of keeping Colston up due to his philanthropy have been challenged with 'Would you like a Jimmy Saville statue in front of a school?' Education-wise, I think many people know much more about Bristol's past with the slave trade now than when he was ever up there!"
"I think it's necessary to have these reminders, one of the alternatives I've seen discussed is that they should be replaced with statues of slaves. I feel a statue of a slave reminds us of one person's story, whereas statues of those that wronged so many, reminds us of hundreds of stories. May be controversial, but with the lack of history taught in schools nowadays, I feel we need these historical statues to educate future generations."
"This was long overdue. The people of Bristol have been demanding its removal for some time. It is symbolic just like the toppling of Saddam's statue in 2003, King George III in 1776, Joseph Stalin in 1956, Cecil John Rhodes racist imperialist in 2015,Christopher Columbus colonial usurper in 2004 in Venezuela. These are people whose rhetoric, values and power should never stand to be celebrated or immortalised in the face of the public many of whom they have oppressed and used to selfish advantage."
"There are so many more interesting and diverse historical figures that are not white rich men who made money on exploitation put forward by the same demographic we could be immortalising. We can pop these guys into a museum as a piece of interest to spark debate around all the complex issues such an object can bring up. But let's not take hours of committee meetings to figure out if these statues represent figures that are actually on the 'shit list' of human beings. I think we can all agree that while slave traders could be nice to their Grandmas and their pets and their generosity would find good deserving poor as such their Christian values would allow - they sold people (and all awfulness that entails). We have human rights activists, scientists, artists, engineers and all round lovely flawed human beings that did not trade in human beings that we could celebrate instead."
There are valid points made in each of those responses. Having pondered the subject for a while, I lean towards the following opinions, some of which the historian Robert Saunders has summarised most aptly in his thread:
History is a series of factual events that took place in the past. A statue is not a neutral manifestation of a historic event, though it tells us a lot about what the people who erected it wanted to honour at the time and how they wanted to portray a specific person/event. To quote Simon Schama: "statues are revelations — not about the historical figures they represent, but about the mindset of those who commissioned them."
The toppling of statues is not 'erasing history'; it's a rejection of a particular interpretation of history. In Colston's case, his very plaque was an erasure of history, since it made no mention of the fact that he made most of his money via the slave trade, instead calling him "one of the most virtuous and wise." The mere existence of statues that highlight a selective interpretation of history is insufficient when it comes to infusing the population with knowledge of past events. The drunk Britain First yobs who did the Nazi salutes by the Cenotaph, attacked the police, and who claimed that "Churchill killed Hitler" were clearly not enlightened by their proximity to the Winston Churchill statue.
Given that history is always subject to new interpretations, with the unearthing of new evidence and changing societal attitudes, we should regularly examine whom we choose to cast in bronze or stone and why. Incidentally, honouring someone in statue form is different from a memorial to a genocide - a point that even a number of our MPs seem unable to grasp.
I agree with the friend who argued that we learned more about Colston from his statue being pulled down than from his statue actively standing. Until the event, I barely heard of the name, and now that his past as a slave trader has been revealed, I fully agree that he should not be gracing a public space in 21st century Bristol.
I would prefer it if the knee-jerk tearing down of statues and monuments in the heat of the moment is superseded by open and honest dialogue about what we should honour as a society, with effective democratic means for removal of the statues that no longer fit the bill. Otherwise, there's the danger that the whole thing will degenerate into a partisan culture war between those in favour of whitewashing a racist past, who see any questioning of their version of history as sacrilege, and the self-righteous uber-'woke' who dismiss everything and everyone as 'racist' and propose immortalising the likes of Jeremy Corbyn in statue form. (I'm not kidding; the latter was proposed last week by Rachel Swindon, one of very vocal antisemitic twitterati who reveres the man).
It's very true that few of the 'heroes' honoured in statue form would pass the moral litmus test of progressives and liberals in the 21st century. Heck, by today's standards, your granddaddy was a racist. So was mine. Which is why it's so important to have open and honest discussions about historical figures. Robert Clive, aka Clive of India, needs to be dispatched with unceremoniously, as argued by William Dalrymple. So should all those Confederate figures honoured because of, rather than in spite of, their racism: the KKK Grand Dragons - who led the lynchings of black people - and the Confederate generals who fought for the right to keep slavery. And don't you think it's weird to have a statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster, given how he was arguably Britain's only dictator who really didn't care for Parliament?
Those with complex legacies, such as Churchill, or George Washington, should be scrutinised as such. If Churchill is honoured for what he's best known for (fighting fascism), it's important to be honest about the fact that the famine in Bengal took place on his watch. That while Washington owned slaves, he was also a progressive thinker for his time and one of the Founding Fathers. That while Aristotle believed that some people are destined to be slaves by nature, many of his other ideas remain the cornerstones of modern philosophy. That while Gandhi and his nonviolent protest arguably changed the world, he was a real bastard to his wife. People are human and fallible, which is why remembering them in a balanced way is so important. Unfortunately, due the current polarisation of political discourse, it seems to me that a warts-and-all examination of historical figures/events is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
I don't believe that Britain has ever truly come to terms with its past, and that's reflected in the school history curriculum set by the government. Some 20-25 years ago, in history lessons at school, I learned mostly about Roman Britain, Tudor Britain, WWI and WWII. I don't remember an in-depth examination of the British Empire, or of the role that the subjugated countries or the transatlantic slave trade played in the enrichment of Great Britain. I only learned about Britain's prominent role in the slave trade while studying the history of the United States and the Caribbean at university. Perhaps the fact that the slaves were destined for the plantations in the Caribbean or the Deep South, rather than the British countryside, helped Britain keep that unsavoury part of its history at an arm's length. I believe that not only should history be a compulsory subject at school, but that a thorough revision of the curriculum is required. Unfortunately, that's subject to political will, and at the moment, any such reform seems unlikely, especially under a prime minister who the British Empire was a great thing, not just for Britain, but for the countries it subjugated, and that black people in Britain today are all Moaning Myrtles who "don't focus enough on the positives" of how far Britain has come in its fight against racism.
So where should these rejected statues go? I think that Simon Schama put it best in his recent article in the Financial Times:
"Let them disappear, then, but not into canals, ponds or rubbish dumps, since arbitrary acts of destruction shut down debate quite as much as uncritical reverence. Better, surely, to relocate them to museums where, properly curated, they can trigger genuine debate and historical education."
Or perhaps take a leaf out of the Crimea's book and put them in an underwater sculpture garden. :-)