Concrete validation Expert Andrey Kurilkin explains why Russian officials and billionaires are building monuments and buying doctorates
As some countries face disputes over the demolition of monuments, others are seeing an increasing number of figures on pedestals popping up. In Moscow, the development of monument culture is especially intense. The December news cycle has featured a dispute over a memorial to actor Vladimir Etush, plans to create a monument to singer Iosif Kobzon, sculptor Zurab Tsreteli agreeing to memorialize actor Valentin Gaft, and the unveiling of the “Atom of the Sun” statue in memory of the Moscow Art Theater’s artistic director Oleg Tabakov. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs — an organization that unites the country’s billionaires — have been fighting against the “Last Address” project, an initiative aimed at memorializing the victims of Stalin’s Great Terror. For Meduza, producer and publisher Andrey Kurilkin, the director of the platform InLiberty and the author of the project “New Monuments for a New History,” explains what the creators of these new monuments want to tell society — and what they are causing people to forget.
From Meduza’s “Ideas” editor, Maxim Trudolyubov
Monuments are stationary objects, but at turning points in history they come into motion. They are thrown off their pedestals, they start to move, or changes are made to them. Some of the overthrown symbols of the Soviet past “live” in Moscow’s Muzeon Park, but in the vast majority of cases they remain in place.
In Russia, monuments aren’t demolished, but rather built endlessly, and moreover, take the form of “figures on pedestals,” which in many other countries has become archaic. It always seemed to me that these silent figures are very eloquent and tell us a lot about the state of Russian society and its relations with the past.
Publisher and producer Andrey Kurilkin, who has long taken an interest in monument culture and alternative views of Russian history, has managed to formulate very accurately and wittily what exactly these monuments are saying. I hope that his arguments will enrich the necessary and insufficiently substantive public debate about monuments.
The installation and demolition of any monument, no matter what long-ago event or hero it was dedicated to, isn’t just a memorialization of some historical merits or a rejection of their recognition — but rather a way in which society or part of it thinks and talks about itself and its foundations.
Post-Soviet Russia never saw the anti-colonial “Leninopad” [Lenin-fall] of former Soviet republics, however an even crueler fate awaited the thousands of monuments to Lenin and “glory to the CPSU” here: they stopped being symbols, lost their content and charge, turning into the curiosities of a flea market; there is no one to demolish them, because they mean nothing and don’t evoke strong feelings in anyone.
There are monuments that evoke strong feelings
There are monuments that arise spontaneously, without the authorization of the authorities, and as such are not part of the official memorial policy — popular memorials. A striking example is the memorial at the place of politician Boris Nemtsov’s murder on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow. Such monuments are supported by volunteers and often have a flickering existence: the authorities demolish them and people return them to their place. These memorials mark a dispute over the most recent past in real time. In Belarus, the spontaneous memorial to 31-year-old Minsk resident Raman Bandarenka has become one of the symbols of the opposition protests.
Sometimes, a spontaneous memorial can be fixed in place: the memory wall of medical workers who have died from the coronavirus in St. Petersburg was originally made up of photographs of the deceased, hung on a construction fence. The monument was dismantled, but there is already a plan to create a permanent memorial, which will be built on the Karpovka River Embankment across from Pavlov Medical University.
It is believed that having grown out of Soviet culture, the semi-official culture of today’s Russia — of which monuments are a part by default, because they cannot be built without the approval of government officials — is also completely subordinated to state ideology, that is, in this case, to the myth of victory in the war, the ring of enemies [around Russia], the fifth column, and national unity. This is true, but only in part. In reality, there aren’t that many new monuments designed to prop up the state’s ideology. No fewer new monuments are claimed by another myth, a social myth, not a state one — and this myth is about a Russian “meritocracy,” about the fact that the Russian elite has earned its high position.
Russian society is devoid of a mythology that would link social achievement and moral values. You can possess an enormous fortune or establish a dizzying bureaucratic career (today this is often one and the same), but you can’t translate this success into the language of values. You will experience a colossal lack of symbolic recognition. This dissonance between symbolic and social mechanics began in the post-Soviet years, but in the new Russia, with the growth of fortunes and the branching-off of bureaucratic trajectories, it has reached grandiose proportions.
This, by the way, is connected to the unstoppable appetite the Russian authorities have for academic degrees. The title of doctor or doctoral candidate has long lost its meaning in the academic world and, moreover, doesn’t give its owner any economic advantages outside of a university, however, it remains a means of adding at least some symbolic weight to high administrative positions. Like in [writer] Mikhail Zhvanetsky’s famous monologue: “I respect you. You respect me. We are respected people.” Monuments are yet another method that helps the Russian elite struggle with their lack of social legitimacy and prove their symbolic validity.
Monuments in the post-Soviet era
Political scientist Alexey Makarkin, who has been studying monument culture for many years, believes that a “monumental particularism” has developed in Russia in the post-Soviet years (in this context, “particularism” means a struggle for individualization).
After the USSR’s collapse, the center relinquished control over the “party line” in monumental propaganda: the right to choose who to erect monuments to was passed to the regional authorities. And the regions have tried to show their “self” in the monuments they put up as much as they possibly can without entering into conflict with the center.
The city of Ryazan is a striking example. During his time as regional governor from 2005–2007, former commander of the airborne troops Georgy Shpak erected three equestrian monuments there. Saint George the Victorious and the legendary Ryazan commander Evpaty Kolovrat theoretically could have been the subjects of monuments in Imperial Russia (Kolovrat could have been memorialized in Soviet Russia too, his exploits were included in the school curriculum). But the third monument from the Shpak era — a statue of Prince Oleg Ryazansky, who appears is popular historical literature as a “traitor” and ally of the Golden Horde’s Mamai prior to the Battle of Kulikovo — is shocking to people who have embraced the Soviet version of history.
In Russia’s Mari El Republic, the monuments to Lorenzo de Medici and Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco in Yoshkar-Ola are the lingering legacy of the region’s eccentric former governor Leonid Markelov.
The new monuments convey the idea of success as such, defined not qualitatively, but as if in some kind of formal, quantitative way. In November, despite public opposition, a monument to Soviet architect and functionary Karo Halabyan was erected in Moscow — the persecutor of Konstantin Melnikov and Ivan Leonidov, the main visionaries of twentieth century Russian architecture.
Halabyan’s reputation is entirely unambiguous, but this didn’t stop present-day Moscow’s chief architecture official from supporting the project. “It’s slightly incorrect to treat this monument as a monument to an architect,” he said. “I would look at it as a monument to a famous Armenian, who is also an architect.” Contemporary monuments tell us that it’s not so important what exactly you did; fame, regalia, or a proverbial “official position” is success in and of itself — this is your merit. It’s no coincidence that so many new monuments are being dedicated to actors — to unconditional celebrities, “popular favorites,” who we know and judge by their roles, while knowing almost nothing about their real lives. Designed to fill symbolic voids, these monuments become signs of emptiness themselves.
The possibility of other monuments standing on ideological pedestals is perceived by the elites as a threat to the very foundations of society. The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which unifies the richest people in the country, is — and not for the first time — preventing the “Last Address” project from installing memorial plaques on its building, dedicated to the memory of its former inhabitants who were repressed during the Stalin years.
The union’s vice president, Dmitry Kuzmin, explained why you can’t remember just anyone — and who exactly is worthy of memory — as follows: among “the victims of repression, there will be [only] a few well-known people, deservedly respected in our society…Memorializing needs to be based on merit.” The persistence with which a club of millionaires is fighting against “undeserved” memory is understandable. A history that’s written not by the “winners” but by the “losers” may not attach any importance to their victories.
The notion that all monuments from the Soviet era have been demolished in all countries of the former socialist bloc is, in fact, incorrect. Against the backdrop of widely reported cases of “iconoclasm” (in particular, the “Leninopad”), the world continues to have a huge number of Soviet memorials, especially memorials associated with World War II. New ones are also appearing. As memorial culture researcher Mikhail Gabovich from the Einstein Forum in Potsdam explains:
“War memorials are a special kind. They often cause conflicts since they refer to events, the interpretation of which can change depending on national priorities. But many monuments associated with the war and the Soviet army are protected by the Geneva Convention and bilateral treaties between countries, in particular, between Russia and Ukraine.
The provisions of many of the treaties, however, are rather vague, so the monuments are subject to changes, for example, the word “Soviet” disappears from the pedestal or the figures of the soldiers are painted in the colors of a national flag.”
Meanwhile, many new memorials to Soviet soldiers have appeared in the post-Soviet years, not only in the former Soviet space, but also in the United States, Israel, and China. Several of them were financed by Russian government agencies, but some were funded by private donors from Russia and Kazakhstan, or by Russian-speaking immigrants.
The fear of a future in which you can be exposed and canceled is also projected into the past. Hence the idea of a single textbook and the campaign to combat the so-called falsification of history: if history is revised today, it could be revised tomorrow too. As such, the assessment of official exploits should remain unwavering — unwaveringly good. [Zurab] Tsereteli’s Alley of Rulers of Russia on Petroverigsky Lane [in Moscow] connects and equates Peter I and Konstantin Chernenko, Nikolai II and Vladimir Lenin. Their historical roles and personal qualities have no meaning, the main and only important thing is their formal status.
Speaking at the unveiling of the monument to [former prime minister] Yevgeny Primakov in the fall of 2019, Vladimir Putin called him “a monumental man with inexhaustible inner strength.” There is no doubt that everyone present at the ceremony recalled how the political career of this “great citizen of Russia” was destroyed when he tried to compete with Putin in the 1999 parliamentary elections. Twenty years later, a trampled rival with his endless lists of official posts and regalia turned out to be the best candidate for a monument to the state’s elites, as such.
The post-Soviet monument seems to take its hero and his time out of the zone of doubts and disputes, and establish a space that isn’t subject to the morality of his contemporaries and descendents. This is a pantheon — but it’s not its heroes that are important, but rather the very idea of the pantheon, the dream of turning a volatile history into a monolithic eternity. A man-made monument is still the most reliable. Today, the highest truth isn’t found in a moral assessment, but in the refusal to give one.
Translated by Eilish Hart