Saturday, August 8, 2015

Lenin Lives! Why It's Wrong to Destroy Soviet Sculptures

(A version of this article appeared online in Russia! Magazine)

In 1991, after seventy years of Soviet repression, Ukraine declared its independence. Those living in Kharkiv, its second largest city, may remember it as the most uncertain period in the country's history. But Kharkiv's statue of V. I. Lenin – the largest in Ukraine – stood even as the nation around it was crumbling.

That is until September 28, 2014, when hundreds of Kharkiv’s Anti-Russian protesters tore down the 28-foot monument, sawing off its feet and pulling it down from its high base at the Freedom Square.

I was born in Kharkiv and remember that statue well. It stood at the head of what was then the Dzerzhinsky Square, the largest public square in the Soviet Union (larger than the Red Square in Moscow). In addition to mass political chaos, the end of the centralized Soviet rule brought food shortages, hyper-inflation and, for the first time in seventy years, the threat of widespread unemployment and homelessness. But instead of toppling the monument, Kharkivians extricated their resentments through ridicule and humor, joking that Lenin’s forward-beckoning hand showed the way to the public bathrooms.

Source: Mashable
Today, all Ukrainians – not just those who live in the war-ravaged Donetsk and Luhansk – are living under the threat of Vladimir Putin's aggression. And Kharkiv, a mostly Russian-speaking city some 20 miles from the Russian border, could be in the cross hairs. Beating and wailing over the bronze statue of Lenin, which to many has become the symbol of forced Russification, is merely symptomatic of the anger aimed at the Putin government. I, too, share that anger. But toppling and destroying sculptures will not ward off the scourge of Putinism or deter Russia’s hostilities.

Beyond the Freedom Square, there were many smaller effigies of Lenin in Kharkiv. But it was at the foot of this one that my first-grade teacher ceremoniously pinned the October Star to the lapel of my school uniform – the first rite of passage for every Soviet child. This nostalgic sentiment is no more rational than blaming Lenin for what Putin has caused. But I never learned the cynicism of post-Soviet adulthood – my family and I soon immigrated to the United States – and all that I remember of home and childhood is now being dismantled one Lenin statue at a time.

Vladimir Tatlin, Seaman (Self Portrait), 1911, State Russian Museum, St.Petersburg
But this isn’t about me. The monument of Lenin at the Freedom Square was a unique work of art. Erected in 1964, it displayed many cues of Constructivism – an urban aesthetic spurred by "Futurist" painters and architects like the Kharkiv-born Vladimir Tatlin. Decades before Stalinist repressions, a period known as the "Silver Age" of Russian and Ukrainian art did fuel the 1905 St. Petersburg uprising and the Lenin-lead October Revolution of 1917. It also galvanized Tatlin's work, along with that of Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vasily Kamensky, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova – artists and poets who shaped what we now call Modernism.

Yet already a Web search for the three sculptors and architects responsible for the largest statue of Lenin in Ukraine – M. K. Vronsky, A. P. Oleynik and A. A. Sidorenko – yields virtually no results. And now that the monument is toppled, its unique art and history are likely to pass into oblivion. Lenin may have outlived his pedestal in Kharkiv’s central square. But his monument is more than a Soviet relic and must be preserved – not melted down, as some Kharkivians insist, to make arms and tanks for the Ukrainian army.

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