Staunton, January 19 – Over the past year, Ukrainians have torn down more than 500 memorials to Vladimir Lenin, actions that reflect their revulsion at the Soviet past but ones that have had the unintended consequence of transforming Lenin into a conservative figure for many Russians and making the destruction of Lenin statues in their country less likely anytime soon.
That is because, Ukrainian commentator Pavel Kazarin argues in a Novy Region2 post today, statues and other memorials are constantly being redefined and the Ukrainians have taken the lead in redefining for Russians the founder of the Soviet state into a symbol of state continuity.
Even before Putin’s “little green men” entered Crimea, some Crimean Tatars demanded that a statue of Lenin be taken down, Kazarin begins. Some Russians there were dumbfounded given that, as they put it, Lenin created the autonomous republic and made Crimean Tatar an official language. Why, they asked, should Crimean Tatars be angry at him?
“The problem,” of course, he points out, is that “the Lenin of today” is “in the first instance” not a biography of an historical figure but “a monument,” and “like any other symbol, it has only those meanings” which people now and not at the time of his life “invest in it.”
Take the case of Kliment Voroshilov, Kazarin suggests. He could be remembered as the organizer of the Bolshevik movement in Lugansk and even viewed as a hero of the left, but today, he is remembered because he put his signature on the lists of some 18,000 people who were to be executed by Stalin’s secret police.
Consequently, “any attempt to make Voroshilov an actual symbolic figure embodying the coming to power of ‘the left’ by democratic means will be impossible” because of his later actions and how they are viewed now.
The same thing is true of Lenin. For Ukrainians, he is not a revolutionary and not “the creator of national proto-states with their borders and symbols” but “as the architect of that system which became the latest reincarnation of the Russian Empire, this time in the 20th century.”
Thus, for Ukraine, Lenin is “ideally suited” as a symbol of the enemy that any nation building enterprise needs. His statues are in almost every city and village, and he can be viewed as the embodiment of empire, despite his own efforts to destroy it, Kazarin says. But “a symbol in general can have nothing in common with the real prototype.”
Indeed, in Ukraine now, Kazarin argues, Lenin monuments are the two-headed tsarist eagle and the Soviet hammer and sickle rolled into one. They are thus the perfect target for destruction especially since “there is nothing imperial and at the same time unnecessary in Ukraine today.”
The Russian language, about whose destruction in Ukraine Moscow propagandists like to talk, in fact “remains part of the daily life of the country: even the ATO forces curse in ‘the great and powerful’” Russian and not in Ukrainian.
“The special feature of the situation is only that after Crimea, Russia feels itself to be an empire, and thus each destruction of a memorial to ‘the leader’” is viewed by both Ukrainians and Russians as “a symbolic attack” on that empire.
Kazarin suggests that “if one conflates ‘the Russian world’ with ‘the empire,’ one should not be surprised that Lenin has become precisely just the same part of the ‘Russian baggage’ as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.”
And that in turn means every time Ukrainians take down a statue of Lenin that “prolongs the life of his Russian analogues for several years” because “the present-day Lenin is a conservative and defensive symbol without any revolutionary content. The ideal resident of the central square of the average Russian city,” the perfect combination of two contradictory ideas: “The Russia Which We Have Lost” and “The Soviet Union as the Kingdom of Social Justice.”
Any symbol, Kazarin concludes, means only what people are programmed to see in it. “The only irony here is that Lenin for Russia has been reprogrammed by the Ukrainians.”