History, Politics, Top Stories

What to do with Confederate Statues?

Could Russia teach us something about how to deal with difficult aspects of our national history?

Many places in the South – from New Orleans to Louisville – are in the process of bringing down statues that glorify the Confederacy. That process raises questions about what to do with these remnants of the past. Do we just toss them into the ash bin of history, purging them as if they never existed?

As a student of southern politics who recently traveled to Moscow, I wondered if we can look to the Russians and how they have treated their Soviet past. The situations are not perfectly analogous. Many Russian people lived through the Soviet experience. Not so for the Confederacy. That said, in both cases, there is the question of whether – and how – to purge the past.

From propaganda to kitsch

In Moscow, and in the former Soviet Union in general, there is Soviet detritus all over the place. Hammers and sickles are chiseled into buildings, bridges and other infrastructure. Sculptures of happy, heroic soldiers, workers and farmers sit on the platforms in the Moscow metro. Seven massive “Stalin buildings” dot the city.

The Russians have done more than just tolerate these leftovers. All the propaganda that the Soviets used to produce and disseminate – and there was a lot of it – is now kitsch. Kiosks sell Soviet T-shirts next to matryoshka dolls and amber jewelry as genuine Russian souvenirs. As one Russian gentleman said to me, “It’s our past and we embrace it. We lived it. We can’t just wish it away.”

It would not be very practical to knock down the buildings Stalin helped to build or hammer out all those hammers and sickles.

Statues, however, have no practical purpose and can be taken care of rather easily. Moscow has removed many of them from public space. It was one of the first impulses the Russian people had after the fall of the Soviet Union.

What is instructive is what the Muscovites have done with their statues, collecting them in a sculpture garden and giving them historical context.

A grove of Lenin statues

The statues and monuments now reside together in a section of MUSEON Arts Park, a lovely green space next to Gorky Park. MUSEON is also known as the Fallen Monument Park, though “felled monuments” would be the more appropriate name. The park contains more than just felled Soviets. There are hundreds of other pieces sprinkled through the park. But walking through the grove of Lenin statues, sitting in the shade of a monumental Soviet coat of arms, or posing next to a large bust of Leonid Brezhnev or Mikhail Kalinin is the thrill for people like me.

Each statue or set of statues is accompanied by a panel that informs the viewer about the work, its composition and the history of its display. Notably, there is little about the leader being portrayed in the text. Each description ends with, “By the decree of the Moscow City Council of People Representatives of Oct. 24, 1991, the monument was dismantled and placed in the MUSEON Arts Park exposition. The work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.” The point, of course, is that the Moscow city council is careful to state that the display is not intended to glorify the past, but to document it.

What is even more powerful is how the statues are displayed. In some ways, the arrangements are reminiscent of a cemetery. White, granite “tombstones” line a path, an appropriate metaphor for the Soviet regime.

Stalin and his witnesses, James Glaser, CC BY-ND

It is the large statue of Josef Stalin, however, that is most striking. Stalin has lost his nose and is in sad shape. Behind him is a monument to the “Victims to the Totalitarian Regime.” The monument is a wall comprising stone heads cocked at different angles. The heads are held in place by a grid of bars and barbed wire that evoke a prison camp. Hundreds of these victims stare at Stalin. Indeed, because of their placement, one cannot look at him without looking at them.

Sakharov. CC BY-SA

Moreover, in front of Stalin is a contemporary statue of Russian physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, one of the most notable dissidents of the Soviet era. The statue of Sakharov is seated, arms behind his back, legs and feet locked together, and head upturned to the sky. Is he staring at the stars, not an unreasonable thing for a scientist or a disarmament activist to do, or can he just not bear to look at Stalin directly in front of him? And what about those arms stretched behind his back, one of them twisted and unnatural, fist in a ball? Is Sakharov being detained, or tortured? That interpretation is suggested by the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, who faces Sakharov about 50 yards away. It is quite delicious to see a dog passing by and marking “Iron Felix.” Perhaps Sakharov is just having a good laugh.

Why do these scenes, these dead Soviet statues, work so well? I would assert that by locating them together, they can be put into “historical and cultural” context, as the markers suggest. Moreover, through strategic curation, these statues have been put into dialogue with each other and with the contemporary sculptures around them and been given new meaning. The statues in their old lives were meant to honor and glorify the Soviet leaders and their regime. In their new life, they have been turned into art. As pieces of art, their meaning can be changed or supplemented by how the viewer interprets them.

This suggests there would be real value to bringing felled Confederate statues together in one place. Putting them into historical context, they can give commentary on the Confederacy, the Civil War, slavery, Jim Crow, massive resistance and even present-day politics. And locating these statues with other monuments offers all kinds of opportunity to tell the whole story of the South.

 

James Glaser is a Professor and Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Tufts University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation

7 Comments

  1. Bill says

    What’s interesting is that the oft-claimed reason for the statues is racism and the Klan because they were put up in the 1920s when the Klan was at it’s zenith. However, if you look at the declaration made in 1996 for putting the Lee statue in Charlottesville on the National Register it explains that 1919-1924 was the City Beautiful Movement period where there was a big push nationwide for this national society of sculptors to beautify cities through the construction of parks with statues — and the Lee statue development was focused on the presentation Traveler and not that of Lee.

  2. Vincent says

    Until the perfect person presents him/herself, perhaps all future statues ought to be made of material which naturally degenerates over the course of a couple of generations. Children building snowmen.

  3. Bill says

    And judgement is based upon future perceptions. Fifty years from now, there may be a believe (viewed twisted now) that MLK was a horrible man because his brand of non-violent protest was inefficient/effective in fully granting equal rights and it wasn’t until violent tactics took over that the desired change came to reality. 2039, the last monument to MLK is pulled down by rioters denouncing his legacy. Asian-Americans demand the tearing down of WW2 monuments which are a symbol of the bigotry against their ancestors placed in internment camps. 9/11 memorials being torn down by Muslim Americans insisting they were put there to express hatred toward Islam. The last school named for President Obama is renamed due to his initial anti-gay-marriage stance.

  4. Brent says

    PC garbage people need to quit trying to rewrite the past and learn the truth about the civil war. (quick hint it had nothing to do with slavery)

  5. Jeff York says

    At least some of the statues & monuments are there to honor & commemorate the courage & sacrifice of those who served & fought. On both sides of the conflict there were naïve young men who thought that the war was going to be a grand adventure that would be over with in a few months. Also on both sides were those who had been conscripted, who couldn’t have cared less about the issues and passionately didn’t want to be there—but the alternative was prison or a hangman’s noose. On both sides there would’ve been some who “had a chip on their shoulder” and wanted to commit legally sanctioned mayhem.

    I read about one southern man, can’t remember his name, who was opposed to both slavery & secession but in the end couldn’t stand to be thought of as a coward by his family & neighbors so he joined & served. There’s a school-of-thought, not accepted by Lincoln, obviously, that since the Constitution is silent on the issue of secession the 10th Amendment applied. The Civil War was more complicated than “North good, South Bad” and the men who fought on both sides deserve to be remembered.

    As an aside, I have to wonder how many centrist whites HRC’s “deplorable” remark pushed into the Republican camp, either permanently or just for that one election. Every centrist white person in flyover country who was just one or two generations out of poverty, or currently poor, knew who she was referring to, regardless of their political bent. I consider it likely that this on-going war against all things white will have the same effect.

  6. Faith Shannon says

    More proof the Russians are superior to Americans

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