The Sleepless Life of Moscow’s Statues
Moscow’s Muzeon Park is the largest cemetery of statues in the world. The fate of these statues seems to be almost a Russian political barometer.
Curiosity led me here one day four years ago, having just arrived in Moscow. Here I found, amongst the ice and winter snow, statues thrown randomly around, without any logic, stylistics or chronological order. Everything seemed damned, sad and abandoned.
The day was grey and wet. The guide led us past a statue of Lermontov – Pushkin’s poetic heir, the Russian Dante. Lermontov died in a duel, as did Pushkin, but at age of 27, not 37.
Then we came up to the jovial – at least in the statue version – Lomonosov. He was the founder of Moscow University, a scientist, naturalist, poet, and often considered the Russian Leonardo da Vinci… I start getting distracted. All of sudden the monument dedicated to the victims of the Gulag came to my attention. There was a statue of Stalin right in front of it. This Stalin is dented, nose-less, and opposite it are a multitude of stone heads with their faces drawn, massed behind barbed wire. It’s cold. This sculpture of Stalin used to stand in Izmailovo Park, where there is now a statue of Tsar Peter the Great. I take a few steps back and come across Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov. In the distance Mahatma Gandhi is crouching in the bushes and then high up above everybody, I glimpse the terrible statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky (‘Iron Feliks’), the founder and symbol of the Cheka, the forerunner of the political police apparatus of the KGB. Mahatma Ghandi, then Dzerzhinsky. The good and the bad.
The guide tells us that on August 22, 1991, in the heat the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of people gathered in Lubyanka Square, where the imposing building of the then KGB stands. They had already passed a noose around the neck of ‘Iron Feliks’ (as Dzerzhinsky’s statue was nicknamed) to heave it down, but were persuaded to refrain from doing so by a government spokesman. A few hours later, with the help of a crane, the statue was dismantled and taken untouched here, to this ‘cemetery of dismantled monuments.’
From that first tourist tour I did nothing but following the vicissitudes – the comings and goings of these statues – and other statues that were born or reborn around Moscow. All my friends visiting Moscow were obliged to make the pilgrimage to the statue park.
Muzeon was established in 1992 to act as a kind of collection point for a heterogeneous mix of contemporary and modern art, including the deconstructed ‘Soviet heroes’ statues. In fact, in Russia, the statues are ‘uncomfortable,’ and since 1991, have been unbolted from their previous pedestals in a nice, civil way, and not violently destroyed, which is what happened in some former Soviet republics and, more recently, in Ukraine. Perhaps so as to preserve a symbol of Soviet power? Or to safeguard works of art by famous sculptors? To give appropriate recognition to the history of the country? This is completely unlike what happened during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
The chaotic state of Muzeon Park which looked unfinished on my first visit, brought the worry that the statues were merely parked there, soon to return to their podiums. That worry became a fear when it was proposed in parliament to put ‘Iron Feliks’ back on his pedestal in Lubyanka Square. That was a frightening time. The statue was not returned to its original place, but it was no longer in the Park. Finally tempers calmed down and following a facelift (2013/14) when, previously abandoned statues were put onto pedestals, Muzeon reopened. Feliks was soon back in his familiar place and the graffiti on the pedestal had ‘faded’.
There is a theory that when regimes change, statues also change. In Russia there is a kind of process taking place which should reassure those worried that the statues of Soviet heroes will be returned to where they came from. At the moment, there is an almost obsessive programme in place to return to the way things were before the rise of Lenin, following a trend which began at the end of the Soviet era. So Lubyanka Square will gain a fountain, while the statue of Tsar Alexander II, which was destroyed by the Bolsheviks, has been erected in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
With method and perseverance, officially in the name of the re-establishment of historical justice, Putin is commissioning or restoring statues of Princes and Tsars. Some argue that this is being done to line Putin’s Russia up as a successor to the Russian Empire. Be this as it may, the statue of Tsar Alexander I, which was destroyed in 1918, was again placed, in 2014, in Alexander’s Garden, behind the walls of the Kremlin. The ‘Obelisk to 400 years of the Romanov dynasty’ has regained its ancient role in the same garden, after being used, under Soviet rule, to glorify socialist philosophers. Particular attention is being given to the statue of the now canonised Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who introduced Orthodox Christianity to Russia in 988. This statue initially measured 24 meters high, and was to stand on the hill opposite the University, à la Christ of Rio de Janeiro. But authorities soon realized that St. Vladimir’s weight could bring down the hill. So the statue has been resized to 16 meters and was mounted on a site just south of the Kremlin, on Borovitskaya square. The statue was unveiled by President Putin last November, on ‘National Unity Day.’
It seems to be no accident that all these monuments exhumed from the past have been erected in close proximity to the Kremlin. Perhaps the idea is to follow a particular astral design, as used by Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters,’ Moscow’s famous skyscrapers? Or perhaps the idea is to counter the presence of Soviet symbols in Red Square? Symbols which the powers to be, for now, do not want or cannot undermine, as they are dear to many nostalgic ex- Soviets who are an important constituency for Putin. The same people who, on ‘Clean City Day,’ go to brush the statues of Soviet politicians in Muzeon.
Moral: respect for the past is a sign of civilisation, but in Russia the balance between the past and respect is sometimes stable and sometimes precarious. So, what will happen to the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square? The body of Lenin, subjected to constant comings and goings of new conservation techniques, will one day be removed, something that happened to Stalin in 1956. Maybe this will only happen when the Soviet nostalgic electorate will be no more.