The Rise and Fall of Monuments
Charles Merewether


We are living in what could be called a "memorial age." On the one hand, new monuments are being built to commemorate and question violent events of the past. On the other, monuments are being destroyed as a way of symbolizing the end of an era. Their destruction represents a desire to put the past behind. But is this possible? The most recent widespread expression of this desire has been the toppling of monuments throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union after 1989, which came to symbolize the fall of Communism. More often than not, the toppling of monuments occurs after the overthrow of a state, and for this reason among others, monuments are part of the turbulent legacy of the past; they cannot stand outside history. To ignore or attempt to erase this legacy through the destruction of monuments is to risk engaging in a dangerous form of historical revisionism. What is a monument? Monuments make certain historical claims based on a conservative impulse to commemorate an epoch, ideology, event, or figure. Monuments construct and preserve a record; they are symbols intended to stand over the vagaries of memory and apart from the contingencies of history. They are literally larger than life, and lend a sense of permanence to an idea, or a regime, by seeming almost part of nature. The emperor or general on his horse, the leader with his arm raised to the sky—these images are all part of an iconography of triumph that projects the past onto the future, from one generation of people to the next.

Monuments celebrate—and try to ensure—the reign of the perpetual present. In the state's eyes, the monument functions as both a physical representation of the leader and of those who later claim his mantle. The state seeks legitimization through representation; its authority is embodied in its representations of itself and in its hegemony over competing images (and therefore ideologies). The Polish-born artist KrzysztofWodiczko, who has had a long-standing interest in the rhetorical power of monuments, has said, "Individuals don't own images, the State does." The state's attempt to control how events and figures are represented is part of its spectacle of power. As the French philosopher Guy Debord suggests in his book Society of the Spectacle, this spectacle is "the existing order's uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power." Wodiczko and other artists have attempted to draw attention to this discourse by exposing the violence inherent in the construction of these monuments.

Can the destruction of monuments really be commemorative? Russia has always been occupied and preoccupied by its monuments, and has a history of destroying them. With the advent of the Soviet State many monuments were destroyed, renamed or built. On April 12,1918, under Lenin, the Council of People's Commissars issued a decree ordering the Tsarist monuments to be replaced before the first anniversary of the October Revolution. After Lenin's death, Stalin set up a Committee for the Immortalization of Lenin's Memory, which was responsible for the "correct manufacture of busts, bas-reliefs and pictures showing V. I. Lenin." In the 1920s and 1930s Bolsheviks destroyed old churches and renamed Moscow streets in order to obliterate the past. The first act of the perestroika years was to give streets back their old names and pull down Soviet monuments.

The way a society thinks about its monuments reflects the way it deals with its own history. In recent years, the question of what to do with the monuments of Communism has preoccupied historians, politicians, and artists throughout former Communist countries. Some call for their swift destruction, others for their conservation; still others, like Wodiczko, believe they should neither be destroyed nor conserved, but somehow altered, in a manner that suggests the passage of history.

Muscovites were faced with this question shortly before midnight on August 22,1991, in the aftermath of an aborted Communist coup against former Soviet President Gorbachev, when a group of pro-democracy Muscovites tried to dismantle the larger-than-life-size bronze statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky. Born in Lithuania in 1877 to a Polish landowning family, Dzerzhinsky was the founder, in 1917, of the Cheka (Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage), a precursor to the KGB. (Lenin defined the Cheka as a "special system of organized violence" established to impose a proletarian dictatorship which, under the leadership of Dzerzhinsky, would seek to exterminate the middle class.) Dzerzhinsky has been both reviled as a symbol of the tyranny of Communist repression and defended for his love of Russian street children, whom he rescued and for whom he built special orphanages. Although he acquired the nickname "Iron Felix" for his fanatical party loyalty, incorruptible asceticism, and priesthood of terror and ruthlessness, a 1989 edition of the State-published guidebook to Moscow describes him as an "eminent Party leader, Soviet statesman, and a close comrade of Lenin."

The monument to Dzerzhinsky, built by the once- revered sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich in 1956, resembled the KGB itself—an organization cloaked in secrecy. Like a mask, the monument hid as much as it revealed. The monument itself is unremarkable. There are no distinguishing gestures or purposeful expressions, as is the case with many Lenin monuments. Rather it is characterized by equanimity and constraint. In front of Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad- a prominent square in the center of the city—this nondescript monument had become a looming presence—a symbol of the KGB and a reminder that the organization functioned outside Lubyanka's prison walls, in a public sphere.

Earlier in the day protestors had painted the words "EXECUTIONER" and "FELIX, THIS IS YOUR END" around the base. They then climbed onto the statue, wrapped a chain around its neck, like a noose, and attempted to topple it with the help of a small bus. The monument could not be uprooted that day, but eventually Russia's new leader, Boris Yeltsin, ordered its removal. The monument was temporarily placed in a quasi- "sculpture graveyard" in Gorky Park along with other uprooted statues, including those of Lenin, Stalin, Mikhail Kalinin (the second head of the Soviet state), and Yakov Sverdlov (one of the creators of the Communist Party apparatus).

KGB Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Tsaryov said in 1991, however, that the removal of the Dzerzhinsky monument was an "act of vandalism and disrespectful of history." He added, "Of course, you can always find people who overdo it. That's how it was in the Stalinist period, too." The monument's removal was a moment of triumph for many not directly involved as well. Soon after learning of the toppling of Dzerzhinsky's statue, Father Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and the leader of the radical reform movement of Democratic Russia, remarked, "This is the fruit of our victory! It symbolizes that we are now dismantling the system and will destroy the enormous, dangerous, totalitarian machine of the KGB." Or as Anatoly Malykhin, a leader of the Russian coal miners' labor movement, noted, "This is a normal procedure of purification. It is neither revenge nor a reward. It is a restoration of justice. We are cleaning away the waste from our lives."

But the former Soviet dissident artists Vitaly Komar and Alexis Melamid, who live in New York, think otherwise. In a 1993 interview with Lawrence Weschler in The New Yorker, they spoke about the "old Moscow technique" that either "worships or destroys." It is like a form of patricide in which one leader displaces the one who preceded him. "Each time it is history, the country's true past, that is conveniently being obliterated," they said. In 1992, Komar and Melamid had decided to make an open call in the New York art magazine ArtForum, asking artists to submit proposals for saving and transforming the monuments rather than destroying them. In their statement, the artists wrote (not without irony), "History should be preserved for future generations. But these monuments are not just history for us, they are our lives. It's not so much the monuments themselves we want to preserve as the beautiful sweet world of our childhood." And in their resulting catalogue article: "Soviet monuments loomed over our childhood, we fear we may vanish with them. That is why we are trying to prolong their existence." The sense of loss that gives rise to their irony brings to mind the Russian historian Andrei Zorin's remark that Russia had "always sacrificed its heritage in order to build a new Utopia." It was precisely the class of thinkers, poets, and artists to which Komar and Melamid belong that people such as Dzerzhinsky were most active in eliminating, and it is some of these people who now seek to break the cycle by not eliminating the monuments.

But why preserve monuments? What value do they hold, especially if they symbolize repressive regimes? Eastern Europe's division over the handling of its monuments is directly related to the question of how to handle the inheritance of a monumental and oppressive history. In some sense, the monument is not only symbolic of a larger violence that has been inflicted on society; in fact, violence is inherent to its conception. Many monuments either commemorate those who have fallen in battle or celebrate a victory or conquest. They therefore mark a moment of transition or change between the past and the future that is gained through violence. To destroy or erect a monument implicates its destroyers in its violence. Revenge begets revenge. Wodiczko, who for several years has been projecting counterimages onto existing memorials, commented, "Watching the monuments to Lenin being destroyed made me think that there should be a public discussion before any of this is irreversible. The sculptures are witnesses to the past, memorabilia of the monstrous past."* For Wodiczko, "the past must be infused with the present to create a critical history."

His belief that the monuments must be transformed into a reflection of historical change is related to Michel Foucault's concept of countermemory. Countermemory would unveil or expose the initial events of the construction of monumental history and its subsequent effects; it involves breaking the claim of permanence by giving voice to, and somehow embodying, historical change. The problem with monumental history is that it confuses the past with the future, while critical history calls upon and judges the past in order to measure the service it renders the present. It conceals its own historical conditions and is, as Nietzsche suggests in his book Untimely Meditations, "quite incapable of distinguishing between a monumentalized past and mythical fiction, precisely because the same stimuli can be derived from one world as from the other." Wodiczko has remarked that "My projections ... are works of critical history... But they have to revive monumental history in order to turn it into a critical history. By illuminating it, no matter what I project, no matter how critical I want to be, I bring to it its former glory, its presence. It still reemerges from the darkness as a glorious symbol, as Nietzsche would say, giving us 'a sense that grand things did happen.'"

The monument to Peter the Great recently commissioned by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and erected on the banks of the Moscow River by the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, is an example of Nietzsche's monumental history. The statue, which marks the three-hundred-year anniversary of the Russian navy, depicts Peter waving atop a miniaturized eighteenth-century Russian navy vessel crashing through rough waves. The thirty- story structure, the cost of which was estimated at $25 million, provoked a wave of protest. A poll found the public against the project by a ratio of 2 to i; many see the commission as an act of favoritism on the part of the mayor. Soon after, an obscure group called the Revolutionary Military Council made an attempt to destroy Tsereteli's statue. This same group protested against calls to remove Lenin's body from its mausoleum. In April 1997, the group claimed responsibility for the destruction of a statue of Nicholas II that was built on the anniversary of the Tsar's coronation. A second statue of Nicholas II was blown up early in November 1998. Referring to these incidents, as well as to Dzerzhinsky's statue, Gennady Melnik, a spokesman for the Moscow regional police department, said, "We don't respect our own history and, like savages, tend to take revenge on statues."

Alexei Komech, an architectural historian and the head of the Russian Art Research Institute, has noted that the recent rebuilding of Moscow has led to the "substitution of historic sites with modern reproductions and theatrical imitations." One example is the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Originally built in 1882 near the Kremlin, the cathedral was demolished in 1931 to make way for a proposed Palace of Soviets. Under the direction of the architect and sculptor Boris lofan, the Palace of Soviets would have included a statue of Lenin modeled on the Statue of Liberty. The plan was abandoned and the space finally filled by a public swimming pool in 1961. Komech says that Mayor Luzhkov simply does not recognize the difference between reproduction and restoration, between a copy and the original. "He thinks if he pulls down an old building and puts up a modern copy in its place he is restoring the past. In fact he is falsifying it." For Andrei Zorin, however, the boom in monument building is a form of conservation that accepts successive changes: "We see an unprecedented attempt to reconcile the Russian and Soviet past in a country that has always sacrificed its heritage in order to build a new Utopia." Zorin believes that the future of Russia lies in living with competing legacies symbolized by monuments. "This is part of the new national idea. Peter the Great is God and so is Dzerzhinsky; Stalin's wedding cakes [skyscrapers] are wonderful and so is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Solzhenitsyn and his idea of repentance are not popular, however. To recall bloodshed and injustice is as rude these days as to shout in a silent room."

In 1992, in the square where the Dzerzhinsky statue had once stood, a monument to the victims of totalitarianism was unveiled. And in July, Yanis Bramzis, a Cossack, erected a cross on what had been the statue's pedestal. By 1997, a plain granite boulder had been brought from a prison camp in the Arctic Circle and placed in front of the KGB headquarters with the inscription "In memory of the millions who died in the political terror of the Soviet era

On December 2,1998, a motion to reinstate the statue of Dzerzhinsky was successfully put forward by the Agrarian faction, a Communist splinter group, and supported by the Communists and nationalists who dominate the State Duma, the Lower House of Parliament. Nikolai Kharitonov, leader of the Agrarian faction, noted that "replacing the statue will reassure the nation that the Russian government is dedicated to the ongoing struggle against crime. Dzerzhinsky will serve as a symbol in the fight for order in society." Yuly Rybakov, an independent deputy and member of Russia's Democratic Choice Party, argued against Ae reinstatement of the monument: "Dzerzhinsky was one of the most horrible butchers in history, with a multitude of innocent victims on his conscience. How can we possibly reinstate his statue in the center of the Russian capital?" For Rybakov, the fact that such monuments continue to occupy the city is a kind of recurring nightmare. It is as if the symbolic power invested in the monument goes beyond itself, and takes on a phantasmagoric afterlife. This power has to do with the strange temporal presence of monuments; they contain an absolute force, belonging to the present and the past. In his book The Power of the Image, the French historian Louis Marin suggests that the power of a portrait of a king or emperor gains its authority from living beyond its subject. It assumes authority from that subject, as if it has overcome death. It is this uncanny power, this force that haunts those who live, that people try to destroy. Or, as Wodiczko has noted, speaking of his projections:

"I wanted to break the distance from the monument by creating something frighteningly real and living, like a ghost haunting the monument.... There are things the city doesn't want to talk about, and these are meaningful silences, which must be read. My projections are attempts to read and carve those silences into the monuments and spaces, which propagate civic and dramatic fictions within the social sphere."

In 1990 Wodiczko produced a pair of projections in former West and East Berlin, one on the Huth-Haus in Potsdammer Platz, the other on the Lenin monument in Leninplatz. The Leninplatz monument was transformed into a consumer with a shopping cart filled with electronic equipment. Not only does Wodiczko appear to be suggesting the transformation of a Communist Utopia under Lenin into a post-Soviet culture of consumption, but he also transforms the spectacle, and spectral power, of world Communism into one of a world telecommunications network. Within a year the monument was dismantled and removed—a victim of an iconoclastic backlash against communist rule. The act of erasing the past had won the day.

* "A Conversation with Krzysztof Wodiczko," by Bruce W.
Ferguson in Instruments, Projections, Vehicles.
(Barcelona: Fundació AntoniTàpies, 1992).