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Russia/US: Analysis From Washington--Coping With Commemorations

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 12 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Two events last week -- one in Washington and one in Moscow -- highlight the difficulties countries frequently have in commemorating any event from the past.

In Washington, the United States government dedicated a monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as president during the Great Depression and World War II and who almost singlehandedly redefined the relationship between the American people and their government.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, the Russian government marked the 52nd anniversary of the victory of the World War II allies over Nazi Germany with a parade through Red Square and a speech by President Boris Yeltsin.

But in both cases, the commemorations were marred by the fundamental differences between the historical record and the often revisionist requirements of the very different social and political situation today. And these tensions in turn sparked very public if very different controversies in the two countries.

The American monument to Franklin Roosevelt has sparked historical revisionism and controversy on a variety of fronts. In deference to current concerns about tobacco and animal rights, President Roosevelt is not shown with his signature cigarette, and Mrs. Roosevelt is not shown with her inevitable fur stole.

Many people have been concerned as well about what they see as the highly selective treatment of Roosevelt's legacy, ignoring his famous remarks about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a day he said "would live in infamy," comments that might offend the Japanese today, in favor of comments little-noted at the time in support of environmentalism, a current imperative.

But the greatest controversy has been about whether to show Roosevelt in a wheelchair. Crippled with polio as an adult, FDR tried as much as possible to hide the disability he so successfully overcame. Of the millions of photographs of him extant, only a handful show him in a wheelchair.

The original plans for the FDR monument reflected what those involved in its design thought were his wishes. But when these plans became public, they sparked a serious public debate between those who see respecting his wishes as the most important thing, and those who believe that FDR can posthumously perform a last service by highlighting his disability and his ability to overcome it.

Each side marshalled its arguments in the media, but to the surprise of virtually no one and reflecting a pattern that has affected other public monuments in the United States and elsewhere, current concerns won out over what some consider to be historical accuracy. And as a result, the monument to FDR will be supplemented by a statue of the president in a wheelchair.

But if this debate was heated, it was ultimately at the margines of American consciousness. Most Americans know that Roosevelt had polio, and equally most know that he tried to hide it while he was alive. Consequently, the outcome is unlikely to shake the country, even if it does represent a barometer of changes in American values.

The fight over the celebration of Victory Day in Moscow, on the other hand, was precisely at the center of political life there, and the implications of the way in which it is resolved are far larger for both Russians and the world as a whole.

On Friday, the Russian government followed tradition and organized a parade, albeit modest by past standards, through Moscow's Red Square.

Although the marchers carried flags of a country that no longer exists but which did gain the victory in 1945, Yeltsin attempted to update the event by talking generally about "our soldiers" and about their role in liberating "the occupied lands of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia, the Baltic and Moldavia," as well as the countries of Eastern Europe.

The historical revisionism implicit in the parade and explicit in Yeltsin's remarks generated a counter-demonstration by Russian communists and nationalists who believe that the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Russia's efforts to move toward democracy represent a betrayal of what the USSR achieved in its victory over Hitler's Germany.

Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov told a crowd of some 30,000 that he "was ashamed to watch the parade on Red Square. They couldn't get the sailors to take part because they don't have any money... Our victory has been sold and betrayed" by what he called "the new gauleiters" in the current Russian government.

Another Communist speaker, Viktor Anpilov said to applause that "the international working class remembers ... the name of the man who led us to victory in the Great Patriotic War: Stalin!" And a third speaker, General Mikhail Titov argued that Russia is now facing "a third patriotic war," this time against "international Zionism, the Western secret services, and our own traitors."

Such divisions in Russia over the commemoration of Victory Day are far deeper, more significant and more fateful than the divisions in the United States over how to portray FDR in the monument to the former president.

But the differences in both these countries are a reminder of the difficulties in coping with memory and forgetting, a process at the core of being fully human.
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