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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Another Change Of Monuments?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 7 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A Duma vote calling for the restoration of a statue of the founder of the Soviet secret police suggests that once again the battle for Russia's future is going to be waged as a struggle over its complicated past.

But if Russian history is any guide, the outcome of this dispute over symbols from the past is likely to be both less significant and far different than either direct participants or outside observers currently appear to believe.

It is likely to be less significant because the debate itself highlights just how complicated the Russian historical record in fact is, how many continuities remain despite apparently radical changes, and also how few Russians are prepared to line up on either side.

And the outcome is likely to be far different because both sides of the debate are using symbols from the past to deal with current problems rather than to either return to that past or a reject it altogether as the participants in this debate often suggest.

Last Friday, the Russian State Duma overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the restoration of the statue of Feliks Dzerzinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, in Moscow's Lubyanka Square.

If implemented, this decision would effectively reverse the toppling of Dzerzhinsky's statue following the August 1991 coup attempt, an even that at the time many in both Russia and the West saw as a sign that Russia would never return to its Soviet past.

But now, many of these very same people appear equally certain that the Duma vote and a the erection of a new Lenin statue in the northern Russian city of Polyarny Zori on Saturday portend precisely that.

For three reasons, however, this pessimism about the meaning of a possible restoration of the statue of the hated and feared founder of the Soviet secret police is almost certainly just as overstated as was the optimism following its destruction in 1991.

First, the Duma vote -- despite all the publicity it has received in both Russia and the West --may not in fact lead to the restoration of the Dzerzhinsky statue.

Not only was the resolution itself non-binding as President Boris Yeltsin noted, but Moscow city officials made it clear that they and not the parliament would have the last word on the matter, another reminder of the declining power of the central government.

As the deputy speaker of the city council put it last week, "only Muscovites" through their own government will decide "what monument will stand on Lubyanka Square."

Opponents of the move mobilized as well. The reformist Yabloko party called on Moscow city officials not to "profane the memory of the millions of victims of communist terror." Russian state television broadcast footage of Dzerzhinsky's reign of terror.

And on Saturday, the day after the vote, hundreds of Russians, many of them victims of Soviet repression, assembled in Lubyanka Square to protest any plans to restore Dzerzhinsky's statue.

Second, the balance between supporters and opponents of the move in the country at large appears to be very different than in the Duma where the vote was 255 for as opposed to only 102 against.

Many Russians remain nostalgic for some aspects of the Soviet past, public opinion polls suggest, but very few of them indicate that they would back any return to a past dominated by Soviet-era secret police structures.

And third, precisely because each side is using a historical personage to talk about the present, both are transforming or even trivializing the meaning of that individual and his role in the history of the country for the future.

That pattern is obvious on both sides. Supporters of the restoration of the statue suggest that such a step will show that the Russian state is committed to fighting crime and corruption, not affirm Dzerzhinsky's role in the terror.

Meanwhile, opponents of this move have made Dzerzhinsky into a symbol of the entire Soviet past and warned that the return of his statue would represent the return of that past.

In so doing, they are reversing, and with even less justification, their earlier suggestions that the demolition of that statue in 1991 marked the definitive end of that system.

In fact, while symbols like the Dzerzhinsky statue are critically important, they cannot and do not play the definitive role that either side in this debate have implied.

And for that reason, if no other, Moscow's Deputy Mayor Valery Shantsev may have been closer to the truth of the matter than anyone else when he told journalists last week what he thought the debate over the fate of Dzerzhinsky statue actually means.

Acknowledging that his city would restore the statue if ordered to do so, Shantsev noted how abnormal a situation it is when monuments are "taken down, then put back up, only to be perhaps taken down again."