As Ukraine’s president fled Kiev and protesters roamed his mansion and took over the capital, old statues of Vladimir Lenin were toppled and dragged through the streets in several Ukrainian cities.
The vandalism and destruction of Lenin statues across Ukraine is only the latest attack on symbols of the old Soviet state and its Eastern European satellites.
As the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s and early 1990s, images of Lenin were defaced and graffiti artists mocked the Communist Party. In East Germany, most of the scorn was saved for the party leader and head-of-state Erich Honecker. His portraits were vandalized and altered, representing widespread anger and charges that he was a war criminal resulting from the shooting deaths at the Berlin Wall. Mr. Honecker avoided trial because of deteriorating health and was allowed to be exiled in Chile.
The East German flag, with the central state seal cut out of the middle, was waved in opposition rallies, indicating a desire to return to some notion of unified German statehood, suggested by the historic black, red and yellow stripes of Weimar. And perhaps the most striking example was a bust of Lenin, once white, that was painted in the midst of the October uprising in Leipzig, using Western-made fluorescent pink and green paint.
These kinds of iconoclastic gestures had occurred within the Soviet bloc even before the watershed moment of 1989. Following the end of Nikita Khrushchev’s reign in the Soviet Union, his fall from grace was represented in his crude removal from an official painting marking the occasion of the 22nd Party Congress. He remains as a scratched out ghost-like figure — just enough was left to remind viewers of the shift in party-line. His successor, Leonid Brezhnev, was attacked in the early 1980s by street protesters who painted “WHY!” in English over his portrait. The late 1980s saw a rise in dissident art with ample use of irony to help drive the point home.
Collective memory and the desire for a particular national, political, or even religious identity are often bound up in historical sites and objects of commemoration and the way in which they are preserved or destroyed. From the mass destruction of Christian icons during the Reformation, to the appropriation of royal emblems during the French Revolution, to the vandalism of fascist art during and after World War II, history is filled with examples of manipulated images and defaced symbols of power — often these serve as an opposition rallying cry or a means to exorcise historical demons.
Subverting icons of authority to demonstrate the state’s lack of control over its own symbols has often been very effective. Likewise, mocking the seriousness of those symbols to undermine the visual threats that many regimes rely on to maintain order has long been a useful tool for protesters.
But the destruction or removal of symbols as a means of national reconciliation, building consensus, or cultivating a new collective memory is rarely successful.
Following the end of the Cold War, monuments and historical sites fell victim to what some German observers call the Müllphase, or “trash phase” in which the materials of one era are physically thrown out to make room for a new one. Throughout the 1990s, bronze sculptures of old political heroes were melted down, artwork was de-accessioned or transferred to historical art depots, thereby deprioritizing it as art.
Even the Palace of the Republic, the most important building constructed in the former East Germany, was disassembled in 2008. It housed the seat of government and hosted a range of recreational activities for citizens, including bowling, dancing and cafes. It did not align with the new historical narrative for contemporary Germany.
Nevertheless, the removal or dismemberment of these monuments or installations from their original locations, as most of the Berlin Wall was in 1990, did not resolve the often complex historical problems that they represented. The grinding of the wall into gravel did not eliminate the “Mauer im Kopf,” or “Wall in the Head.” In fact, such destruction sometimes makes the process of reconciliation more difficult because the absence of physical reminders within the urban landscape only pushes the invisible psychological scarring further into the recesses — until it erupts.
The Lenin statues have been treated by Ukrainian protesters as a stand-in for Russia itself. And while it surely is a captivating media moment and will perhaps galvanize like-minded protesters, it isn’t likely to play a positive role in helping Ukrainians to come to terms with their complicated past and it is certainly not going to change the reality of Ukraine’s geographic happenstance, sandwiched between Russia and the European Union.
Once historical sites and statues are gone, they do not come back. This is not just unfortunate for historians and museums but also for those whose history (whether glorious or uncomfortable) is being destroyed. It precludes the possibility of a public place for contemplation and psychological recovery. Ultimately, eradicating history in the pursuit of a revised national narrative represents a lack of confidence that past traumas and current debates will be fairly sorted in the future.
In Ukraine, the struggle for ownership of the past continues to unfold. And while the protesters’ destruction of monuments might hasten their victory, it does not mean they will have an easy time putting their fragmented country back together.
Justinian A. Jampol is the founder and executive director of The Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War in Culver City, California.