What to do with Confederate statues?

James Glaser | (The Conversation) | – –

Could Russia teach us something about how to deal with difficult aspects of our national history?

Many places in the South – from New Orleans to Louisville – are in the process of bringing down statues that glorify the Confederacy. That process raises questions about what to do with these remnants of the past. Do we just toss them into the ash bin of history, purging them as if they never existed?

As a student of southern politics who recently traveled to Moscow, I wondered if we can look to the Russians and how they have treated their Soviet past. The situations are not perfectly analogous. Many Russian people lived through the Soviet experience. Not so for the Confederacy. That said, in both cases, there is the question of whether – and how – to purge the past.

From propaganda to kitsch

In Moscow, and in the former Soviet Union in general, there is Soviet detritus all over the place. Hammers and sickles are chiseled into buildings, bridges and other infrastructure. Sculptures of happy, heroic soldiers, workers and farmers sit on the platforms in the Moscow metro. Seven massive “Stalin buildings” dot the city.

The Russians have done more than just tolerate these leftovers. All the propaganda that the Soviets used to produce and disseminate – and there was a lot of it – is now kitsch. Kiosks sell Soviet T-shirts next to matryoshka dolls and amber jewelry as genuine Russian souvenirs. As one Russian gentleman said to me, “It’s our past and we embrace it. We lived it. We can’t just wish it away.”

It would not be very practical to knock down the buildings Stalin helped to build or hammer out all those hammers and sickles.

Statues, however, have no practical purpose and can be taken care of rather easily. Moscow has removed many of them from public space. It was one of the first impulses the Russian people had after the fall of the Soviet Union.

What is instructive is what the Muscovites have done with their statues, collecting them in a sculpture garden and giving them historical context.

A grove of Lenin statues

The statues and monuments now reside together in a section of MUSEON Arts Park, a lovely green space next to Gorky Park. MUSEON is also known as the Fallen Monument Park, though “felled monuments” would be the more appropriate name. The park contains more than just felled Soviets. There are hundreds of other pieces sprinkled through the park. But walking through the grove of Lenin statues, sitting in the shade of a monumental Soviet coat of arms, or posing next to a large bust of Leonid Brezhnev or Mikhail Kalinin is the thrill for people like me.

Each statue or set of statues is accompanied by a panel that informs the viewer about the work, its composition and the history of its display. Notably, there is little about the leader being portrayed in the text. Each description ends with, “By the decree of the Moscow City Council of People Representatives of Oct. 24, 1991, the monument was dismantled and placed in the MUSEON Arts Park exposition. The work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.” The point, of course, is that the Moscow city council is careful to state that the display is not intended to glorify the past, but to document it.

What is even more powerful is how the statues are displayed. In some ways, the arrangements are reminiscent of a cemetery. White, granite “tombstones” line a path, an appropriate metaphor for the Soviet regime.

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by James Glaser

It is the large statue of Josef Stalin, however, that is most striking. Stalin has lost his nose and is in sad shape. Behind him is a monument to the “Victims to the Totalitarian Regime.” The monument is a wall comprising stone heads cocked at different angles. The heads are held in place by a grid of bars and barbed wire that evoke a prison camp. Hundreds of these victims stare at Stalin. Indeed, because of their placement, one cannot look at him without looking at them.

Sakharov.
CC BY-SA

Moreover, in front of Stalin is a contemporary statue of Russian physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, one of the most notable dissidents of the Soviet era. The statue of Sakharov is seated, arms behind his back, legs and feet locked together, and head upturned to the sky. Is he staring at the stars, not an unreasonable thing for a scientist or a disarmament activist to do, or can he just not bear to look at Stalin directly in front of him? And what about those arms stretched behind his back, one of them twisted and unnatural, fist in a ball? Is Sakharov being detained, or tortured? That interpretation is suggested by the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, who faces Sakharov about 50 yards away. It is quite delicious to see a dog passing by and marking “Iron Felix.” Perhaps Sakharov is just having a good laugh.

Why do these scenes, these dead Soviet statues, work so well? I would assert that by locating them together, they can be put into “historical and cultural” context, as the markers suggest. Moreover, through strategic curation, these statues have been put into dialogue with each other and with the contemporary sculptures around them and been given new meaning. The statues in their old lives were meant to honor and glorify the Soviet leaders and their regime. In their new life, they have been turned into art. As pieces of art, their meaning can be changed or supplemented by how the viewer interprets them.

The ConversationThis suggests there would be real value to bringing felled Confederate statues together in one place. Putting them into historical context, they can give commentary on the Confederacy, the Civil War, slavery, Jim Crow, massive resistance and even present-day politics. And locating these statues with other monuments offers all kinds of opportunity to tell the whole story of the South.

James Glaser, Professor, Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, Tufts University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

CBS DFW: “Heritage Or Hate? Debate Over Confederate Statues Heats Up In Dallas”

15 Responses

  1. It is well established that the First Amendment does not protect all speech. Certainly advocacy of treason falls into the unprotected category. The secessionist movement of 1861-65 was the greatest act of treason committed against the United States. I think in that context a more appropriate model than post-Bolshevik Russia is post-Nazi Germany.

    Statues of secessionist heroes(?) and display of flags, regalia, etc. are to be proscribed. The states’ rights argument is hollow. Neo-confederate nostalgia is about secession (treason), and the “peculiar institution” (hate speech).

    • When the next secessionist movement comes to pass, it will be likely the “blue” states seeking separation from “red” state domination. This will also be “treason” to people who are more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit.

      • There are murmurs among the Blue states which are mostly expressions of frustration at the cold hand grip the slaveholders of the 1780s built into the Constitution – but only murmurs. The exception is the Second Vermont Republic which I think is (pardon the stereotyping) a few Birkenstock-wearing guys who have meetings to air grievances – sort of like Festivus – and smoke a doob.

        On the other hand, there’s Texas.

        link to washingtonpost.com

        I for one would be happy to see Texas go, as long as part of the deal is that it returns to Mexico. Every founding myth is a combination of fact and self-flattery; Texas’s omits the most important chapter, the filibusters and their slaves.

        As to Kozmo’s main argument, there are good reasons that the Constitution allows for new states’ joining the Union (Art. IV) and has no provision for leaving. Much as I chafe under the injustice of the Electoral College, etc., that does not begin to justify the treason of dissolving Union.

  2. How clever of the Russians to solve the issue of statues so equitably and so creatively. Imagine, a park of statues.

  3. The statues should be placed in a capacious trophy room in the Smithsonian Museum of African American History.

  4. If secession is treason (and it is) the U.S. was founded by treasoners. The only difference is that they won; the South lost. The founders even maintained slavery while England abolished it. So let’s keep some historical perspective.

  5. The level of irony apparent in the park described by Mr Glaser will never work with Lost Cause advocates. Drive down Monument Avenue in Richmond, visit Battle Abbey. These pompous and grandiose relics of slavery and rebellion are unlikely to see the treatment the Russians have given their fallen heroes.

  6. Those cast in metal can be re-cast as something useful and honest, plowshares maybe. Those of stone, well there is always a use for crushed stone.

  7. Tip the statues on thier side. Then build new statues of any one of the tens of thousands of white men from slave states that joined the union army with the boots of the new statues on the necks of the old statues.
    In addition to that new statues need to be built on evey side of every school in the USA, public or private. Wait in addition on every side of every police station in the USA.
    The statues would be any four from the following list:
    1. Thomas Paine
    2. Tecumseh
    3. Harriet Tubman
    4. John Brown
    5. Susan Anthony
    6.Carrie Nation
    7.Eugene Debs
    8.Medgar Evers
    9.James Zwerg
    0.Cesar Chavez
    ß.Ehren Watada
    !.Chelsa Manning
    Bad habits need to be replaced by good habits. Out with honoring the bad in with honoring the good.

    • There are times when I think there should be a statue of Nat Turner next to every statue of a Confederate general.

  8. I’m not in favor of removing statues. I’m in favor of adding them. No one is offended by Confederate monuments at Civil War battlefields because obviously every battle had two sides and both sides are represented on the battlefield. Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson are balanced by Grant, Sherman, and Hancock. Both sides of the story are told.

    So the solution to memorial statues such as the one to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville is not to remove Lee but to add a counter-balancing statue. Nat Turner, for instance, was also a Virginian, so he might be appropriate. That would put Lee’s service in context.

  9. It should also be noted when many of these monuments were erected. They don’t all date back to when the aging veterans of the Lost Cause wanted to honor their leaders. Many of them were put up in the ’50s and ’60s, in direct response to the civil rights movement.

  10. Sculpture garden is one idea.

    Removing them from public display and putting them in a museum is another.

    Here in Chicago there is a complete U-Boat (U505) on display at the Museum of Science and Industry. As far as I know nobody is offended by it.

    Those statutes are a reminder of a sorry part of American History. They are not to be exalted. Rather, displayed as a cautionary reminder of the baser impulses of some rather nasty people.

    • The problem is, a defeated “Them” will always be safely despised. A defeated “Us” is a trickier matter. It doesn’t matter how much like a Nazi one chooses to be, as long as he is a White American who doesn’t adopt foreign regalia or praise Herr Hitler; he will always be treated as a member of the White family. Just like our slaveowning ancestors.

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