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One of the most visible and widespread sequels of totalitarian regimes throughout the 20th century has been its monuments. Not only those that represent human figures, but also monumental, striking, grandiose buildings that aimed to become symbols as enduring as the regime that had built them. Univocal and ubiquitous references to the presence and interpretations of the leaders and their successors.
From the Nazi Congress Hall in Nuremberg or Francisco Franco's Valley of the Fallen not far from Madrid, to the monuments to Vladimir Lenin that were built in every corner of the former Soviet Union, the statues of Georgi Dimitrov in Bulgaria, of Enver Hoxha in Albania, or even those of Iosif Stalin in the capitals of Czechoslovakia, Hungary or East Germany, beyond the borders controlled at that time directly by Moscow.
The inevitable question is what to do with those highly symbolic buildings once the regime has fallen. And it is not a simple question nor can it have an obvious answer for the mere reason that humanity is complex, that there may be salvageable elements in certain historical figures, in certain events, or, from an artistic point of view, in the constructions themselves. Do they still deserve a tribute in Bulgaria those Soviet soldiers who expelled Nazism? Of course the victory over Nazism is still highly relevant.
This is stated in a recently published article in the Granma newspaper, the official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba. It stresses that the “decommunization” process, which involved the destruction of thousands of monuments in the former Soviet Union and other former members of the Warsaw Pact, was neither lenient nor conciliatory. That this process was beyond reason, ethics or history. That in some countries (such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia or, more recently, Ukraine), these changes were more profound than in others. But that everything boils down to "barbarism", a "phobia of popular heroes" that implies ignoring "the sacrifice of millions of Soviet people who gave their blood for victory against the Nazi regime".
Socialist regimes have traditionally focused on two types of figures to honor: the common, hard-working, self-sacrificing, heroic citizen, on one hand; and the leader of that common citizen, even reaching the cult of personality, on the other. The great events, those that implied a break in local history and a boost either to the current power or to the one that would rise from that moment (the Second World War, the Cuban Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Francoist triumph in the Spanish Civil War) were the basis for the construction of glorious myths and, of course, monuments that would reinforce these new myths, that would recall those deeds and, more importantly, that would strengthen the power and supposed popular legitimacy of the regime.
The founding myth becomes unquestionable. The great monuments are the material proof of history. If the buildings are so large, so ubiquitous, so perennial, therein lies the clearest proof that the honorable act or person deserves all the recognition. Otherwise, the monument would not be here, nor there, nor everywhere. It is a very simple logic.
This leads to a second question, perhaps more important than the first, one that forces us to focus not on what or who the honorees are, but on who decided to honor them at the time and why. If history is written by those who win, who builds monuments, who builds history and plants the founding myth, is the victor of that primal conflict: of that war, of that revolution. The monument (or monumental building) redefines everything around it. It is no coincidence that just after the Second World War, the Stalinist Empire architectural style was imposed in many almost completely destroyed cities, such as Kiev or Minsk: large, highly ornate buildings, with neoclassical columns, luxuries, hammers and sickles everywhere. The clear and inescapable mark of victory, of a unique message. The honorable and, therefore, unquestionable history.
It is not just about Vladimir Lenin or the soldiers of the Red Army. Neither about Che Guevara’s face in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana or the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in North Korea. Not even about the anonymous workers that the artistic style of socialist realism favored in the Soviet Union since the 1930s. That is only a part of the whole. Because the founding myth must cover as much as possible, almost as many aspects of daily life as those covered by the regime. The honored facts and characters are part of a state of permanent propaganda that must last forever.
Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's favorite architect, once said that those buildings designed to exalt the glory of the Third Reich were destined to stand for thousands of years, like those erected by the Roman emperors. But it was not like that: Germany lost the war, Nazism disappeared from power and almost all its symbols (those that would last millennia) were destroyed. With Stalin's death in 1953, monuments to him were removed, both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and today only a handful remain standing.
What to do when a stage ends and the honoree is no longer interpreted as deserving of such homage? There are plenty of examples in countries that have gone through authoritarian regimes. And a good part of the current political culture of those countries can be defined by this decision: what they have done with their monuments from the past. In Poland, practically all communist monuments have been destroyed. In Hungary or Lithuania, most of them were removed from the big cities and open-air museums were created where they can be visited. In Bulgaria, many were abandoned and are rotting by the inclement weather. In Russia or Serbia, most monuments are preserved and taken care of.
There is no single correct answer. But it can be established that the countries that best maintain those material memories are also those that best preserve the political idiosyncrasies of that time. Russia is a paradigmatic example of this.
Destroying or moving monuments from the past is not, then, necessarily a direct affront to the honored event or person, but rather to everything that this material structure implies beyond the obvious reference to a specific event or person. That is to say, what is dishonored is the past, the concluded political regime, the bosses who ordered that construction and imposed that unique and unquestionable interpretation.
In 2015, a few months after the start of the war in the Donbass, the eastern region of Ukraine, a package of laws known collectively as “decommunization” was enacted, which implied a ban on Soviet and communist symbology. This led to the banning of the three communist parties in the country, the renaming of more than 50,000 streets, 100 cities, almost a thousand villages, and the removal of 1,320 monuments to Lenin, officially all of those in Ukraine, excluding areas outside control of the central state.
In that article in the Granma newspaper, they talk about persecution and trying to change history. But three factors are forgotten: on the one hand, that these Ukrainian laws were approved by a democratically elected Parliament and, therefore, with the support of the majority of the population. It was not a unilateral and unquestionable imposition from another country. In fact, there have been numerous protests in Ukraine over this. And it is that even the weakest democracies allow to demonstrate against the decisions of a government. This decisions are not and cannot be unquestionable.
On the other hand, it is omitted that many changes of place names in Ukraine were to recover the original name, prior to Soviet impositions. For example, the city of Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk region, had carried that name since its founding in 1571, but in 1924 the authorities renamed it Artyomovsk, after the Bolshevik leader Fyodor Sergeev, better known as Artyom. In 2016, with the decommunization laws, the original name was recovered, although, for Russia, this war-affected city continues to bear the Soviet name of Artyomovsk to this day.
The difficulty of this process lies in maintaining enough balance so as not to become the exact opposite of what it is intended to combat. To not reach the point where the extremes meet: to not impose a certain attitude against what was previously imposed. To not fall into a revanchism of tit for tat. To not destroy or erase history as if it had never happened, as if the past could not bequeath lessons.
Once again it is worth asking if the millions of anonymous Soviet soldiers who defeated Nazism do not deserve a tribute. And they probably do. Here appears the third factor that the article in the official Cuban media forgets: Ukrainian laws excluded monuments related to World War II, in which, of course, Ukrainian citizens died. But what relationship does Lenin have with Ukraine? Those 1,320 monuments were an external imposition that probably doesn't make much sense today. Many of these structures have been converted, adapted, resignified. Some were moved to museums. And others were destroyed, unfortunately. Thus, the traces of a past that has much to teach have been lost.
The day that what was intended to be eternal ends, the material traces survive as vestiges of what was once imposed. How then to respond to the big debate between nostalgia, oblivion and learning? It's not easy at all. There will be diverse opinions, attitudes and proposals. But what is relevant is that there is a space large enough to face this debate, as complex as it is necessary. That neither unquestionable readings, nor founding myths, nor messianic heroes, nor univocal deeds are imposed anymore. And, even less, that these impositions are external and foreign. That the fall of a regime may always imply an opening to dialogue and questioning. Even on those subjects that were once so unquestionable.