Leland bought this book, Looking for Lenin, intrigued at the possibility that it would shed some light on the recent controversy over statues of Confederate soldiers. The book did indeed provide insight, if not solutions, to the violent disagreements over what to do with these relics, which opponents claim are racist and defenders claim are historical artifacts.
Not all Confederate statues have the same esthetic merits. Many are hollow zinc, off-the-shelf items which contrast with one-of-a-kind bronzes by academically trained sculptors. Springfield has a one of the latter in a Civil War cemetery surrounded by headstones of rebel soldiers killed at the battle of Wilson’s Creek in 1861. A young man in a non-militaristic pose tops the monument. A bas relief bust image of portly General Sterling Price is on the side of the marble plinth. The total effect is not militaristic, yet red paint was splashed on it last week. This in spite of guards hired from the Springfield Police by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration. They say they were there, but didn’t see a thing.
We used this image in Mystery of the Irish Wilderness, our book about Father John Joseph Hogan’s colony of Irish immigrants in Oregon and Ripley counties in the deep Ozarks. The settlement failed because of the disruption and violence the Civil War. This particular monument seems appropriately placed, in an elegiac setting. Some apparently do not agree.
This modestly priced, smartly written, and beautifully photographed and designed book on the purge of Communist symbols has given me some insight into the assault on Confederate statues and monuments. The toppling of Vladimir Lenin’s statues in the Ukraine is admittedly dissimilar to the campaign to get rid of Confederate Generals, principally in the southern United States. One difference is the enemies of Lenin monuments are far right, not far left as they are in America. Both groups however fulfill Yeats’ prophecy in “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.”
Another similarity is that there doesn’t appear to be any consensus among Ukrainians as to what it all means. A difference is that Lenin has been much more brutalized than our now discredited icons. With one exception that I know about, our Confederate monuments are merely moved or in some cases splashed with paint. Many times, the Ukrainians chop them up and leave their parts scattered about a very disheveled landscape. Artists incorporate parts into bizarre sculptures. To keep large bronze examples from scrap metal pillagers they must be hidden. There is a collector trade in smaller Lenin statues and busts.
Our tributes to rebel generals are a bit better-crafted and more individual than the dull, repetitive, uninspired sculptures of Comrade Lenin. American Beaux Arts works may not be trendy, but they are esthetically superior to the products of the communist propaganda workshops.
Niels Ackermann’s sharp photographs imaginatively juxtapose these cast-off symbols of tyranny in a disordered environment. The running transcriptions of the overall puzzlement of Ukrainian citizens written by Sebastien Gobert are at times hilarious and parallel American puzzlement. A few Ukrainians, like Yevgenia Moliar, curator of art projects of Kyiv Foundation, thoughtfully point out the unanticipated consequences of statue toppling. Officials in favor of statue destruction censor discussion of the subject: “They’ve tried to create a state ideology that condemns any form of criticism.” This, ironically, has caused a renaissance of support for these relics: “In my opinion, nothing did more for the popularity of Soviet symbolism than the current process of decommunisation.”
What I got most of all out of this was a similarity in the diversity of responses to both decommunisation in the Ukraine and purging the memory of slavery in the U.S. Whatever the justification, both campaigns will leave an empty public space with nothing to replace the banished statuary. “The Second Coming” wrote in the beginning essay, “Leninfall is not just an act of violence against history. The empty plinths that litter the towns and villages of Ukraine today, much like the stumps of felled trees, attest to its destructiveness. They become points of convergence for contending visions of national representation, posing the question: What’s next?”
Congratulations to the publisher, Fuel. Last Christmas I gave copies of their provocative book, Soviet Bus Stops, to my wife and two sons. It was well received by this generally critical group. I’ll be purchasing multiple copies of this intriguing book for next Christmas.
The book is available on amazon.com