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Statues and monuments are an uncanny guide to a people’s vices, grievances, and insecurities.by Ioana Caloianu 5 July 2011
While Prague’s pink tank and Sofia’s Soviet war memorial made headlines recently, TOL’s coverage region, from Central Asia to the Balkans, is a virtual feast for connoisseurs of controversial monuments. Ranging from the kitschy to the megalomaniacal, from the grotesque to the blatantly offensive, our list contains reminders that history and national identity are not set in stone and that monuments, instead of being rallying points easily described in the manner of a grade-school textbook, just as often symbolize division or repression.
Central Asia has long been known as fertile ground for eccentric dictators who take the cult of personality to levels matching those of some of Rome’s most decadent emperors. Saparmurat Niyazov, best known as the self-styled Turkmenbashi, or the Father of all Turkmen, didn’t content himself with naming the months and days of the calendar after himself (January becoming “Turkmenbashi”) and members of his family, or making his compendium of moral teachings and supposed Turkmen folklore, the Rukhnama, compulsory reading for students and workers. He also installed gold-plated statues of himself throughout the country. The most notorious went up in the center of the capital, Ashgabat, in 1998 and was set to rotate with the sun, a feat that earned it the nickname “the grill” for its resemblance to a rotisserie. The statue was dismantled in May 2008 at the orders of Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who also abolished the calendar changes established by his predecessor.
Another statue dubbed “the grill” fared better. It still stands tall and proud in the center of Bucharest. The Monumentul Eroilor (Heroes Monument) was erected in 2005 in Revolution Square, which also contains the former Central Committee building where Nicolae Ceausescu delivered his last public speech before fleeing an angry mob on 21 December 1989, and bears the inscription “Eternal Glory to the Heroes and to the Romanian Revolution of 1989.” Its design drew the outrage of Bucharestians who punningly dubbed it “Monumentul Erorilor” (the Monument of Errors), and “a potato on a stake” (insert your own favorite Dracula joke here). Its questionable design also drew criticism for being at odds with the surroundings, which include the 18th-century Kretzulescu Church, built in an indigenous Romanian style, and reignited a debate about the lack of urban planning laws in Romania. “In this country anybody can build anything in the public domain, because there is no legal framework that would impose certain regulations and sanctions,” the art critic George Radu Bogdan declared.
Farther north on the River Danube, a statue of St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary, made sparks fly between Hungary and Slovakia in the summer of 2009, when the then-Hungarian president, Laszlo Solyom, was denied entry into Slovakia to attend its unveiling. The official reason for the ban, given by the Slovak prime minister of the day, Robert Fico, was that the Slovak police wouldn’t be able to prevent Slovak extremist groups from disrupting the ceremony held in Komarno, a city across the river from Hungary where a large Hungarian community lives. The decision to erect a statue celebrating the symbol of Hungarian statehood (and, according to some Slovaks, centuries of oppression) wasn’t taken well to begin with. Adding insult to injury, Solyom planned his visit for 21 August, which marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. A Warsaw Pact country, Hungary also sent troops into Czechoslovakia, which prompted Fico to say that “In 1968 Soviet tanks were coming to Slovakia. Now it’s someone in a fancy limousine.” Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back was the fact that no Slovak leaders were invited to the ceremony, nor did Solyom have any official meetings planned, which made the visit seem “an attempt to celebrate Hungarian statehood in the territory of sovereign Slovakia,” according to Fico. The ceremony took place in the absence of Solyom.
Another statue that managed to open old wounds was one of Joseph Stalin, erected in May 2010 in Zaporizhzhya in southeastern Ukraine. That’s right. Stalin.
The initiative came from members of the local Communist Party and was carried out with donations from World War II veterans who see Stalin as the leader of the victorious Soviet forces in the Great Patriotic War. While this view is widespread in the eastern part of Ukraine, many in the western and pro-Occidental part of the country would rejoin that Stalin was also responsible for the mass famine in 1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians, including in Zaporizhzhya. The justice minister, Oleksander Lavrynovich, shared this view, saying, “We should not establish monuments to tyrants. We must know about them and know about them very well. We have to learn from the lessons of history to avoid its repetition.”
But the most violent reaction to the statue came from the right-wing nationalist organization Tryzub (Trident), which claimed responsibility (and posted a video) for the beheading of the statue with a chainsaw. The act was an alleged tribute to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement in the mid-20th century and a sometime collaborator with the Nazis.
While most statues and monuments have some connection with the history of the place where they stand, the last one on our list, of the late Azerbaijani president, Heydar Aliev, erected in Belgrade, will probably leave readers scratching their heads. Those who see Azerbaijan and Serbia as strange bedfellows given their lack of shared cultural affinities should know that Baku will soon erect a statue to Nikola Tesla, the physicist of Serbian heritage who contributed to the birth of commercial electricity. A stronger connection between the two countries involves Nagorno-Karabakh, the heavily Armenian, breakaway enclave located within the territory of Azerbaijan that Baku seeks to regain control of. Serbia has offered Azerbaijan its support on this issue, while Azerbaijan returned the courtesy by not recognizing the independence of the former Serbian province of Kosovo. But it could also have to do with the fact that Azerbaijan contributed about $3 million for the renovation of the park where the statue stands. The unveiling last month was attended by the late Azerbaijani leader's son, current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, and Serbian President Boris Tadic.
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