Often it is the symbolic event which describes or reveals what is happening in a country more than any one real fact. Of course, no one could be in any doubt that the imprisonment of Pussy Riot members, the arrest and trial of the Bolotnaya demonstrators, the insistent, force-fed campaign of clericalisation in the country, the new reactionary ‘morality’ laws (about homosexuality and foul language) and the so-called ‘reform’ on the Russian Academy of Science which a former director of CERN and an associate member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Luciano Maiani, has compared to the reform of Italy’s National Academy under Mussolini are not isolated facts but something much more indicative of where the political elite is trying to take the country. However, one action, apparently insignificant in the order of things, seems to symbolize more than anything else how the ground under our feet is moving in Russia.
What was known as the Stele of Freedom or the Obelisk of Revolutionary Thinkers has been dismantled apparently to be reinstalled in some months time as a monument to the Romanov Dynasty. This historically symbolic act was carried out on July 2 completely unannounced and within hours the site in the heart of Moscow was transferred from looking like this:
to looking like this:
The obelisk was one of the most interesting statues historically and ideologically because of the kind of names that it had on the statue. This was not simply a case of Marx, Engels, Lenin. It was (it seems) the first revolutionary monument to be opened after the revolution of 1917 and, in a non-dogmatic spirit, it included the names of anarchists, reformist socialists and even that of Thomas More. It was the least Soviet of all monuments (if one were to speak of Soviet in Stalinist, bureaucratic and dogmatic terms) and, surely, the most radical. The intent of those running the show in Russia during Putin Term III to turn to a policy of national, proto-monarchist and clericalist reaction can not have been made more clear.
As the Russian socialist and artist, Ilya Budraitskis, has argued:
the delegitimisation of revolutionary tradition – from the Decabrists to Social Revolutionnaries – will go on in parallel with the limitation of the freedom to gather, the canonisation of anti-Bolshevik martyrs for their faith will happen in parallel with the prohibition of Left-wing parties and the strengthening of the brutal struggle for ‘social morals’ and making religion safe from blasphemous attacks
In many ways the dismantling of the obelisk is a greater affront than the removal of Lenin from the Mausoleum. Whereas the Lenin Mausoleum signified the victory of a new form of religion over the initial liberatory force of the revolution (and would have had Lenin turning in his proverbial grave if only he had one) and presaged a kind of Thermidore; the obelisk signalled and symbolised this very hope of liberation. One of those healthy germs (as Victor Serge would have put it) which the Russian Revolution carried within it. So by dismantling the obelisk rather than the Mausoleum the elite have struck at the very heart of revolutionary memory and the very heart of the idea of liberation as such.
The Stele of Freedom affair is not going to lead to Moscow’s Taksim moment and yet in many ways they are linked. Force feeding of clericalism and neo-liberalism are cosy bedfellows as both Russia and Turkey are inevitably showing and consumerism and reaction live side by side here as it does elsewhere. The only benefit, though, of the dismantlement of this obelisk is that one day, when reaction is once again on the retreat and liberation once again in the air, new names can be added. I’d have a few suggestions of my own: Victor Serge, Antonio Gramsci, Jorge Semprun, Buenaventura Durruti, Guido Picelli, Guy Debord, Che Guevara, Stas Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, … well the list is rather endless.