Monthly Archives: October 2014

A case of parallel convergences in the recent struggle against Lenin’s granite afterlife.

Crucified Lenin

Crucified Lenin

This is the first of two blog posts on what one may call a recent ‘Leninophobia’ mania. It seems as though one of the few things that would unite Ukrainian nationalists and conservative or liberal Russian nationalists is their hatred of Lenin. Stanislav Govorukhin, Nikita Mikhalkov, Ukraine’s Right Sector, Vladimir Medinsky, the banderovtsy, Patriarch Kirill, Vsevolod Chaplin, Presidents Putin and Poroshenko, Russian or Ukranian liberals, Ukraine’s hipster community could all, it seems, unite against one figure: Lenin! Only Lenin could unite such seemingly disparate forces and such a rag tag of forces in a chorus of disapproval and as symbol of undying hatred. Not bad for someone dead for 90 years but who seems ‘more alive than all the living’ in the apoplectic imaginations of many in the post-Soviet world!

My thoughts recently have turned to Lenin. Or rather not to Lenin but images of Lenin. Granite images of Lenin. Or objects associated with Lenin. Thoughts about the remaining traces of Lenin. The long drawn-out attempts on Lenin’s granite afterlife that have been taking place recently in the Ukraine and not too long ago in Russia too. If one were to allow for a slight temporal dissonance one could say that Ukrainian nationalists have acted in a strange tandem with their Russian conservative nationalist counterparts. This fact alone should give people pause for thought.

When we see the Kharkov, the Kiev or the Chernigov Lenin being toppled by crowds or mobs (depending on your point of view) we shouldn’t forget the fact that something not altogether distinct (without, it is true, the participation of crowds) had started to happen in Russia too.

The demolition and defacing of Lenin statues in Russia have been a constant in recent years and certainly Lenin has been the subject of a large number of attacks from many of those who number amongst some of the worst Ukrainophobes.

Regarding dismembering Lenin in Russia here to start with is one report from Orenburg. This attack took place in October 2013 but here is a Lenin bombed in Saint Petersburg which happened in 2009:

Saint Petersburg Lenin bombed by Russian nationalists

A year later another Lenin statue was bombed by Russian ultra-nationalists.

There’s little doubt that ultra-nationalists (as well as many liberals) in Russia would love to imitate their Ukrainian counterparts at some point in time. And distaste for Lenin and his predecessors is not confined just to ultra-nationalists.

Back in 2002 there was a weird campaign by Putin’s youth movement calling itself “Walking Together”. They lead a moralising campaign against “pornographic writers”. Their main targets were ‘post-modernist’ writers. They had a special distaste for one called Vladimir Sorokin. However, they had an extra target. Not Lenin yet– one of the Putin youth members told a western journalist that they would like to include Lenin but didn’t want to upset their grandparents generation. Rather it was Marx who they deemed worthy of cleansing from ‘Russian literature’!. Here is a quote from an article that gave some details about this campaign :

One day in mid-January 2002 a large group of clean-cut young people gathered in the center of Moscow. They came out to protest what they claimed to be the obscene and unwholesome character of certain recent works of Russian literature. At the rally, they announced the beginning of a massive campaign aimed at cleansing post-Soviet literature: during the next month, they would exchange the books of contemporary authors deemed offensive for the two-volume edition of collected works by Boris Vasil’iev, a respected senior writer known for having explored in his fiction the heroism of Soviet youth during the Great Patriotic War. Among the writers whose works the activists branded “harmful” and accepted for trade-in were three leading “postmodernist” authors: Viktor Pelevin, Viktor Erofeev, and Vladimir Sorokin, as well as … Karl Marx. The activists promised that the Russian books collected in such a way would be mailed to their respective authors and Marx’s to the German city of Karl-Marx-Stadt, the birthplace of the German philosopher, as they mistakenly claimed.

While Lenin wasn’t yet on the list of ‘pornographic post-modernists’ (!), Russian society was certainly moving in one clear direction recuperating the reputation of certain leaders and blackening the names of others. Here’s Mikhail Ryklin one of Russia’s greatest contemporary philosophers (more of a Liberal than a Marxist) on the re-evaluation of Stalin and the devaluation of Lenin:

Mikhail Ryklin

Mikhail Ryklin

Lenin has lost any influence on Russian society now. He has been declared an enemy of religion, and that means he is an enemy of Russia, a real atheist, a dangerous person, a terrorist. Stalin, on the other hand, is believed to be somebody who was never really against the Orthodox Church. There is no historical proof for this, just the desire to see Stalin this way. He is widely regarded as the greatest politician in Russian history, instrumental in defeating the Nazis, the most important event in the 20th century for Russians. The pact is forgotten, the mass murders are dismissed as part of the big modernisation project preparing for the war, explained away as something that was necessary. Lenin has been blackened, made a scapegoat. Stalin has been scrubbed clean.

This emphasis on blackening Lenin and cleansing Stalin was something that one film-maker took a special interest in. This film-maker was Stanislav Govorukhin who in his film The Russia We Have Lost seemed to think that Lenin rather than Stalin was ruling in the 1930s. Building up a pre-revolutionary Russia like an ideal Potemkin Village, Govorukhin’s film was part of this dual nostalgia for Stalin and Nikolai the Second which has been such an essential part of the post-Soviet ideological mindset of Russian conservatives. In 2012 Govorukhin turned up as Putin’s campaign manager for his Presidential election campaign.

Not to be outdone by Govorukhin’s anti-Leninist zeal, Russia’s present Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has been keenly promoting the idea of burying Lenin. In many ways a reasonable idea given the surely anti-Leninist aura of any Lenin cult. However Medinsky is not happy to leave it at that. The burial of Lenin would go hand in hand with a corresponding return to a monarchist cult:

(Medinsky) also called for streets to be named after Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, who was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and has been canonized as a martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church. He also said that a busy Moscow Metro station named after Pyotr Voikov, who participated in the killing of Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1918, must be renamed.

Vladimir Medinsky who wants rename ‘Bolshevized streets’ with the names of Romanovs.

Two examples of this return to a cult of monarchy were the 400-year Romanov celebrations last year taking place in every city and in many different venues around Moscow along with the removal of the Obelisk to Revolutionary thinkers which would later return as a Romanov Obelisk in full pomp and ceremony for Russia’s ‘National Day’ on 4th November last year (a public holiday to replace the November 7th public holiday previously celebrating Russia’s 1917 Revolution). The religious and political authorities were united in their anti-revolutionary and anti-Leninist front. Russian Orthodox arch-priests and ideologues from Dmitry Smirnov to Vsevolod Chaplin have been in the forefront of an anti-Leninist backlash Smirnov calling Lenin worse than Hitler and suggesting that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ban Lenin’s books for extremism. Chaplin, an immensely influential figure in the Russian Orthodox Church (and chief ideological persecutor of Pussy Riot), regretted that religious followers hadn’t killed Bolsheviks when their religious shrines were under threat in the Civil War. Kravchuk’s cringeworthy but massively promoted film The Admiral was another attempt to celebrate the Whites in the Civil War with the aim of producing an anti-Bolshevik ‘Chapayev’ re-writing history with monarchist undertones.

Church and political authorities ‘re-dedicate’ the Obelisk of Revolutionaries to the Romanov dynasty.

So the call for the protection of Soviet monuments – including those of Lenin – is not an argument steeped in nostalgia. Rather it could be part of the battle against another and more insidious type of reactionary nostalgia hidden under the cloak of often justified popular anger. However, this popular anger in Ukraine is just as likely to wield the dagger in favour of he whom it is nominally attacking. As Agata Pyzik wrote for her piece in the Guardian:

Somehow hatred for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych became confused with hatred of Lenin, which is strange because Yanukovych’s ally Vladimir Putin has criticised the Soviet leader for including Odessa, Donbass and Kharkiv (so-called Novorossiya) in the Ukrainian borders drawn in early 1920s. During political turmoil, details get lost. In some instances, the unwanted Soviet legacy has been replaced by new monuments to controversial western Ukrainian nationalists, such as Stepan Bandera.

Looking at this purely politically is, of course, not the only thing to be said about contemporary Leninophobia (for want of a better word). Further considerations of a more aesthetic nature need to brought into account (which I will try to do in a subsequent post). Where exactly do politics begin and aesthetics end is surely an extremely complex matter. Take for example the news that an Ukrainian artist (in the guise of the sculptor Alexei Zolotarev) decided to burn books of Lenin as an ‘artistic action’ entitled ‘Warming Ukraine‘. The question needs to be asked: is he not wittingly or unwittingly following in the footsteps not only of the Nazi’s (and here’s what present-day Neo-Nazis think about the toppling of Lenin statues) and figures like Pastor Terry Jones but also, ironically, of members of the Putin youth movement ‘Walking Together’.

The Kiev sculptor, Aleksei Zolotarev, who wishes to turn burning books of Lenin into an artistic action.

Burning books (or throwing ripped out pages of books into a makeshift papier-mache’ toilet as pro-Putin youth had done over a decade ago) is rarely associated with something progressive or innovatory (maybe if one burnt one’s own books it would be another matter). It’s hardly that Zolotarev’s action seems to be ‘going against the grain’ of (or criticising) a current authoritarian mania for burning books and toppling statues (all too often replacing them with crosses). As regards aesthetics: even the Putin youth tried to adorn their own ‘art action’ against Sorokin (mentioned above) with ‘aesthetic considerations’:

At the demonstration near the Bolshoi Theatre protesters, all the while wearing latex surgical gloves so as not to “be dirtied by Sorokin,” they erected a gigantic papier-mâché toilet, into which they tossed flowers and copies of the author’s work, calling it “an improvised monument to Sorokin”.

It can at least be considered there is another link holding together the Sorokin toilet brigade and the Lenin topplers. They most probably have only a hazy idea of who their objects of hatred actually were. The anti-Sorokin demonstrators certainly knew little of who Sorokin was as they ripped out pages from his book throwing them down the papier-mâché toilet:

The majority was not familiar with the work of the author, and many confused his profession as well, having decided that Sorokin was in fact the Minister of Culture. People became acquainted with Sorokin’s work on the spot from a brochure with excerpts from Sorokin’s text, published specially for the occasion by Idushchie. On the basis of this study they took sides and began to tear up books and throw them, first into the entryway of the Ministry, and then into the giant toilet.

One gets the sense that there is a similar disconnect with those demolishing Lenin’s statues and their knowledge of what kind of historical figure Lenin actually was. Boris Kagarlitsky’s experience of teaching about Lenin in a course of political science for future Russian engineers would surely ring more than true in Ukraine too (although the tale would change to meet a typically nationalist discourse):

Several years ago, I taught political science at a technical college. Why future engineers were required to study political science is anybody’s guess, but perhaps it replaced the mandatory Soviet-era course on the history of the Communist Party.
I asked one student to come up to the front of the class to describe what he knew about Vladimir Lenin. We’re not talking here about French philosopher Michel Foucault, or even Aristotle, but a leader who had a very important role in 20th-century history — not only in Russia but all over the globe.
“Lenin lived in the 19th century,” he said.
Technically speaking, the young man was correct. Lenin did live a little more than half of his life in the 19th century.
“Lenin fought against the tsarist regime,” the student managed to pull up out of his memory. Gathering courage, he continued: “He managed to overthrow the tsar, and he was able to do this while living abroad. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he returned to Russia in an armored train car, became friends with Josef Stalin and died.”
And that was the end of his narrative.
I went straight to the administrator and submitted my letter of resignation.

All in all disconnects and dissonances appear ubiquitous in the recent outbreaks of Lenin destruction-mania (present both in Russia {at least prior to recent events in Ukraine} and in Ukraine itself).

In my next post I will try to draw some other considerations together less of an overtly political and more of an aesthetic nature.