Morale: Grim Symbols That Still Matter

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January 19, 2016: One of the side effects of the 2015 Russian attempts (some successful) to annex parts of neighboring Ukraine was to increase the degree of anti-Russian sentiment throughout East Europe. Ukrainians have hated Russians for centuries. After 70 years of communist rule ended in 1991 there was a lingering hatred of communism which imposed by Russians and killed millions of Ukrainians in the process. Many symbols of communism were destroyed after 1991 but there were so many, and so much other work to be done (like rebuilding the economy and trying to create a democracy and honest government) that many of the larger (and difficult to remove) communist monuments were left alone. That changed once Russia began grabbing Ukrainian territory in 2015 and one of the main targets of a new “decommunization” program was the destruction of the remaining 2,200 statues of Lenin (the founder of the Soviet Union) in Ukraine. In other east European countries, with more robust economies, this has already been done. But so great was the anger against Russia in 2015 that many Ukrainians volunteered to get rid of these statues and in less than a year nearly 40 percent of them have been pulled down and destroyed or hauled away and left somewhere until there is an opportunity to recycle. A few Lenin statues were considered to have artistic or historical value and were preserved, for now. Other communist era artifacts (posters, wall paintings and the like) are also being destroyed or painted over.

In the rest of East Europe the decommunization effort has been so thorough that in some cases entrepreneurs have collected communist era artifacts and created “bad old days” theme parks where families can go to remind the children what their parents and grandparents had to put up with. But some elder folk went to feel a twinge of nostalgia, for the few good times they enjoyed in their younger days under communism.

Even in Russia, which suffered greatly under communism, there was widespread destruction of communist era artifacts. Russia still has a lot of communists (about 20 percent of the voters) but these diehards are more nostalgic for the communist empire and the mighty “Red Army” era armed forces. Officially the post 1991 Russian communists propose a “modern” (less bloody and more enlightened economically) form of communism. Because of this l a lot of old communist symbols survive. But at times Russians are reminded that some communist era symbols are too hated by too many Russians to risk saving or reviving.

For example, since 2000 former members of the KGB (Soviet era secret police), including president Vladimir Putin, have been working to impose a more authoritarian form of government in Russia. This has succeeded because most Russians want order more than anything else. Well, almost anything else. There are certain aspects of the good old (Soviet) days that most Russians want to forget.

Thus in 2014 Putin and his KGB cronies got a reality check when they tried to restore the statue of the founder of the KGB, Polish count Felix Dzerzhinsky, to its place of honor in Moscow’s Lubyanskaya Square. There, from 1958 to 1991, the 15 ton bronze statue of “Iron Felix” stood directly in front of the former KGB headquarters. The 2014 effort was the sixth attempt to return Iron Felix. Although opinion surveys showed that 45 percent of Russians were OK with the statue returning, a quarter of the population was very much against it.

Thus in 2014, as during the previous attempts, the Moscow city government told the national government that putting the stature back in Lubyanskaya Square would be a bad idea and would probably cause a lot of trouble from the locals. There could be violence and the statue would have to be heavily and regularly guarded to prevent vandalism. This has been a problem with many other communist monuments throughout Russia. Iron Felix is particularly hated because many Russians (usually as KGB prisoners) entered that building near the statue and were never heard from again. The KGB was greatly feared by most and loved by few and that was how the KGB preferred it. Although a Polish aristocrat, Dzerzhinsky became an enthusiastic, ruthless and efficient communist and was key in creating the KGB and turning it into one of the most feared and hated secret police organizations in history.

In 1991, after a failed coup by communist hard liners to reverse the introduction of democracy into Russia, a large crowd descended on Lubyanskaya Square and pulled down Iron Felix. The statue was hauled off to a storage site outside the city where hundreds of other communist era statues and such (mostly honoring Lenin) were dumped. There the statue still lies and one place Russians don’t want to see it returned to is Lubyanskaya Square or, preferably, any place where a Russian who remembers the old, communist era Russia, can see it.

In China there was a similar situation in late 2015 when a 36 meter (108 foot) tall statue of Mao Zedong was erected in China’s Henan province and paid for by local businessmen who felt the $650,000 cost was a good way to curry favor with local communist officials in a legal fashion. China is still a communist police state and all key officials are members of the Communist Party. All these government communists at least pay lip service to the idea that Mao (the founder of Communist China and ruthless military leader before and during World War II) was a great man. Many ordinary Chinese agree, although most know about the massive starvation and political killings Mao ordered in the 1950s and 1960s and how their government continues to try and hide what actually went on under Mao. Many Chinese still revere Mao even though his polices led to the death of over 20 million Chinese and the impoverishment of most of the population.

When Mao died in 1976 his fellow communists (who had survived the many purges ordered by Mao) took a different path and made China what it is today. But the Henan businessmen miscalculated because Henan province suffered greatly (from starvation and purges) under Mao and many families harbor a bitter hatred of Mao. Some senior government officials realized this (or the secret police, which tracks public attitudes, briefed them) and once news of the huge statue went nation (and world) wide, it was ordered destroyed and it disappeared in a few days. Everyone involved was advised to forget about it, because that is the Chinese way.

 


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