WORLD AFFAIRS. They’re smashing monuments in Ukraine again. In the eastern provinces, it’s Vladimir Lenin who’s under attack. In the western provinces, it’s usually Stepan Bandera, the leader of the interwar nationalist movement. Heads, fingers, and noses are being hacked away, tempers are flaring, activists are outraged. Meanwhile, Europeans and Americans are tut-tutting and wondering why those crazy Ukrainians don’t do things their way.

Which way would that be?

On a recent visit to Moscow, John Kerry let himself be photographed near Stalin’s bust. Indeed, the State Department released the photo with the following caption: “US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Chief of Protocol Yuriy Filatov, with US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul behind, walk past Joseph Stalin’s tomb in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on May 7, 2013.” What’s more disturbing—that Russia still has a Stalin monument in Red Square or that the State Department doesn’t see the problem with photographing Kerry near it?

How about Hollywood? Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are unalloyed glorifications of sadism, violence, and serial killing, performed in living color by good guys (us) against bad guys (them). I dare say most fascists and Nazis would have found Tarantino’s sentiments appealing. And yet, both films got decent to excellent reviews and were wildly popular with American and European audiences. Should Ukrainians emulate Quentin?

Or perhaps they should emulate Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln? Crotchety ol’ Abe, as ably played by Daniel Day-Lewis, lies, cheats, violates laws, ignores the Constitution, commits a slew of offences that, today, would guarantee him impeachment, and prolongs a war, thereby sending thousands of men to their deaths (while assigning his war-hungry son to a cushy job with General Grant), and, yet, the general consensus among publics and reviewers was that Spielberg’s Lincoln was a hero. Would they say the same about Viktor Yanukovych, who has also been known to have, er, liberal attitudes toward Ukraine’s laws and Constitution and who treats his offspring with no less solicitude?

The problem is that the people monuments immortalize are always far more ambiguous than the material physicality of the monuments suggests. Everybody, and especially heroes, has skeletons in closets. Everybody has dirty laundry. Everybody has a checkered past. Even saints. St. Paul was once Saul, the persecutor of Christians. St. Augustine was a dissolute young man. Countries, peoples, nations, states, and religions generally commemorate people for what they believe was the good they did. And, at the same time, they turn a blind eye to the bad things or dismiss them as irrelevant to the overall picture.

I once asked my Rutgers University undergraduate students if they could guess who made the following statements:

  • From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!
  • They have sung—sing now and will sing his praise—in song and story. Slava-slava-slava—Stalin, Glory to Stalin. Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands. In all spheres of modern life the influence of Stalin reaches wide and deep. From his last simply written but vastly discerning and comprehensive document, back through the years, his contributions to the science of our world society remain invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin—the shapers of humanity's richest present and future. Yes, through his deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage. Most importantly—he has charted the direction of our present and future struggles. He has pointed the way to peace—to friendly co-existence—to the exchange of mutual scientific and cultural contributions—to the end of war and destruction. How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom. He leaves tens of millions all over the earth bowed in heart-aching grief.

They agreed it had to be some totalitarian monster. Imagine their surprise when I told them it was Paul Robeson, the Rutgers alumnus and renowned African American civil rights activist, who also happened to be a fervent Stalinist. He made the first comment in 1935, as Stalin was destroying his opponents, and the second in 1953, after Stalin’s death. Needless to say, if you view the campus display devoted to Robeson—in, naturally, Robeson Hall—these quotations are missing.

Back in 2007, Estonians decided to relocate a monument to the Red Army on the grounds that Stalin’s armed forces brought enslavement to their country for more than 40 years. And who could disagree?

A few years later, Israel decided to build a monument to the Red Army and its victory over the Nazis. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it, “About half a million of Jews fought in the Red Army, and many of them are still living in Israel. This memorial is also a tribute to their heroism and contribution to the victory.” And who could disagree?

Vienna’s monument to the Red Army is still standing, having been built by the Soviet occupation authorities in 1945. It dominates Schwarzenbergplatz, which until 1956 was known as Stalinplatz. Few Viennese regard the Red Army as a force of liberation; and many Austrian and German women remember the mass rapes that Soviet soldiers (among whom there must have been some Estonians and Jews) were encouraged to commit in 1945. Should the Austrians tear down the statue or leave it alone? Should they follow the example of those Bulgarians who painted the figures on their Red Army memorial in Sofia as comic-book superheroes? Should the Estonians have invoked or apologized for the mass rapes in Germany and Austria in arguing for their monument’s relocation? Should the Israelis have dismissed or apologized for them in deciding to build theirs?

The answer is that there are no easy one-size-fits-all answers. I’m inclined to suggest that all the monuments in Ukraine be left alone. If some East Ukrainian town wants to be associated with one of the 20th century’s greatest mass murderers, let it. If some West Ukrainian town wants to identify with a nationalist leader from the 1930s, let it. I think both could do better—and both will pay the price in terms of tourism, investment, and cultural, political, and social development—but then again I also think Vienna, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Hollywood, and my university could do better. Meanwhile, as Ukrainians try to sort things out, it may be best for European and North American moralists—and especially all of us with ethically challenged personal lives and well-paying jobs in the academic world—to stop their finger-pointing, smirking, and lecturing.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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