WORLD AFFAIRS. If you think the monument wars in Ukraine take the cake, think again. The Polish city of Gdansk is in the throes of a controversy over a statue of a Red Army soldier raping a woman. It was installed on October 12th, on the city’s Victory Avenue, and uninstalled the next day for having been set up without a legal permit.

Here’s how the Moscow Times reported the brouhaha:

The offending work of art, entitled “Komm Frau,” German for “Come Here Woman,” had been installed on Gdansk’s Avenue of Victory on Saturday. Polish authorities removed the statue on Sunday, saying that it had been put there illegally, while Szumczyk was brought in for questioning by the police before being released, Polish Radio reported.

The sculptor, fifth-year art student Jerzy Szumczyk, said he “was unable to cope” with the accounts he read about rape by Soviet servicemen as they advanced toward Berlin in 1944 and 1945, and felt compelled to express his feelings.

“I am deeply outraged by the stunt by a Gdansk Fine Arts Academy student, who has defiled by his pseudo-art the memory of 600,000 Soviet servicemen who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland,” Russian ambassador Alexander Alexeyev said in a statement Tuesday.

“We consider the installation of the statue as an expression of hooliganism, marked by an explicitly blasphemous nature,” Alexeyev said. “The vulgar statue on the city’s main street insults not only the feelings of Russians, but of all clear-headed people who remember to whom they owe their liberation from the Nazis.”

What made Szumczyk’s monument especially disturbing to his critics was its placement—right next to a Soviet T-34 tank intended to symbolize the city’s liberation. The placement was, of course, an intentional provocation. As Szumczyk said: “It’s a work from the heart. The idea came from the fact that the city’s monuments are often in places where they shouldn’t stand. Some monuments don’t fit their surroundings, because great crimes took place there. We barely appreciate what the monuments represent.”

The fact of the matter is that Red Army soldiers representing all the USSR’s many nationalities did engage in systematic mass rape as they swept through the German-populated territories of Hitler’s Reich. Danzig, as Gdansk was then called, was no exception. Here’s how Yale University historian Timothy Snyder describes the violence in Bloodlands:

The outburst of violence against German women was extraordinary. Men who tried to defend daughters or wives were beaten and sometimes killed. The women had few men to protect them…. In some villages, every single female was raped, whatever her age…. Gang rapes were very common. Many women died as a result of wounds sustained during successive rapes. German women often committed suicide, or tried to kill themselves, to prevent rape or to evade the shame of having been raped.

According to the Moscow Times, “Some historians estimate that up to 2 million German women, and large numbers of Polish women, were raped in the final months of World War II by soldiers of the advancing Red Army. However, Russian authorities maintain that the figures are flagrantly exaggerated.”

Imagine that the real number of raped women was only one-fourth of the above estimate. That still comes out to an astoundingly large figure: 500,000. Even one-eighth amounts to 250,000 raped women.

Small wonder that Szumczyk felt impelled to counterbalance the tank with the soldier.

So whom do you believe—the outraged Russian ambassador or the outrageous Polish sculptor? Whose memories matter more? Or perhaps the better question is: whose memories matter?

In placing his statue next to the T-34 tank, Szumczyk was effectively claiming that memories of mass rape were as important as memories of liberation. The sculptor was arguing for parity: yes, there was liberation, he seems to be saying, but there was also enslavement, and both should be remembered. Not so Alexeyev. The Russian ambassador is arguing for priority and, indeed, for exclusivity: there was only liberation and any challenge to that claim is “blasphemous.” Since one generally blasphemes only against God or holy writ, Alexeyev was effectively stating that the Soviet liberation of Poland was a religious matter, beyond memory, beyond history, beyond challenge.

Alexeyev’s views are fully consistent with the Soviet mythmaking that transformed World War II into “The Great Patriotic War,” glorified the Red Army, ignored Soviet crimes, and produced the thousands of war monuments and museums scattered throughout the former USSR. Those myths could stand only as long as Soviet ideological hegemony was unchallenged and the Soviet Union was whole. Once the empire collapsed and the ideology became a shambles, it was—and is—unsurprising that all the empire’s subject peoples should seek to remember their own memories and construct their own histories. For them, the process is liberating and empowering. For many Russians, the process is insulting and diminishing. In succeeding the USSR, the Russian Federation inherited its diplomatic real estate, nuclear weapons, Security Council seat, and space program. But it also had to take possession of Lenin, Stalin, the Gulag, the Great Terror, the Holodomor, and the mass rapes.

It’s no accident that other post-Soviet ambassadors failed to react with Alexeyev’s invective. For them, the collapse of the Soviet Union spelled the emergence of their states. For Alexeyev, collapse probably was, as his boss Vladimir Putin once said, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

Naturally, all memories qua memories are valid and deserve a hearing. But not all histories are equally valid: some are more complete, some are less complete; some are better, some are worse. And the moral of the story, for Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, is simple: acknowledge all memories and then try to set the historical record straight—or as straight as possible. 

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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