October 18, 2017

 

By Dmitry Shlapentokh, Associate Professor, Indiana University 

 

Recently, Americans have witnessed unusual events: the destruction of monuments to Confederate generals and politicians. Those who engaged in these actions stated that they could not stand these symbols of the past because they defended slavery. Yet many of these statues were erected almost a hundred years ago, and no one – including the descendants of slaves – demanded their demolition. Even during the 1960s, when the centennial of the Civil War was celebrated, no one asked for the statues’ removal. To understand this strange hatred of monuments from the Civil War, one must turn to the not-much-discussed request for the removal of the statue of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, in Seattle.

 

The statue had been taken from Czechoslovakia almost 30 years ago. No one protested at that time. But now, the mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, has stated that the statue should be removed. The demand was justified on the grounds that Lenin was a bloody tyrant and that the Russian Revolution – launched exactly 100 years ago – cost millions of lives, and no one should keep the statue of a tyrant in a U.S. city. Still, there is a clear problem with this explanation. Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution have been studied in the West for generations, and books on the subject appear every year. This was especially the case now, in the year of the centennial of the Revolution. One should note here that the positive image of the Soviet regime had dominated American scholarship for decades. Not just Lenin, but his much harsher successor, Joseph Stalin, was also often seen positively. Lenin’s followers were often seen as good people who had an idealistic streak, and socialism has a lot of positive features in this interpretation. This view is still widespread. And the erudite New York Times recently published an article which implicitly praised Soviet sexual mores, and noted that women – and implicitly males – had much more satisfying sex lives under socialism than in modern capitalism. It would be wrong to assume that  the USSR and Lenin had only positive publicity. Conservative historians, some of them working in the USA, have looked at the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin from different angles. They seem to be completely vindicated with the Soviet regime’s and USSR’s collapse, together with the Eastern European socialist regimes, when the above-mentioned statue was moved from the former Czechoslovakia to Seattle.

 

At that point, Lenin’s effigy could hardly evoke any emotion but irony and ridicule. Not only had his ideas and regime been discredited, but the advantages of capitalism seemed to be unquestionable: the flourishing economy, great and affordable medical care and great education led to great jobs and, of course, political liberty. What could Lenin and his system juxtapose to this “end of history” – the famous essay by Francis Fukuyama, published in 1989, which made him famous overnight? At best, as the quoted New York Times article indicated, it could evoke nostalgic feelings of aging hippies about “free love” and idealistic illusions of Left-leaning Western intellectuals from the 1960s and beyond. In fact, Lenin became pretty much irrelevant to present-day American life, just a curious artifact from the past. The same should be the fate of monuments from the Civil War era – just an episode, albeit tragic, from the distant past, irrelevant to daily life. But why, all of a sudden, did Lenin’s effigy became quite relevant and an object of virulent hate? And why did the elitist New Yorker publish an article with the scandalous, so recently-unthinkable proposition about the possibility of a civil war in the USA? The reason, of course, is not the ideological differences which have always existed in the USA, as elsewhere, but because of conditions on the ground. As President Trump admitted in his inaugural speech, the empty buildings of American factories cover the American plains as “tombstones.” Even now, presumably under almost full employment, increasing numbers of Americans work at low-paid service jobs. Higher education has not only become increasingly unaffordable, but also often does not secure a good-paying job. Health services also have serious problems.

 

And at that point, violent outbursts, and even the specter of the Civil War, have become an attribute, not of distant lands or something in the distant past, but a chilling possibility in the future. And this was what made the Lenin statue dangerous. It became not a symbol of events in distant lands, not the symbol of idealistic and utopian dreamers and hippie-type social-sexual experimentation echoing from the 1960s, but a potent symbol of the real Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War – bloody, murderous events in which Bolsheviks, Lenin’s party, did not so much create a Reign of Terror but institutionalize the violent drives of the masses who were ready to have revenge on the elite for their poverty, neglect and humiliation. The Red banner was as destructive as ISIS’ black banner. It is true that the regime created by the Revolution built Russia/the USSR into a mighty superpower, spread literacy and made some great technological and scientific breakthroughs. But the cost of revolution and the rise of the regime led to millions of deaths. It was a dreadful experience, as was the case with the Civil War in the USA, in which hundreds of thousands died. To prevent these events, one must understand the deep social and political roots of the problems, and most importantly, address them. The removal of statues, whether of Southern politicians and generals, or Lenin, is a symbol of serious problems of society, not the solution of these problems.

 


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