‘It is time to stop considering monuments as a political triumph’

If the monument to Dzerzhinsky should come back to Lubyanka, if monuments to Stalin return to Russia and what monuments the country lacks

‘It is time to stop considering monuments as a political triumph’
Photo: Maxim Platonov

Moscow didn’t dare to restore a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky on Lyubanskaya Square again. Online voting began on 25 February, so citizens were offered to choose whose monument should be in the square. Dzerzhinsky was among the options too. Muscovites’ opinions split, Alexander Nevsky was in the lead of the voting with some edge. But then Moscow’s Mayor Sobyanin stopped the voting and claimed that monuments should unite society, not split. Writer, Vice Editor-in-Chief of Historian magazine Arseny Zamostyanov told Realnoe Vremya if it is time to close this topic.

“The monument to Dzerzhinsky is one of the best in Moscow”

Mr Zamostyanov, it seems the Iron Felix is unlucky again: it was decided not to return the monument to the founder of state security agencies to Lubyanskaya Square. Do you think the topic of the monument to Dzerzhinsky is about politics or still history?

I would divide the story about the monument to Dzerzhinsky into more branches than you have named. Firstly, this is the only Moscow and Petersburg monument to be displaced from its previous site, talks about its return began almost two months after its fall in August 1991. Some Muscovites were already convinced by December that the demolition of the monument to Dzerzhinsky was a mistake, nearly hooliganism. And the idea of returning the monument to Lubyanka was always present since then. And this idea took some political shape approximately once 2-3 years later — it was either discussed in the State Duma or electoral programmes of different parties (the CPRF, Agrarian Party). Veterans of special services and armed forces often tabled this issue too.

Secondly, politics still was the main reason for the idea of returning the monument to Dzerzhinsky to its previous site because the Iron Felix for some of our citizens is a symbol of order, honest and ascetic power (while nowadays this is in special demand and has a special value).

Photo:+ RIA Novosti archive, image #142949/Vladimir Fedorenko/CC-BY-SA 3.0/wikipedia.org
It looked very good in the centre of Lubyanka Square, it “held” it like a needle that threads everything. Thanks to this, the square had finished architecture

Thirdly, there is point in distracting people and authorities from some more unpleasant and dangerous topics. The post-pandemic period is quite a hard time, heated, while during a tough period for the country, historical themes are always topical like some distraction from the same economic problems.

Ultimately, I will single out another reason everybody kept silent about for some reason. If the monument to Dzerzhinsky wasn’t the best it was one of the best in Moscow in the capital’s history. And from a perspective of both its sculptural interpretation of Yevgeny Vuchetich and its harmony with the architecture, it looked very good in the centre of Lubyanka Square, it “held” it like a needle that threads everything. Thanks to this, the square had finished architecture, while without the monument it looks scanty. This is why the idea of returning the monument includes an aesthetic meaning too.

Does it mean that this sculpture had an artistic value too?

Yes. The monument to the ‘iron people’s commissar’ is also unique because Vuchetich doesn’t idealise Dzerzhinsky. In my opinion, the monument could be interesting both for those who support Mr Dzerzhinsky and those who are politically against him. Vuchetich’s Dzerzhinsky can be considered as an ascetic hero, an inflexible fighter, at the same time one can see him as a demonic figure. The sculptor’s work isn’t idealisation and hosanna to Felix Dzerzhinsky but a serious understanding of Russian history, a hard, tragic history. And such a monument doesn’t have equals in Russia.

Moscow is unlucky in general. In fact, the capital has very few bright and good monuments. It has never had a very good monument even to Lenin or Stalin! Yes, not bad small monuments were erected to Lenin in the capital — in squares, courtyards, in the Kremlin’s Taynitsky Garden. While the big ones were unsuccessful, including the latest one that opened on Kaluga Square under Gorbachyov. The same applies to Stalin.

Monument to Pushkin. Postcard, late 19th century. Photo: wikipedia.org
Contemporaries considered the monument to Pushkin unsuccessful. But it gained strength besides the sculptor’s mastery, now it is a symbol of some Moscow cosiness

“The monument to Pushkin is a symbol of some Moscow cosiness

What monuments do you think are the best in Moscow?

Firstly, the monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky expresses the poet’s character excellently. Secondly, the monument to Nikolay Gogol by sculptor Andreyev staying in one of Moscow’s courtyards is a psychologically strong monument.

The country knows the monument to Pushkin, especially now because noisy protests of the opposition have taken place next to it in the last years.

Contemporaries considered the monument to Pushkin unsuccessful. But it gained strength besides the sculptor’s mastery, now it is a symbol of some Moscow cosiness. Though it hardly can be called successful from the artistic point of view, Muscovites love it. In fact, nothing else can be said about the Muscovites’ favourite monuments and some masterpieces of this genre in Moscow. There are successful sculptures, for instance, Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, that’s the way to talk. Of course, we can remember that same Mukhina created quite good monuments to Gorky and Tchaikovsky in Moscow, but their artistic value gives way to the monument to Dzerzhinsky.

What about the monument to Vysotsky?

Sadly, it can be named successful. Though the correct site for him was chosen, not far from Bolshoi Karetny Pereulok where Vysotsky used to live in his youth. The place is very important. But Dzerzhinsky, by the way, stood next to the place he created himself. The genius loci means a lot.

Photo: mos.ru
The country’s administration is playing it safe. And this caution has a reason. The monument gives rise to a group of haters — their number may be not big, but they desperately hate Dzerzhinsky

“Don’t we need a monument to that ‘dark’ era?”

Why do you think the management of the country didn’t dare to return Dzerzhinsky to Lubyanka for 20 years? Was it risky for President Putin’s rating?

If some serious surveys and voting had taken in different years, I am sure that most Muscovites would have supported the reinstatement of the monument to Dzerzhinsky. Undoubtedly, society would have had schism in this regard. The country’s administration is playing it safe. And this caution has a reason. The monument gives rise to a group of haters — their number may not be big, but they desperately hate Dzerzhinsky. I am very sorry that the opponents of the monument can’t understand its psychological meaning. And don’t we need a monument to that ‘dark’ era?

Prince Alexander Nevsky was Dzerzhinsky’s rival in the voting.

Nevsky is respected in Rus, and the monument to him in Moscow will stay, I am sure. But Lubyanka Square has nothing to do with Alexander Nevsky, even indirectly.

The mayor of Moscow decided to suspend the survey giving people to understand that the figure of Dzerzhinsky was splitting society. This rift will unlikely be forgotten soon. So should we perhaps postpone the return of the Iron Felix and discuss it in some 50-70 years? Then everything will calm down, and the issue will either disappear or be settled calmly.

I would anyway transfer this issue from a political and aesthetic perspective. I will repeat that it is important for me that Moscow has few truly good monuments. Moreover, the FSB is anyway a direct heir of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission created by Dzerzhinsky, and the monument would be suitable in this respect. By the way, not everybody knows that Moscow has another three monuments to Dzerzhinsky, and the earth didn’t collapse because of this. Might they are middling, but where are there protests against them? Because if somebody dislikes Dzerzhinsky, people should dislike him everywhere, but other monuments to him remained. And it turns out to be some delirium, I don’t understand the logic here. I can partly agree with your proposal to freeze the topic, but such issues could be considered aesthetically anyway and resolved earlier. Because you can’t cross out Pushkin’s Boris Godunov because you don’t like Boris Godunov, it is silly.

Photo: wikipedia.org
The monument to Emperor Alexander was bad — it simply had a beautiful and bombastic colonnade that showed the history of the Romanovs. But the sculpture itself isn’t a masterpiece, it didn’t reflect the tsar’s psychology

“A monument is, first of all, art”

You said that the monuments in Moscow in general aren’t very successful. Did this refer to pre-revolutionary monuments too? I have read that even Lenin didn’t want to remove the monument to Alexander II, since he considered it very beautiful.

The monument to Emperor Alexander was bad — it simply had a beautiful and bombastic colonnade that showed the history of the Romanovs. But the sculpture itself isn’t a masterpiece, it didn’t reflect the tsar’s psychology. The monument to his son Emperor Alexander III sitting on the throne was bad too. He stood next to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. And the sculpture neither looked like the tsar nor demonstrated the emperor’s either character or inner life. So Moscow is unlucky with pre-revolutionary monuments too.

Is Petersburg lucky?

Petersburg is lucky. By the way, the Soviet authorities demonised Nicholas I like some now hate Dzerzhinsky. In the USSR, the emperor was alleged to have killed Pushkin and much more, he was considered as a villain, Nikolay Palkin. Nevertheless, Clodt’s horse monument to Nicholas I remained in one of the key squares of Petersburg, Petrograd and then Leningrad. The monument is mighty, and I would compare it with the monument to Dzerzhinsky — one can look at it with love and with eyes full of hatred. And such a different attitude makes genius monuments different from middling ones.

It is very surprising for me that the Soviet authorities anyway left the monument to those who killed Decembrists.

It did this because it was beautiful, while a lot of people anyway understand beauty. Why are a lot of people indifferent to the monument to Sverdlov demolished in Moscow but fight for the monument to Dzerzhinsky? The monument to Dzerzhinsky isn’t better than the one to Sverdlov because Dzerzhnisky as a man is better. Monuments to other Romanovs cannot hold a candle to him, of course, except for monuments to Peter I in Petersburg. Both horse monuments to the first emperor were good, this is why they weren’t touched by the Soviet authorities. But we can’t cross out those compositions that we personally dislike, it is simply stupid. This applies to both literature and sculpture. And it is time to stop considering monuments as a political triumph because a monument is, first of all, is art, not necessarily fulsome.

Photo: Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia
The monument is mighty, and I would compare it with the monument to Dzerzhinsky — one can look at it with love and with eyes full of hatred. And such a different attitude differentiates genius monuments from middling ones

“The biggest failure here is that there is no monument to Leonid Brezhnev

Whom would it be suitable now to place a monument to in Moscow and Russia in general?

We have been offering the Moscow administration to place a monument to Sergey Lemeshev. Now he has just a memorial plaque in his block of flats where he lived, but there is an empty area around the corner where this sculpture could be erected. Moreover, we know that Moscow has an area where monuments to pioneers in space are located — to Korolyov, Glushko, Gagarin... But there is no monument to Kamanin — the “dad” of all astronauts, a person who was responsible for training astronauts from air forces, a person who was an important image of our astronautics for long.

What about societys requests? Is it hard to detect such a request now?

The biggest failure here is that there is no monument to Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Union was anyway a superpower under his management, he was the biggest politician of the 20th century. Now Brezhnev won’t make anybody feel hatred, but the monument to him should be not in a central square but somewhere in the courtyard of the house he lived in, that’s to say, in one of the courtyards of Kutuzovsky Prospekt. The people would welcome it. It is a pity that there is no monument to Alexey Kosygin, and I think that monuments to Andrey Gromyko and Dmitry Ustinov would be welcomed now.

What do you think the state’s correct approach to monuments to Stalin is like? Because we have to admit that there is a request for some metal or stone monument Stalin from some part of society, though the attitude to many is very critical.

Stalin is like a supreme commander in pantheons linked with the Great Patriotic War is acceptable, perhaps. I think this will happen sooner or later, such a practice will be used.

Do you think Russia will see a fall of monuments to Lenin? You can’t find monuments to Stalin in our country. They were demolished as early as under Khrushshyov, while Lenin is still everywhere.

We already recovered from such diseases, while the attitude to Lenin in society is already quite indifferent. And I think it will be more indifferent with time, he will remain the leader of left convictions for people. While both worship and hatred at the same time will decrease.

Photo: Dmitry Reznov
Musa Jalil is a symbol of your republic, a symbol of Kazan. Was Tsar Alexander II closely connected to Kazan

A monument to Alexander II was located next to the Kazan Kremlin before the revolution. The Soviet authorities didn’t appreciate and demolished the Kazan monument. Now a monument to Musa Jalil stands there. And there is a question, should a monument to the tsar liberator be placed again, though in another place of Kazan?

On the one hand, Russia doesn’t have any beautiful monument to Alexander II. On the other hand, Musa Jalil is a symbol of your republic, a symbol of Kazan. Was Tsar Alexander II closely connected with Kazan?

He was connected with Kazan like the other cities of the country were — he was the main person in the country.

Anyway now Kazan should look for figures uniting your urban community, and I am not sure if Alexander II is such a figure. Your Kazan University was founded under Alexander II, and a monument to him in the Tatarstan capital would be acceptable. It would be as acceptable as the monument to your compatriot, poet Derzhavin is. It is correct it was reinstated.

Interviewed by Sergey Kochnev