'New' Russia Argues Over Who Stands for Its Past

30-story statue of Peter the Great stirs a debate. Soviet-era busts removed, despite nostalgia for era.

In front of the former KGB headquarters in Moscow stands a plain granite boulder, inscribed with a solemn epitaph: "In memory of the millions who died in the political terror of the Soviet era."

A modest reminder to passersby of the haunting times that the Russian people endured through much of this century, the stone was brought here from a political prison camp in the Arctic Circle.

Until 1991, the square was dominated by a very different memorial, a statue of the man who founded the KGB, Felix Dzerzhinsky. Today Dzerzhinsky has been relegated to a quiet corner of a Moscow park, having been toppled during perestroika (the restructuring) and put into a "sculpture graveyard" of retired Soviet icons.

Replacing old icons

Replacing the busts of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx with symbols more suitable to the new Russia, however, is proving a dauntingly complex task.

The rumpus that surrounded the installation of the boulder in Lyubyanka Square was only the opening shot in a continuing controversy since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union about the ideals and symbols that should mold the new Russian nation. In an often impassioned debate that goes to the heart of the country's quest for identity, Russians are tussling over the sort of monuments that best represent them.

Some traditionalists are angry that the Soviet-era statues have been removed.

"It is impossible to rewrite history the way this new generation of Russian politicians and young radicals are doing," says Nikolai Korolikov, a former Soviet apparatchik turned patriotic cultural conservator as president of a Russian society for the protection of national monuments.

"We must preserve our past through these monuments," he says. "I believe historians will one day look back on the Soviet epoch and realize it was a golden age, and they will put those old statues back."

A great statesman or a tyrant?

Another showy move in this sociopolitical chess match is a giant statue under construction on the banks of the Moscow River, ironically overlooking the sculpture graveyard. The statue, marking the 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy, portrays its founder, the 18th-century Czar Peter the Great. He is a figure of mythical proportions in Russian history but remains controversial.

Peter is known for strengthening Russia's ties with the West. He established St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea in 1703, and moved the Russian government there from landlocked Moscow in 1712. This new location allowed greater trade and cultural contacts between the Russian capital and the West.

He also adopted some Western bureaucratic and economic policies, which enabled him to govern his expanding territory more effectively.

However, Peter is also known for his autocratic and oftentimes cruel manner of governing. He was often at war with his neighbors in an effort to expand Russia's borders. A series of widespread revolts was mercilessly crushed during his reign. And St. Petersburg was built at great cost in human life by serf labor.

The $25 million, 30-story structure, topped by a red light as a hazard warning to low-flying aircraft, depicts a monstrous Peter standing triumphantly atop a miniaturized 18th-century Russian Navy vessel crashing through cresting waves.

The monument, which supporters call Moscow's Statue of Liberty, was designed by a highly successful but much maligned Moscow-based international sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli. In recent years, Mr. Tsereteli has built an empire of monuments in this city, which many observers attribute more to his close relations with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov rather than to his artistic ability.

"In Russia today, all these things have become close to politics," complains Marat Gelman, a Moscow art dealer leading the movement against the Peter monument.

The Peter the Great monument has many Muscovites up in arms about its artistic merit and historical symbolism.

"This is art?" snorted a passerby. "I think it's just a way for Luzhkov to stand out as a politician. Its style doesn't fit Moscow, and it has just ruined my lunch spot."

In recent months, dozens of artists and other citizens, exasperated by Tsereteli's monuments and the city government's resolve in continuing construction on Peter, have held public protests demanding that the statue be removed. The protests have brought some results, in contrast to Soviet days, when entire neighborhoods of Russian cities were torn down without notice to make way for projects promoting the "advancement of Socialism."

Public protest

In response to the frequent protests, Mr. Luzhkov created a commission in March to help him decide the fate of the Peter the Great statue and has promised that he will be guided by public-opinion polls.

A poll carried out earlier this year found that Muscovites who disapproved of Tsereteli's work outnumbered his fans by almost 2 to 1.

A final decision regarding the statue is to be made in mid-May, according to commission member Lev Kolodny. At the same time, a new law is set to be enacted creating a permanent commission to advise the city council and the mayor on proposed city monuments.

This is a step forward in the uphill struggle for public participation in such issues, Mr. Gelman says. "The fact that we're debating this work is part of artistic criticism and of democracy itself," he says.

But these questions reach deep into the paradoxes of everyday Russian lives in this period of sweeping societal change. Many Russians do not believe it is appropriate right now for the government to be spending so much money on these projects when people are going hungry and pensioners wait months for their money.

But Mr. Kolodny argues in favor of such grandiose monuments in today's Russia. "Without them," he says, "we have no history for the Russia of tomorrow."

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