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Can America look to Ukraine for guidance on their growing monument problem?

A statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis is dismantled in New Orleans on 11 May 2017. Photo: snapshot from Reuters video
Can America look to Ukraine for guidance on their growing monument problem?
Article by: Caroline Gawlik

For Americans in light of the Charlottesville events, Ukraine is a world away. Right now it has been difficult enough for a citizen of Virginia to find common ground with their neighbors—it is even harder to look across the world for guidance. But in this time of disorder, I think there is much that Americans can learn from Ukraine.

Ukraine and America do not have similar histories. Ukraine has never been the modern powerhouse empire that America once was. Instead, Ukrainians have long been the subaltern to various empires—particularly to the Russian Empire, and in turn the Soviet Union. Therefore with the collapse of Communism in 1991, Ukrainians began their modern advancement towards discovering their own national values, identity, and memories. They marked the beginning of this transition by toppling Soviet monuments.

Lenin's monument, largest in Ukraine, taken down in Kharkiv
Lenin’s monument, largest in Ukraine, taken down in Kharkiv

When they did so, old Communists cried out that removing these statues could risk forgetting the past. This was common across Eastern Europe as Soviet symbols were removed, but those who uphold this rhetoric quickly forget that what a monument is. Monuments, statues, and memorials do not just appear in parks and courtyards for fun—they are rarely “art for arts sake.” Monuments are always political, they are always intended to promote a message, and that message is often a reflection of the current-day’s ethics and values. Privately or publically funded, monuments are a way to colonize public spaces with a specific narrative. Removing a monument is an action that holds much more symbolism than simply removing an image.

As such, monuments are representations of a certain time, a certain ideology, and a carefully crafted memory narrative.

In 2014 Ukrainians began what was colloquially known as Leninopad, or “Lenin-fall.”

This was a widespread toppling of statues of the Soviet Union’s founder, Vladimir Lenin, as an act of solidarity with what became the Euromaidan protests. Leninopad was not an act to disrespect the past or forget the history. In fact, for most Ukrainians, the Soviet period was a significant, albeit difficult, moment in their journey towards the independence they hold today. Leninopad was instead a symbolic break from the values and ideology that Lenin represented: corruption, anti-democratic institutions, and ethnic conflict. These were issues that began for Ukrainians centuries beforehand, were magnified under the Soviet Union, and remains still today. In 1922, Lenin began an era of dominance and corruption, and in 2014, Russian influence continued the legacy but under a different guise. Leninopad wasn’t intended to be anti-patriotic, disrespectful of the past, or a choice forgetfulness of their history; it was intended to make fellow citizens re-evaluate their history in order to address their current institutional flaws.

Leninopad was a symbolic break from the values and ideology that Lenin represented
Importantly, for comparison, it was a growing group of politically aware citizens in Ukraine understood to be the “cosmopolitans” that stimulated Leninopad. These are the younger, forward looking, democratic-leaning citizens who may not have experienced Soviet policies, but have understood the legacy of corruption and ethnic subversion and how it became institutionalized over time.

And in this regard, America and Ukraine have faced similar problems.

The ANTIFA protesters who are standing up to neo-Nazi protests and in turn toppling Confederate monuments are not those who experienced the Jim Crow era and the turmoil’s of slavery, but they are experiencing the institutionalized consequences that have emerged. While some may hold collective memories of this past, most have primarily experienced the aftermath and its consequences. The monuments are stone vessels of an outdated ideology and in order to change it they must induce a reevaluation of that past in order to move towards a better future.

In 1991, Ukrainians were told that they would begin to live democratic, prosperous, independent lives. In 1964, African Americans were told that they were now equal citizens with equal rights. Neither of those things happened.

Toppling Soviet and Confederate statues is not a marker of the end of a revolution, but marks the beginning of a long, difficult period of change. For Ukrainians, that change has come at a price. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion into regions of Eastern Ukraine has torn families and friends apart and made the transition more difficult, but more important than ever.

Toppling Soviet and Confederate statues is not the end of a revolution, but the beginning of a difficult period of change. 
The rhetoric today in America remains the same as it was in Ukraine. Those who oppose the removal of Confederate monuments cite the need to respect the past, critique the opposition’s apparent lack of patriotism, and often blame young hooligans for not taking time to understand their nation’s history.

But the counterarguments are not providing the necessary education on what the statues actually represent. The rhetoric for removing monuments must change if Americans hope to peacefully settle this debate. Those who want Confederate monuments to remain seem to forget that they were the ones who applauded the removal of Soviet monuments, or acted to topple the statues of Saddam Hussein.

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Caroline Gawlik has recently completed a Masters in Arts Degree at Western University in the Department of History in which shestudied monuments as representations of identity and memory within Ukraine’s decommunization process.


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