Dr Uilleam Blacker, Lecturer in Comparative Culture of Eastern Europe at UCL, examines the historical precedents for toppling statues of controversial figures.
Feature image: Luke Fowler (@lu_fowler on Instagram)
Watching the toppling of Bristol’s Edward Colston monument, I was struck by echoes of the fate of another dubious statue: Kyiv’s Lenin monument. The Bolshevik leader was pulled down in 2013 amid anti-government protests sparked first by the decision to cancel an EU trade deal in favour of closer ties to Russia, but later by police brutality against demonstrators. As with Colston, the toppling of Lenin was inspired by violence from above, but also provided a focal point for larger grievances. The destruction in both cases was relatively spontaneous, but in neither case was it a mindless act: the destructions were targeted, symbolically charged performances.
In both cases, discussion over the historical achievements and crimes of the respective figures ensued. But these discussions, while important, do not explain why the monuments fell when they did. Both figures had long been the focus of controversy, but they had also gone largely unnoticed. So why the sudden jump from specialised debate to jubilant destruction?
A public monument is, of course, never a straightforward representation of an individual. It is a symbol of whatever the monument’s initiators believed that individual represented. Soviet monuments were planted throughout the USSR and post-WWII Eastern Europe as markers of geopolitical and ideological dominance, rather than as explicit tributes to figures like Lenin. Monuments like that to Colston, erected in the Victorian era, express the persistence of imperial might and the putatively benevolent dominance of a certain class. In both cases, they are about power. And in both cases, protesters were not, as some have argued, naively attempting to ‘erase’ history: they were challenging manipulated versions of history that reinforce power relations.
In Ukraine, whether under Tsars, commissars or oligarchs, the experience of rule from Moscow has been one of political and cultural repression. The violence with which the pro-Russian government in 2013 sought to quash dissent and dash a generation’s dreams of a European future was viewed by many as simply the latest iteration of a familiar pattern of colonial violence, which, facilitated by local elites, emanated from Moscow. Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas confirmed this. Lenin was shorthand for that history, which clearly still had a grip on Ukraine. It was the urgency of the present, not passion about the past, that was the real motivation for the removal.
The situation in Bristol was similar. Colston had been controversial for a long time, but this dissatisfaction was not enough to motivate locals to pull him down. The renewed attention came from the historical context of slavery and its perceived legacy in continuing, violent racism, as exemplified by the death of George Floyd.
Colston and Lenin were not removed by general consent. Many have argued that this was undemocratic, amounting to nothing more than vandalism. This misses a crucial factor: the provocative inaction of local and national authorities on questions of memory, creating a situation where protesters felt they had no choice.
When faced with this type of controversy, often the instinct of authorities is to do nothing. Commemorative conflicts can become drawn-out and tiresome. Pre-2013 squabbles between nationalist and communists over Lenin in Kyiv, which were of little interest to the general public, were a good example. The inconclusive discussions, largely among academics, councillors and activists, over what to do with monuments like those to Colston or Henry Dundas in Edinburgh are another. Doing nothing is often the easiest strategy when there is no clear consensus over change. After all, local people rarely really care about, or even notice, the monuments that surround them, while they may also be instinctively resistant to change and suspicious about spending public funds on obscure agendas.
Events like police violence or foreign interference can turn a previously ignored monument into the symbolic target of massive resentment overnight. In that situation, years of inaction reveal the authorities as short-sighted, complacent, and complicit in whatever that monument represents.
In Ukraine, the state decided that the spontaneous monument demolitions had to be brought under control and launched a broad reappraisal of the way the Soviet past lingers in everyday space. The so-called ‘decommunization’ policy brought some problems that could prove instructive for the UK. First, the process was too top-down. Proper dialogue with local stakeholders is key for the legitimacy of any change and can prevent citizens taking matters into their own hands. Second, there has to be a clear and constructive idea of what to do with newly vacated spaces. In Ukraine, those driving the policy sometimes used it to rehabilitate right-wing nationalist figures from the past who were not popular among most Ukrainians, alienating many from the broader process of overcoming the Soviet past. Simply replacing one dead hero with another can perpetuate conflict.
As well as removing or replacing them, there are multiple strategies for dealing with troublesome monuments. Explanatory plaques are laudable, but notoriously ignorable. Then there are statue parks, where many Lenins in Eastern Europe ended up. While these can provide space for education and dialogue, they also run the risk of relegating the difficult past to an out-of-the-way theme park for curious tourists. Museums or sculpture parks related to Britain’s colonial past could be an intriguing prospect, if done right.
But there is room for more creative solutions. Monument removals are often inherently creative acts of carnivalesque iconoclasm, where violence is performed, not real, and is tempered by humour: Lenin and Colston were not simply knocked down, they were defiantly, ritually, cathartically mocked. Ukraine’s Lenins have been the focus for spontaneous interventions – dressed in football shirts, for example, or given makeovers to look like Darth Vader. The empty plinth in central Kyiv was for a while occupied by a golden toilet, a reference to former President Yanukovych’s opulent, corruption-funded residence. Satire and mockery are excellent weapons against power, and Britain’s history of slavery could do with some of that treatment.
In Kyiv, Lenin’s plinth has also been given over to more serious art projects, providing a space to reflect on questions of memory, power, and public space. One of the first was an installation by the Mexican artist Cynthia Guttierez, which allowed members of the public to ascend a set of steps, temporarily occupy the position of the monument, and come back down again, at once performing a democratisation of public space and highlighting the transience of all forms of commemoration. Instead of using these locations for statues of dead men gathering pigeon droppings, they can be used to make people think.
The UK, of course, already has a record of creative appropriations of public space: the ubiquitous traffic cone on the head of the Duke of Wellington outside Glasgow’s modern art gallery shows a healthy irreverence towards power. Yet that irreverence hasn’t so far been linked to the fact that the friezes on the sides of the monument show the Duke’s violent colonial exploits, or that it stands outside a former slave-owner’s mansion. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has long been a site for artistic intervention, but this is only one site, and even here engagement with colonialism has been relatively minimal.
Some members of the UK public have pre-empted such a reorientation of symbolic space, whether by toppling Colston or renaming streets in Glasgow after black victims of police violence: now it is up to those in power to seize the moment and facilitate the conversations about our shameful past that have already been started. Despite its flaws, what happened in Ukraine signalled that at least the state recognised its duty to take responsibility for public space and the stories inscribed in it. It will be interesting to see whether the UK government follows suit.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.
Feature image: Luke Fowler (@lu_fowler on Instagram)