On Monday, a St Petersburg court refused to order the city government to take down a plaque put up earlier this year to commemorate General Gustaf Mannerheim. Mannerheim served in the Imperial Russian Army before the revolution, reaching the rank of lieutenant general, and the plaque celebrates him as a distinguished Russian officer. During the Second World War, however, Mannerheim was Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Army, which supported the Germans in blockading Leningrad. Believing that it was inappropriate to install a memorial to somebody who brought the city so much harm, a St Petersbug resident petitioned the local court to order its removal. The court ruled that the city was not responsible for putting up the plaque, and therefore couldn’t be told to take it down.
Mannerheim’s isn’t the only memorial to cause controversy. At the start of this month, activists from the Russkii Dukh (Russian Spirit) movement erected a bust of Stalin in the Siberian city of Surgut, after raising 260,000 rubles in a crowdfunding campaign to pay for it. Like the plaque to Mannerheim, the Stalin bust is being challenged in the courts, and may have to be removed.
Meanwhile, in an article this week in The Christian Science Monitor, Fred Weir reported on the memorials set up near Yekaterinburg to mark the spot where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed. Weir points out that, ‘Nicholas II and his family have been lavishly memorialized by the Russian Orthodox Church with the full backing of the Kremlin.’ The Russian state, he argues, is trying ‘symbolically reconcile’ with every aspect of Russia’s past, both Soviet and Imperial.
Multiple historical narratives are competing for Russians’ loyalty. Some people look back to Imperial Russia for inspiration; others see Stalin as the model of the great leader; others still are trying to somehow fuse the Imperial and Soviet, however contradictory this might seem. The Church erects monuments to the Tsar; the people of Surgut to Stalin; and somebody (the St Petersburg court claims not to know who) to Mannerheim. It remains to be seen which, if any, of these narratives will win.