The Politics of Commemoration

The politics of commemoration is back in the Russian news this week with the unveiling of a number of new monuments.

Most controversial were two new monuments to the founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzherskinsky, one in the Crimea capital of Simferopol and one in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, the latter outside a school that was renamed after the famous Chekist in 2017. Meduza reports that there are 40 monuments to Dzerzhinsky across Russia, so why another one is needed, I can’t imagine. The head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Simferopol provided an explanation, and said that “‘Iron Felix’ not only fought against counter-revolutionaries, but also raised the country out of ruin and poverty.” Under Dzerzhinsky, “two thousands bridges were restored, [and] nearly three thousand steam locomotives and more than 10 thousand kilometers of railway track were repaired.”

The secret police as as engineers! Whoever knew?

Bust of ‘Iron Felix’ in Krasnodar

It’s quite common to portray the ‘Putin regime’ in Russia as a blend of Chekists (siloviki) and Orthodox conservatives, but the truth is that the two don’t always get along very well. The Orthodox Church hasn’t taken too kindly to the Dzherzhinsky revival, As Meduza reports, ‘Archpriest Leonid Kalinin, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Council for Culture, condemned the new monument. “Personally, I’m categorically against the appearance of such monuments in any public spaces in Russia. This insults the memory of millions of innocent victims of terror, famine, cold, torment, torture, prison, camps, and the devastation of the Fatherland”,’ he said.

The Church, meanwhile, has been organizing monuments of its own, a grandiose example of which was unveiled over the weekend near Pskov on the Russian-Estonian border. This was a large, 50-tonne memorial to the thirteenth century Prince of Novgorod Alexander Nevsky, built on the initiative of Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, believed by some to be the personal confessor of Vladimir Putin.

Patriarch Kirill blesses the monument to Alexander Nevsky

I discuss the Alexander Nevsky monument in an article published today in RT (here). As I note, it’s actually the second Nevsky memorial unveiled in less than 2 weeks. On 1 September, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended the opening of another one, on the grounds of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO – the breeding ground of the Russian diplomatic corps).

One statue to Nevsky could just be a blip. Two in two weeks, both attended by top state officials, is telling us something.

As I mention in my article, the thing about Alexander Nevsky is that though he fought the West (in the form of the Livonian knights), he made peace with the East (the Mongols). The reason is that the East merely sought tribute; the West sought to convert Russia to another religion and so destroy its independent culture. Sergei Lavrov noted in an article a few years ago that, “I am confident that this wise and forward-looking policy is in our genes.”

The location of the Pskov monument is particularly symbolic: right on NATO’s border, looking westward. It isn’t just history. It’s a mark of defiance. So too, in their own way, are the Dzerzhinsky statues, Dzerzhinsky fought the internal enemy; Nevsky the external one. And there perhaps is a common theme: enemies abound, and we will crush them. As such, for better or worse, these monuments are perhaps fitting symbols of the current zeitgeist.

15 thoughts on “The Politics of Commemoration”

  1. >>Different Russians are venerating different heroes, but together they seem to be putting up a collective finger to the West.

    This sentence (from the original wording) exactly NAILS it.

    Why change it? The new ending is just meh. Downplaying one’s “cluefulness” for PC’s sake is a super annoying feature of the current zeitgeist…

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    1. The Dzerzhinsky statues don’t have anything to do with the West, so that’s why I changed the text. I initially completed the piece in a bit of a hurry, and on further contemplation the original ending struck me as inaccurate for the reason above.

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      1. I think that his communist zeal is as irrelevant for the FSB bosses as his engineering endevours, the only thing that matters is that he’s their patron. If he were replaced in this role by Benckendorff they would happily erect statues to the latter.

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      2. “The Dzerzhinsky statues don’t have anything to do with the West, so that’s why I changed the text.”

        On the contrary. Good Liberal clergy of the Holy West is having paraxisms of… chemical reactions… in their nether regions. You yourself seem iffed – which, of course, is a good sign.

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      3. “If he were replaced in this role by Benckendorff they would happily erect statues to the latter.”

        Dem Westies and liberasts had both Perestroika and “Holy 90s” to cancel Iron Felix and replace his with someone from the “Russia that we have LostЪ”. They clearly failed. Which is quite understandable – Dzerzhinsky created a professional corporation with its own ethos and working succession of values, spanning generations. For the modern Russian chekists Benckendorff is and empty word.

        This, in turn, also means that they, who still style themsemselves “chekists” and don’t think that there is any reason to be ashamed of that title, are, perhaps, the most “Red” element in Russia’s “echelones of power”.

        That’s why Good Liberals are spasmatic over the fact of him getting a few more statures. Good. Good.

        P.S. Oh, and one more thing – Felix Edmundovich still has cities. named after him – both in Russia and elsewhere. They renamed Leningrad, Stalingrad and many others. But not Dzerzhinsky. Fancy that!

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      4. Thanks for the clarification Paul!

        However…. “enemies abound, and we will crush them” is, in my humble opinion, a LESS accurate description of the prevailing mood. Especially if we talk about society as a whole, not just “siloviki”. But even among the latter, the majority would rather go with “whoever will come to us with a sword” 🙂

        The rest of us? Putting up a Felix isn’t, per se, the same as putting up a finger – sometimes a Felix is just a Felix! – but we used to care how stuff looks from the outside. Now we emphatically don’t, and this complex emotion is perfectly conveyed by the gesture you so perceptively referred to in your original text 😉

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  2. > The secret police as as engineers! Whoever knew?

    The one who actually studied the history of the early RSFSR? Dzerzhinsky led ВЧК until 1922, then he was appointed the People’s Commisar of Railways and served this post until 1924, you know. You do know that, do you?

    Also, when ВЦИК created Commission of Children Life Improvement in 1921, Dezerzhinsky was appointed as its head, and he put quite some effort into it. He was a very passionate and conscientious person, by all accounts.

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    1. Thanks, Joker, that’s exactly right! People need to know about the railroads and engineering accomplishments and the like. It’s not cool to just sneer at it, those were measurable material improvements. Fact is, Soviet army and even security forces often served dual purposes and performed a lot of construction activities. In Soviet times, that was the Zeitgeist, everybody was always building, building, building… And people could be shifted from one job to another at the drop of a hat.

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  3. “Most controversial were two new monuments to the founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzherskinsky”

    “Secret police”? WTF is that? Is MI5 a “secret police” of the Blighty? Is NSA? FBI? Btw, while the former got the attention grabbing rep thanks to the “NationalistPatriot Act”, historically, it was the latter that earned a flattering (for any rightard) comparison to Gestapo.

    In b4 “democracies don’t have secret police – only authoritarians have them!” nonsense – France is sabotaging you here, with Territorial Surveillance Service being de-facto your dreadful secret jackbooted (and some more) police in colonies. And even domestically Sûreté got called “French Okhranka” for a lot of reasons.

    FYI, maestro Robinson. Russian Federation FSB considers itself, rightly, to be a successor organization of ChK. A lot (A LOT) of Russian intelligence officers – and a lot of cops – have Dzherskinsky’s portrait or a small bust in their cabinets. Can you, in your capacity of Russian Federation employed “free-lancer” at RT, ah, “elaborate further” and even go an extra mile and draw “clear historical parallels” ™. Thank you in advance.

    “[W]hy another one is needed, I can’t imagine”

    Ah. Maestro thinks Russia needs monuments to George Floyd instead [nod-nod].

    “The secret police as as engineers! Whoever knew?”

    Aren’t you a former intelligencer yourself, maestro? I assumed they taught you basics back in the Cold War era, not just spoonfed propaganda.

    What, they never taught you how he helped orphans?

    From the RT article:

    “The head of Sretensky Monastery, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, is the driving force behind a new monument unveiled last week near Pskov.”

    From this blogpost:

    “This was a large, 50-tonne memorial to the thirteenth century Prince of Novgorod Alexander Nevsky, built on the initiative of Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, believed by some to be the personal confessor of Vladimir Putin.”

    Hmm… I WONDER, why maestro Robinson failed to share with his (no doubt – much larger) RT readership this “believed fact”?.. Or, conversely, why he, in his private blog, deemed to mention something, which he can’t confirm or disprove? Questions, questions… But I have no doubt, that they have perrrrrrfectly valid, honest and straightforward answers. For maestro Robinson is a brave man of great integrity always true to his principles. I, for one, believe in that.

    “Located on the shore of Lake Chudskoe, on the Russian-Estonian border, it marks the spot where Nevsky defeated the Livonian Knights in 1242 and so saved Russia from foreign conquest.”

    Left unsaid in this “popular history” descriptor is the fact, that the knights, understandably, comprised only the tiny fraction of the enemy’s host. The vast majority, its infantry, were provided by the bishop of Riga from among his flock of “Good Catholic” ™ Baltic tribesmen.

    Or – and here comes the connection to the present day – that the whole war with the Ordenstadt began because Pskov had its very own Maidan a few years prior to that battle.

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  4. Not just engineer. He’s also the one who hacked the DNC mail server in 2016: “…Another had been modified by a word processor registered to Felix Edmundovich, rendered in Cyrillic script, a clear reference to Felix E. Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police.

    Yeah, Max Fisher of the New York Times also calls him “the founder of the Soviet secret police”.

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  5. It should be noted also that even though the views of different people inside country are conflicted, they do not destroy their statues and history (not en masse) to earn political points, which indicates that the political system is now far removed from the revolutionary turmoil of 1917 or 1991. Directly opposite of “progressive” politics of non-commemoration, where the history is forcefully rewritten, erased and replaced to fit financial interests of the rich (while somehow still called “liberal”). As if people don’t know what comes after such act reaches it’s logical conclusion.

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