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?
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.
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.