One of the issues currently stirring the passions of residents of Ottawa is a sudden proposal by the Conservative government to erect a memorial in the country’s capital to the victims of communism. The project is meeting with enormous opposition. The plans for the memorial were ‘sprung on everyone and announced with no consultation whatsoever,’ declared the city’s mayor Jim Watson. He and others object to the proposal for a number of reasons:
- It had long been planned that the site in question would be used to construct a new building for the Federal Court, to be known as the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Judicial Building. Trudeau, of course, was the father of the current opposition leader, Justin Trudeau, and is much hated by the ruling Conservatives.
- Although the memorial is a private project, the Federal Government has pledged $3 million in support, as well as giving the land, worth at least $1 million.
- The design is huge and ugly. Ironically, it is just the sort of brutalist, concrete monstrosity that the communists used to construct.
- The memorial lacks the connection to Canada normal for public monuments in the country’s capital.
Monuments shape how we view our past. They are always political, whether deliberately or unwittingly. The zeal which Canada’s Conservative government is showing for the memorial for the victims of communism is indicative that it endorses the politics of this memorial. But what are these?
In the first place, remembering the victims of communism serves to perpetuate the Cold War division of the world into bad guys (communists) and good guys (us). It reinforces the West’s sense of moral superiority, and thus justifies contemporary political action in support of Western goals. If I may be excused for sounding all Gramscian, it is part and parcel of the maintenance of Western hegemony (which is, or is not, a good thing depending upon your point of view). The fact that the Conservatives wish to memorialize the victims of communism, but not the victims of capitalism, or imperialism, is no accident.
I think, however, that there is more to it than that. The private group promoting the memorial is Tribute to Liberty. Its Board of Directors contains leading members of the Canadian communities of Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, Czechs, and Slovaks, but no Russians. Russians probably suffered more from communism than any other nationality in Europe, but they are not represented. They are, it seems, not the victims but the guilty party. As one article about the memorial puts it, ‘The announcement [of the winning design for the memorial] comes at a time when Russian authorities have ramped up a campaign to sanitize Soviet history including denials of the violent occupation of former Soviet republics, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Russia’s occupation of the Finnish former eastern province of Karelia continues through to the present day.’ For some, it seems, the memorial is as much about keeping people angry at the Russians as it is about its alleged subject.
Eastern Europeans did not for the most part choose to live under communist rule, but millions of them did participate willingly in communist institutions. The police services of Poland were run by Poles; those of Hungary by Hungarians; and so on. The Soviet Union owed its existence to the revolutionary action of the Latvian riflemen; its leaders included a Georgian (Stalin) and several Ukrainians (Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Chernenko). Yet this is not how Eastern European nationalists view the history of communism. Rather it is seen only as something imposed upon them by Russians. This memorial to the victims of communism helps to re-write history to reflect that point of view.