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Lenin: a commonplace

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Author:Sergei Bondarenko

Sergei Bondarenko analysed the commemoration of Lenin across Russia, after monitoring it 14 months.
The article is derived from the partner Website „Uroki istorii”.

The goal of this brief paper is rather simple: I will use a few incidents surrounding Lenin memorials across Russia to illustrate the work of monitoring the politics of history and to offer in connection with this a few potentially meaningful generalizations.

First off, what is a “Lenin memorial” in contemporary Russia? I would call it a “common place,” in both the literal and figurative senses. A Lenin memorial is a banality, a truism, and simultaneously a semantic field on which a wide variety of forces can be acted out. It is a situational image: depending on its location, on the political situation of the specific city or village where it is located, it can embody both the “glorious Soviet past” and also a protest against the existing regime.

In some places, it can bring upon itself irritation with and disapproval of positive memories of the tragic Soviet past (in this case, Lenin takes on the characteristics of an anti-hero). Sometimes, in more complex situations, we observe quite the opposite, as a Lenin memorial might legitimize to some extent the acting government, embodying succession, acceptance, and inclusion in contemporary imaginings of the history of the revolutionary Soviet past.

Finally, for many in Russia, a Lenin memorial is essentially an empty space, something utterly prosaic, an object without any special semantic weight (this is the legacy of the conveyer-belt creation of memorials to the great leader during the Soviet period).  

Twelve different news reports about Lenin memorials from a 14-month monitoring period can be assigned conditionally to three groups. I will say a few words about these below:
· Destruction, “vandalism”. In the city of Pushkin, Leningrad Oblast, unidentified individuals blew up a Lenin memorial. The local nationalist group NS/WP Nevograd took responsibility for the action. Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), spoke out about the need to allocate budgetary funds for the reconstruction of the monument. He promised that monies would come in part from Party sources, and also recommended that Petersburgers “energetically guard their connection to that time.”

Events in the community of Mga belong to the same category: Lenin’s arm was broken off and “unprintable phrases” were written on the monument. Subsequently, local communists restored the memorial. Similarly, in the city of Svobodny, Amur Oblast, Lenin’s head was broken off, and in the town of Kharabali, Astrakhan Oblast, only the statue’s legs remained standing. In November 2011 the CPRF topped the old plinth with a bust of Lenin discovered in a city-owned storehouse.

· Reconstruction or transferal of monuments, restoration work, and the erection of new memorials. Above we mentioned a few instances of the restoration of destroyed monuments. Aside from these, Lenin is being cleaned and “refreshed” in Sochi, his monument is being washed in St. Petersburg, and a new memorial is being erected in Ufa, on the same spot where a monument was torn down 20 years ago. And yet, in Kostroma and in Orlov Oblast, local residents have voted in favor of tearing down memorials in order to erect a chapel or a church nearby or in the place of the monument.

· Working with “Lenin’s image.” “Jamming the politics of history.” The final category requires special commentary. Society can also express their estimation of Lenin and the memorials erected in his honor by altering the memorials in order to change the historical messages they are intended to carry. In Murmansk, someone drew a Soviet emblem (the hammer and sickle) and a Nazi swastika on a memorial’s base, painting an equals sign between them. In Nakhodka two artists painted the Lenin monument’s pedestal, transforming his “seat” into a gigantic piece of cheese.

The phrase “jamming the politics of history” is offered here as an analogy to “culture jamming.” Known from about 1984, culture jamming is a cultural and social movement of street artists and activists who add to or redraw billboards and advertising images to change their meaning, to parody the advertised goods, to draw the viewer’s attention to its negative aspects. One of the most famous characterizations of “culture jamming” or “advertisement jamming” appears in Naomi Klein’s book No Logo.

As Klein writes, “culture jammers” engage in “the practice of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards in order to drastically alter their messages. Streets are public spaces, adbusters argue, and since most residents can’t afford to counter corporate messages by purchasing their own ads, they should have the right to talk back to images they never asked to see. [. . .] The most sophisticated culture jams are not stand-alone ad parodies but interceptions—counter-messages that hack into a corporation’s own method of communication to send a message starkly at odds with the one that was intended.” [1]  

Replacing, in this case, the advertising model of large corporations with the politics of history—one of the important tools of which is the creation/non-creation or removal of monuments to historical figures—creates an opportunity to talk about the public’s unique response to state politics, as expressed in acts of “jamming the politics of history.”

Of course, concrete examples involving Lenin also connect conceptually to the Soviet tradition of holding dismissive attitudes to Lenin memorials and the perception of their “carnivalesque” role in late Soviet culture (indeed, it is no accident that one of the ideological sources for culture jamming is Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance).

Among monitoring materials we find additional examples that appear analogous to citizen-artists’ style of broadcasting “counter-messages” against state authorities.Naomi Klein describes the successful “jamming of mass culture” as an “x-ray of the subconscious of [an advertising] campaign.” [2]

If we imagine the government in the role of the client and creator of the “historical advertising campaign,” then it is precisely this “x-ray” of the state’s subconscious that becomes one of the most important—if not the single most important—task of the monitoring of the politics of history.

Sergei Bondarenko, translated by Adrianne Jacobs

1. Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at Brand Bullies (New York: Picador, 1999), 280-81. Emphasis added.

2. Klein, 281.


Website "Uroki istorii"

Did you know...
Additional competition for the photo illustrating research work of the participants was announced for the first time within a framework of the 13th edition of the “History at Hand” competition.