March 14, 2021

A Memory Battle for Lubyanka Square


A Memory Battle for Lubyanka Square
The former KGB building, Lubyanka Square. Griffin Edwards

Lubyanka Square in Central Moscow is a place brimming with history. It's also the location of one of Moscow's latest controversies.

While it may seem like a fairly ordinary, urban, metro-serviced plaza, it's been a feature of Russia's capital for centuries. It's the intersection of numerous large streets, and is mere steps away from the Kremlin, Red Square, and the Bolshoi Theater. Lubyanka is right at the center of Moscow's beating heart.

Lubyanka Square is most infamous for housing the Lubyanka Building, a massive, orangish, Stalinist-neoclassical pastiche that was once the headquarters of the KGB (and, pre-revolutionarily, an insurance company building): thousands of Russians passed through its side gate, never to return. Today, it houses the FSB, successor to the KGB and essentially Russia's counterpart to the FBI and CIA rolled into one. A memorial stone stands across the street to pay homage to the victims of political oppression.

The center of Lubyanka Square is surprisingly unadorned. Originally, there was a fountain in front of the building. However, in 1958, the fountain was replaced with a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, the KGB's no more humanitarian predecessor.

Lubyanka Square with the old statue of Dzerzhinsky.
Lubyanka Square, pre-1991. | RIA Novosti archive / Wikicommons.

This monument was torn down by citizens in 1991, in the chaos that came with the fall of the Soviet Union. It was moved into storage, and ever since an awkward green patch has sat before one of the most imposing buildings in Russia.

This February, however, Moscow city authorities put a vote before the people: would citizens prefer Dzerzhinsky refurbished and re-plinthed, or would they prefer a new statue of Alexander Nevsky? Other options, such creating as a new fountain or simply leaving the space empty, were rejected by city authorities.

Alexander Nevsky is a bit of a random choice. The thirteenth-century Novgorodian prince is best known for his canny diplomacy during the period of Mongol invasions, defending Russia's sovereignty when beset by Teutonic crusaders, Swedish raiders, and Asiatic hordes. Today, he's an Orthodox saint.

Nevsky and Dzerzhinsky represent vastly different things. Dzerzhinsky helped engineer one of the most repressive systems in history, while Nevsky defended Russia in a difficult time of its history. Placing a symbol of either in the center of Moscow would send a message. Which one to send, however, was in the hands of Muscovites.

There's a whole scholarly ecosystem in the field of "collective memory," which explores issues like those raised here. A hybrid of anthropology and history, researchers look to the phenomenons of commemorations, education, museums, and pop history to see how and why different historical events are remembered. It's a fascinating field, and one with continuing relevance.

Alexander Nevsky Square, Petersburg
Alexander Nevsky Square, St. Petersburg. No, the trolleybus lines above the streets are not part of the original monument. | Kuds, Wikimedia Commons

One of collective memory's main lessons is that historical retellings are normative: that is, they tell people who they ought to be, what they ought to do, and how they ought to act in a society. Widespread Russian commemoration of the Second World War, for example, is thought to be President Vladimir Putin's way of instilling Russian patriotism and nationalism into new generations, reminding them that defense of one's homeland is an important part of being Russian. In short, current political concerns are strategically reinforced and legitimized through the past. Therefore, what societies choose to remember (and forget!) is extremely revealing. Statues and other commemorations promote certain values, advertising them as something desirable.

Unfortunately, before we could see whether Russians would support the repressive legacy of Dzerzhinsky or the faithful piety of Nevsky, the voting was stopped. Nevsky had garnered 55% of 320,000 votes cast; the Cheka founder, 45%. The city cited vitriol in calling off the poll, and has chosen instead to keep the center of the square un-monumented.

Crisis averted? Maybe. But in a country with a history as tumultuous as Russia's, another crisis is probably right around the corner.

But Russia isn't the only country to do this (and we here at RL love to revel in the likes of train-borne World War II museums, collective memory is a global phenomenon). While the field doesn't provide a clear answer to the question of what to do with those pesky Confederate monuments, it does provide us with a bit of a theoretical framework.

In short, we here in the States aren't the only ones trying to deal with a complex history.

 

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