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Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2002

Communist Icons Suffer Mixed Fates In Modern Moscow

By Claudia Rosett

Making monuments is rarely simple, as New Yorkers debating the right memorial for Sept. 11 can attest. But for controversial trends in the commemoration business, it's hard to top modern Moscow. Making a post-Soviet break with the past has meant scrapping some of communism's many trappings, including the goose-stepping honor guard at Lenin's tomb, the plethora of Soviet place names, and, most famously, a huge bronze statue of the KGB's founding father, Felix Dzerzhinsky. But the landscape remains littered with mementos of state-sanctioned mass murder -- put there as an exercise in self-exaltation by the former Soviet rulers, who ordained the murdering.

All the more disturbing, then, that Moscow's Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has decided to commemorate the past by rehabilitating one of its nastiest icons. He is leading a campaign to bring back the toppled statue of Dzerzhinsky. This is a notion as twisted as the unlikely vision of New York's mayor ordering up a statue of Osama bin Laden, or Berliners erecting a monument to Joseph Goebbels.

The towering multi-ton statue of "Iron Felix" last made world news when anti-Soviet demonstrators brought in giant cranes to knock it down, in August 1991, just after the failed coup attempt that heralded the collapse later that year of the Soviet Union. The statue was hauled away from its pedestal in front of the former KGB headquarters, the infamous Lubyanka prison, and dumped with sundry other despised communist relics in a Moscow park.

At the time, most Russians rejoiced. They knew what Dzerzhinsky stood for. A member of Lenin's inner circle, Dzerzhinsky helped lead the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and set up the communist secret police, the Cheka, which later became the KGB, responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. Dzerzhinsky spawned the Soviet gulag. Before he dropped dead in 1926, he backed Stalin as Lenin's successor, ensuring a reign of terror that endured for decades.

Ditching Dzerzhinsky's statue left a big blank in busy Lubyanka Square, just up the street from the Kremlin. That vacancy was a fitting memorial, at least until reborn Russia could define a new national identity. But Mr. Luzhkov now seems to be saying the old identity was quite good enough for government work. Having opposed a Communist Party proposal four years ago to resurrect the statue, Mr. Luzhkov last month began praising this bronze hunk of hell as "an excellent monument," once "the highlight of Lubyanka Square."

Outraged Russian liberals have been protesting the prospect of the statue's return. Lawmaker Yuri Rybakov, for example, denounced the idea, labeling Dzerzhinsky "one of the most horrible butchers in history," according to the Associated Press. Some suggested erecting, instead, a statue of the last czar, Nicholas II, murdered by the Bolsheviks. Mr. Luzhkov has conceded that Dzerzhinsky's tenure had its "excesses," but says Felix's return would be a reminder of Russia's strengths, not "a return to the past."

In Mr. Luzhkov's favor, one might argue that just down the street from the Dzerzhinsky statue's once and maybe future haunts, another token of Soviet terror has recently been slated by City Hall for demolition -- this one being the hulking old Hotel Moskva. This massive, graceless structure, with its huge colonnade and 2,000 rooms, broods over a vast city block right next to the Kremlin. It was built at Stalin's behest, during his heyday of horror in the 1930s, a behemoth meant to impress the world with the productive capacity of the Soviet Union. The Moskva, in its glory days, hosted such Soviet celebrities as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and was home for years to the British traitor Guy Burgess. These days, the Moskva is best known to the wider world as the building depicted on the label of Stolichnaya vodka.

But in Moscow, apart from being notable for its grotesque grandiosity, uncomfortable quarters and handy location right next to the Kremlin, the Moskva is best known for its asymmetrical facade. One weighty wing is elaborately adorned; the other, plain. This mismatch comes with a story, perhaps apocryphal, that sums up neatly the terror of Stalin's rule. The tale goes that when the architects sketched their preliminary designs for Stalin's approval, they included two options in the same drawing, with separate renderings on each side. Stalin approved the plan without saying which style he preferred. Too terrified to ask questions, the architects went ahead and included both.

Today, the aging Moskva defies the kind of renovation that has spruced up many of the city's old buildings. City officials announced this past summer that it will be torn down and replaced with a better-built, more efficient complex. Why bother? In a future that would have Dzerzhinsky back on a pedestal right up the road, the old Hotel Moskva, Stalin story and all, may yet fit right in.

See also:
Yabloko and the Grim Symbols of the Soviet Era

Moscow Times, October 15, 2002

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