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Analysis & Opinion
19.07.11 A New Russian In Town
By Anna Aslanyan

A statue of Yuri Gagarin was unveiled in London on July 14 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight. The monument is a copy of the one erected in Lyubertsy, a town just outside of Moscow, where Gagarin trained as a foundry worker. It was donated by Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency. But are Londoners welcoming the newcomer, and how appropriate are monuments to Russians in Great Britain anyway?

Emma Williams of the British Council, who worked with Roscosmos on the project, said: “It was on this day 50 years ago that Gagarin arrived in London. The invitation to visit Britain came from the Union of Foundry Workers in Manchester, which showed solidarity with a man from a similar working-class background. We decided not to polish the statue, leaving the texture of the material rough to stress this link with the industry.”

Russia-themed monuments in the UK are relatively few, most of them of local significance. Londoners who do not frequent the Imperial War Museum are unaware of the small monument to the Great Patriotic War in a park adjacent to its grounds. The Soviet War Memorial was unveiled in 1999 with the help of the Society for Cooperation in Russian and Soviet Studies, which organized the necessary fundraising. Not many have heard of the Varyag Memorial in Scotland, erected in 2006 to honor the legendary Russian cruiser that sank off the coast of Lendalfoot in 1920. That Lewes, a town on the south coast of England, has its own Russian Memorial is not widely known either. The obelisk was erected in 1877 at the request of Alexander II in memory of 28 Finnish soldiers from the Russian Army who fought in the Crimean War and died while imprisoned in Lewes in the 1850s.

A monument to Peter the Great in Deptford, where he studied shipbuilding, has caused a lot of aesthetic displeasure among the locals. Owen Hatherley, a writer famous for his strong views on modern urban development, calls it “utterly bizarre, total Tsereteli-style,” while those unfamiliar with contemporary Russian sculpture just use the word “kitsch.” Hatherley points out that monuments inspired by Russians in Britain are often “either tied up with communist politics, or with weird 1990s imperial revanchism.” According to him, “the hopes that (rightly or wrongly) lots of people in the UK had in Russia as modernizing, socialist, etc. are now replaced with Russia as an oligarchic center of a fairly gangster capitalism and imperial kitsch.”

Talking about monuments to Russians in the UK, the discussion inevitably turns to things that are not there, but might have been. Plaques on the houses of Alexander Herzen and Peter Kropotkin are, in the view of Russian lovers of history, but a small gesture – the great thinkers deserve more. At the same time, adepts of communism proudly claim that Lenin is buried in London. In fact, there was once a bust of Lenin in Finsbury, unveiled in 1941, but during the Cold War memorials to Russian communists were not especially popular and the statue was repeatedly subject to acts of vandalism. When it was eventually removed, its creator buried the bust before it could be destroyed. London is now left with a plaque marking the house where Lenin lived in 1905, and a mural showing Lenin, Marx and Engels in the Marx Memorial Library. As for Maxim Gorky's presence, there is Gorki House, a club run by a Turkish community in a part of London he probably never visited. It boasts a collection of Gorky's works in Turkish and English and hosts weekly philosophical seminars.

Lesley Chamberlain, an expert on Russian culture, mentioned another plaque in the village of Limpsfield Chart in the southeast of England, where Sergei Stepnyak-Kravchinsky lived after fleeing Russia in 1880. “A terrorist at home, Steppy was a good guy over here,” said Chamberlain, adding: “He is unknown to the vast majority and there is no reason why things should be otherwise. On the other hand, there are Russians who have become part of English life, for example, Anna Pavlova [whose house in North London is now a museum] – in such cases monuments are pictures of a history to be discovered. When I travelled in Russia I always noted the statues and learnt a lot. That said, those were societies which wore their ideological codes on their sleeves. Are we here becoming more like them now?”

Going back to the recently unveiled statue, while it attracted a lot of tourists who were happily snapping on the first day, Gagarin strikes some people in London as absurd. The statue stands on the Mall, opposite that of Captain Cook, “circumnavigator of the globe.” It will remain there for one year with permission from the Westminster Council, after which it will be moved elsewhere. The British Council is looking for a permanent site, liaising with local authorities, which tend to use public money and space sparingly and consult residents before making a decision. If all other attempts to find a space for Gagarin fail, perhaps Manchester might welcome him again?
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