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Analysis & Opinion
08.12.09 Ideologically Quenched Steel
By Svetlana Kononova

Last Friday, the famous Soviet-era sculpture “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” was returned to its historical pedestal at the All-Russia Exhibition Center in Moscow. A solemn reopening ceremony finished off the five-year-long restoration period. It is expected that the statue won’t need any more restoration work for the next 100 years. But are Muscovites truly happy to see the famous sculpture back in its place?

The 24.5-meter high, 75-ton sculpture was made from stainless steel by Vera Mukhina for the 1937 World Fair in Paris to top off the Soviet pavilion designed by architect Boris Iofan. Mukhina was essentially inspired by her study of ancient Greek sculpture. The image of a workman holding a hammer and a woman holding a sickle has become a globally recognizable example of socialist-realistic art. Following the exhibition in Paris, “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” was returned to Russia and installed just outside the Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy. The monument became a famous Soviet symbol after it was chosen as the Mosfilm studio logo in 1947.

Many believe that “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” is a very important part of Russia’s historical and cultural heritage. Twenty-four percent of respondents in a poll conducted by the Internet portal said that this sculpture is the most recognizable symbol of Russia in the 20th century. Other famous architectural objects created in the past century, such as Lenin’s Mausoleum, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Ostankino TV tower and a statue of Peter the Great by Zurab Tsereteli were much less popular.

However, critics say that the “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” comeback marks the country’s return to Soviet-like ideology. “Every era has its heroes and symbols,” wrote a blogger who goes by the nickname of wolfin, “but if we hold on to the past, we will never create a future. Millions of rubles were spent on restoring this sculpture. The government should have spent this money to support pensioners who live in poverty, having toiled for communist ideals all their lives.”

While Mukhina’s masterpiece is presently at the center of public discussion, thousands of other Soviet-era monuments still exist across the country. Every city and town in Russia bears dozens of socialist-realistic statues. Numerous Lenins, soldiers and partisans, cast in stone or bronze, tower over modern city life as they are slowly destroyed by wind, frost and snow. Should these monuments be restored as well, or should they be demolished to free up space for modern idols? Should they be relocated to museums? The experts’ opinions differ.

“It is necessary to remember that besides political context, every Soviet-era monument has artistic value as well,” said Vladimir Kovalev, a Moscow-based artist. “For example, when a sculpture of Felix Dzerzhinsky was demolished on the Lubyanka Square in Moscow, the balance of the architectural composition was lost. Undoubtedly, Dzerzhinsky played a negative part in Russian history. But many Russian leaders, including Peter the Great, whose statue now towers over the Moscow River, were cruel. Monuments are just part of our history.”

Andrei Kondratiev, the director of the Ideology Foundation NGO, disagrees. “Artistic value is not really relevant to discussion of Soviet monuments,” he said. “A battle for or against some monument is a fight for or against legitimizing a regime.” Kondratiev believes that the future of Soviet monuments will depend on the political situation in the country. “Restoring, removing or demolishing a monument is not a question of cement, sand or money,” he said. “It is a question of a conscious choice.”

In former Soviet republics, the ideological aspect of Soviet-era monuments has become the driving force behind the decisions made about their future. The destruction of Soviet monuments in Estonia, Poland and Ukraine has been one of the most controversial topics. When in April of 2007, the Estonian government relocated the statue of the Bronze Soldier from the city center to the Defense Forces Cemetery on the outskirts of Tallinn, a conflict arose between the communities delineated as Baltic Russians and ethnic Estonians, as well as between the Russian Federation and Estonia itself.

In Poland, a bill on Soviet monument demolition was proposed back in 2007. In the Ukrainian city of Lvov, several Soviet-era sculptures were dismantled in 2009. The same happened to some monuments in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In Georgia, however, residents of Gori, the hometown of the cruelest Soviet dictator, voted against taking down a statue of Joseph Stalin. “Soviet monuments such as ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ were designed to astonish and instill fear and awe,” said Yevgeny Bobrik, an architect and an expert on the socialist-realistic style. “These giant brutal sculptures showed the power of the Soviet Union, a super-country with a strong military and an ‘iron’ people. But despite all this, the socialist-realistic style is absolutely unique, because it has had a huge influence on art, architecture, cinema and music,” he added. “This is probably the last artistic style of the 20th century created by millions of people.”
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