Soviet Art Returns Amidst Russia-Ukraine War

As the Russia-Ukraine War undoubtedly impacts arts and culture, monuments to regimes past art being brought back from obscurity and kitsch to symbolize Russian nationalism and triumph.

When the USSR fell in 1991, almost all Russian cities had a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in their local square. That year, Soviet Tours cited 15,000 Lenin Statues standing in total.

Many were toppled and destroyed around the world as a symbol of a razed regime, grounds for a new hope and government. Those that survived as relics of a bygone era ended up in odd places, such as the underwater museum in Tarhankut, Crimea. The Culture Trip reported that Russia was estimated to have 7,000 Lenin monuments in concrete or stone by 2019, with 5,500 in Ukraine, and 80 in Moscow alone.

Before the Russia-Ukraine War conflict, those statues that never left became a fixture of an old world, open to debate and even respectful sport. Back in 2015, the Siberian Times reported Alexander Bork and Artem Belokobylsky, then 20-somethings, enjoyed ‘Lenining’, hitchhiking around the former Soviet Union competitively to find as many statues as possible by the end of the year. Whoever had more photographs of Lenin statues won a liter of Johnnie Walker and a Ritter Sport chocolate bar. As of that September, Bork had photographed 103 Lenins, while Artem had 127.

Ukrainians were particularly eager to rid their territories of Lenin, especially in context of the 2014 conflict with Russia. Yet while Ukraine had demolished many Lenin statues, two-time Pulitzer Prizewinner Andrew Higgins, the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, suggested that this grand show had not altered the political landscape.

In 2020, Higgins noted the remaining statues were a source of “heated debate”.

“This did nothing to make Ukraine any less corrupt or its officials any more accountable,” he wrote. “Instead, it widened divisions between the Russian-speaking east of the country, which has clung to its statues of Lenin as totems of identity, and the rest of Ukraine.”

Now, amidst a brutal war, the Lenin statues are back to symbolize Russian occupation. Lenin statues removed in 2014 and 2015 were resurrected in 2022, notably in Nova Kahkovka in Kherson Oblast per the Kyiv Independent and Melitopol per the Moscow Times.

The resurrection of Lenin statues has also led to an increased interest in other monuments to past Russian heroes, such as Alexander I, to whom Putin erected a monument by Salavat Shcherbakov at Moscow Kremlin Borovitsky Gate in 2014. Schberbakov is known for his monuments and images of war…such as his 2016 model for a monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, Russia’s designer of the AK-47 assault rifle.

Continuing this trend, art historian Javier Pes Tweeted that “Putin’s favorite” Tsar, Alexander III, had a statue acquired by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg this December. Dimitri Ozerkov, director of the Hermitage Museum since 2007, stepped down in earlier this year in opposition to the ongoing destruction.

Russians and Russophiles of the past asked to comment on this story declined out of fear. Those with ties to the region feared for their families, or even themselves, at home and abroad. Speaking out against the regime comes with harsh and sometimes unpredictable penalties, and sources feared that any inclination or opinion of the artistic style of the regime could be misinterpreted and weaponized into threat.

In the meantime, the inevitable reality of monuments and statues is that they are sources of debate, and pieces of history. The question remains just how history will be used, and who may suffer as a result.

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