17 January 2007

Some Musings on Monuments

The Russian Duma is threatening to take "decisive steps" if Estonia goes ahead with plans to move the bronze Soviet soldier from the center of Tallinn. Itching for Eestimaa, a fine blog on matters Estonian, provides rambunctious debate, and Vladimir Socor offers his trusty incisive commentary at Eurasia Daily Monitor. So I'll slip away to ponder a piemineklis closer to home, pictured above (the photograph is from last winter, when the lilacs did not bud in January), and die Denkmale of Latvia.

Someone once told me that Ljubljana has the distinction of being the only capital city in the world without a single statue of a military figure -- true or not, that sounds blissful somehow. Latvia, with its complex history, is interestingly devoid of faces on its currency -- the coins have cows, salmon, and other non-human creatures on them (well, if one doesn't count Sprīdītis, a fairy tale figure made famous by Anna Brigadere), the banknotes scenes of our "river of fate," the Daugava, an ancient farmhouse, and parts of the mystical Lielvārde belt. The only historical figure to appear on our paper money (not counting whomever Milda, the model for the "folk maiden" who appeared on the silver coins in the interbellum and reappears on the Ls 500 note, a note normal people almost never see, might have been) is a person no one could possibly gripe about -- Krišjānis Barons, "the father of the dainas," collector of folk songs, on the Ls 100 note.

If our currency is almost antiseptically politics-free, it is not so with statues or, er, anything else -- I already remarked upon the battle of the street names a bit, but monuments are even heavier. A businessman has taken to restoring the souvenirs of tsarist glory out of his own pocket -- that of Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, for example. He also restored Peter the Great. The trouble is that most people really don't want to see Peter the Great. As Arnolds Spekke, still the most elegant historiographer Latvia has so far produced in English, suggested -- those called "Great" by the Russians greatly thickened the darkness here. A well-known traveler's account describes Livonia after the passage of Peter's troops -- no cock crowed, and no dog barked. Then there are those who would like to see Peter astride his mount again -- the statue made a brief, nocturnal appearance during the recent "pink-red" interlude in Rīga's municipal government, when the members of a new, stunted generation of Russo-Soviet imperialists swarmed it most delightedly.

And so on, and so on -- a statue of Kārlis Ulmanis was finally erected, largely due to the largesse of right-wing Latvians in the Baltic State of Australia. Some would question why a democracy needs to build a statue to a dictator, but people of a certain nationalist persuasion need not reason why. The statue of Konstantīns Čakste, a heroic democrat who stood firm against both the Soviets and the Nazis, has not yet materialized -- he's slated to fill the empty spot where Lenin stood, in Freedom (formerly also Alexander, Hitler, Lenin) Boulevard.

But I digress. To Dubrovin's Garden. That is a park, whence the image. It was the first park in Daugavpils, not counting Nevsky (now Pumpurs) Square (where there was a cathedral... but that was blown up without warning in the night, 17/18 November 1969, by the Soviets; it's now been "replaced" by a rather garish little replica). You follow Rīga Street to the river to get to it -- take note of the granite that decorates the pedestrian mall; some of it was taken from the gravestones in the Jewish cemetery the Soviets bulldozed in the 1970s.

This monument is a gravesite -- these were the first Soviet soldiers to die when "liberating" Daugavpils. In reality, the corpses may not be there. Their resting place was moved due to road construction, and it's rumored that those doing the moving didn't really bother with the bodies. Dubrovin's Garden was a place of entertainment -- it contained the cinema my mother went to as a girl and other "attractions." It was created by the city's greatest mayor, Pavel Dubrovin, in 1882 -- Dubrovin organized the first fire brigade, the first Gymnasium for females, the first bank, and the first modern market during his tenure, 1876-1890. On the other hand, he also received a medal for suppressing the January Uprising...

The park is a place everybody who lived here before the occupation remembers as the most thrilling place of their childhood. Hungarian lilacs, American walnut, a small arena, and the best ice cream in town. The placement of a rather hideous tomb in such a place is deemed inappropriate by many -- in fact, it is said that the relatives of at least one of the soldiers ostensibly buried there tried to get his remains returned. Soviet ideas on how to memorialize a war they were devoted to distorting were (are!) inflexible, however. On "Victory Day," a diminishing crowd of homines sovietici usually gathers at Slavas skvērs (where there is another monument I'll discuss another time), and heads for the eternal flame in Dubrovin's Garden (the flame ceased to be eternal when the gas prices first rose sharply, fifteen years ago -- but it turns eternal for special occasions). An oversized Lenin (reportedly dressed for Siberia but rejected by a Siberian city as too ugly; Daugavpils said "we'll take it!") used to stare down upon Unity Square nearby -- the last Lenin in Latvia to fall (he was felled in the dead of night, like the Nevsky Cathedral, to discourage protest). In the early 1990s, the more brainwashed babushki would part from the crowd to throw red tulips at his vacant pedestal, whilst the others streamed to the tomb to listen to clergymen and a gloomy Russian Air Force band churning out dirges. The priests would flee when lesser mortals began to give nostalgic and vaguely seditious speeches concerning the diabolical élite and the price of "overseas" bananas.

Politics, and especially local politics, being what they are, nobody would dare to move the tomb for fear of causing offense (and sparking another round of accusations about those dastardly Letts exhuming the sainted anti-fascists, which demagoguery doesn't really require a spark -- it burns like peat). Civilized people respect graves, and I expect the Legionnaires' and Germans' (and Turks' -- there are some!) headstones here to stand unmolested -- they don't, of course, and wrecking cemeteries is something of a local sport for some, whether that means spray-painting swastikas on Jewish memorials or toppling the crosses in the forlorn corner of the Great Graves devoted to Latvian patriots.

"Victory monuments" are a different thing, however, and the Soviets blurred the lines between tombs and triumphal monuments as best they could. Red Army dead were intentionally buried in Latvia's most sacred cemetery, for example -- the cemetery for those who fell in the Latvian War of Liberation. Most of Latvia's monuments were defaced or destroyed during the occupation. It is notable, too, that the very Soviet symbolism at the tomb in Dubrovin's Garden has been replaced -- the red stars morphed into Orthodox crosses, and I doubt very much whether anybody inquired whether the departed or their survivors desired that.

Perhaps a freaky form of post-modernism will arrive someday; one that allows Kārlis Ulmanis to mount Pyotr's horse ("When a Parisian woman stumbled in front of Peter the Great's horse during his visit in 1717 and scissored her legs to try to avoid the horses' hooves, the czar was overheard remarking, 'The gates of Paradise are open.'") without the sponge of meaning being too soaked to mop up everybody's personal or historical horror. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you, tomorrow -- you're always a day away. (Grace Jones)

Part of this post was condensed from my part of an earlier debate at soc.culture.baltics in Usenet.


Blogger jams o donnell said...

Another very interesting post Peteris. Good for Ljubljana I say. London on the other hand is full of them! As for coins without heads on them, neither did the Irish ones (so that's why there is an Latvian affinity for Ireland!)

I have a hanKering to search down and photograph some more of London's lesser monuments and record some of the more prominent ones where the reason for erecting the monument is now utterly forgotten.

20 January, 2007 21:08  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks, Jams. I first read this before the coffee had brewed and said to myself "whaddya mean, why is Irish money in the past tense"... then I had some coffee and remembered the euro. I will miss our money very much when we finally get the inflation low enough to join the eurozone.

I photographed the closest monument to me last year, the granite bear marking Andrejs Pumpurs' Dvinsk residence... I was going to continue my "Fire and Night" series and post a pic of it. Well -- it's gone. Just discovered its absence the other day. Must get to the bottom of this. I guess it's because the property was returned -- but, then, where did they move it to? And why would someone have such difficulty with having a statue of a bear in front of his house?

Your phrasing re reasons for erecting monuments reminded me that I left out the fact that Peter the Great first appeared in Rīga in a sort of orgy of tsarist and Russian chauvinist fervor, in 1910, marking the two hundredth anniversary of Rīga's coming under Russian rule (when, as Rihards Rubīns put it, "the Enightenment began to caress Europe, whilst here it began to stink of Asia") -- only five years after the 1905 Revolution, the tsar in attendance and the bourgeoisie licking his boots.

The monument has had a busy life. Five years after it was unveiled, it was evacuated in the face of the German advance (along with much of everything, inluding Rīga's renowned industry) and borne on a ship to St. Petersburg. However, a German submarine sank the ship. The equestrian statue spent nineteen years undersea before being salvaged by Estonians and sold back to Rīga, where it languished in a warehouse.

Yevgeny Gomberg, a millionaire, restored it. The "pink-red" municipal government put it on display nocturnally during Rīga's 800th anniversary celebration in 2001, and the resulting polarization was part of the reason the city council's coalition collapsed. Rīga tried to give the ill-fated horseman to St. Petersburg for that city's 300th birthday -- but St. Petersburg rejected it, probably at the behest of the Russian community here, asking for a copy instead. And so it sits in Gomberg's courtyard, with occasional nudges like the strangely radical Russian community of Liepāja (Latvia's third largest city) asking for it and being offered yet another copy.

The Freedom Monument, Latvia's most venerated symbol, is located where the horseman once stood. The reason the frighteningly rich lawyer Grūtups donated a bundle to statue of Konstantīns Čakste, the democrat who is to take the place of Lenin, is reportedly the rumor that Gomberg was going to get permission to put Peter there.

This is not an easy country for symbols!

21 January, 2007 17:22  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Čau Pēteri! I seem to recall seeing a statue of Napoleon in Ljubljana, but I could be wrong. I remember our guide mentioned Napoleon was held in good stead because he promoted education in Slovenian, which hadn't occurred before his "coming".

I have seen the statue of Barclay de Tolly, and wondered who the heck he was; the name doesn't sound too Latvian. :-)

Haven't seen Peter the Great though...


23 January, 2007 18:51  

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