The recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., together with the removal of statues of Robert E. Lee in the United States and of Vladimir I. Lenin in Ukraine, raise questions about how we should deal with historical monuments and other symbols.
We shall not take the easy route by declaring that all monuments to objectionable individuals should be destroyed. Rather, we will review several cases, then attempt to formulate a rational approach to a question that is not as simple as it may at first appear.
Our ambivalence towards the images we ourselves have created can be traced to the biblical First Commandment, which forbids making and worshipping graven images (Exodus 20:4-5, see also Isaiah 44: 9-20). Condemned by Jews and Muslims as well as Christians, idolatry is the divinization and worship of a created thing in place of God. This remains an issue today: a vicar general recently resigned after Hindus were allowed to bring an image of Ganesh the elephant-god into a Catholic church in Spanish North Africa (Inés San Martín, “Bishop apologizes for procession of Hindu deity in a Catholic church,” Crux, August 29, 2017). Radical Islam takes idolatry very seriously. In March 2001, the Taliban dynamited the two monumental sixth-century Buddhas carved into the sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
In 726, Byzantine Emperor Leo “the Isaurian” ordered the destruction of an icon of Christ above the gateway to the imperial palace. Despite a widespread and violent reaction, he persisted, decreeing in 730 that all icons be destroyed. Iconoclasm was condemned, however, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787 (John Julius Norwich, “A Short History of Byzantium,” 1997, Part I, Chapter 9). While Christianity forbids the worship of images, it encourages their use as an aid to worshiping the persons they represent.
When Grand Prince Volodymyr introduced Christianity to Kyiv, he ordered that pagan idols be overthrown, cut to pieces or burned. According to the Primary Chronicle, the image of Perun was bound to a horse’s tail and dragged to the Dnipro, while 12 men beat it with sticks “to affront the demon,” after which it was floated down the river and over the falls (Zenkovsky 1974, p. 70). Evidently Volodymyr reasoned, correctly, that destroying the images would help erase the old religion from the minds of the people.
The same rationale must have contributed to the dismantling of all 1,320 Lenin statues in Ukraine. They have met a variety of fates – painted, clothed, defaced, hidden, sold, etc. (Natalia Lubchenkova, “11 Imaginative Ways Ukraine Has Dealt with Historic Statues,” Euronews, August 25, 2017). But unlike Volodymyr, today’s idol-smashers offer no coherent new faith to replace the old.
Meanwhile in the West, the Reformation saw a revival of iconoclasm. In the summer of 1566, for example, Calvinists smashed church statues and stained-glass windows all over the Netherlands (E. Harris Harbison, “The Age of Reformation,” 1955, p. 115). Today, their spiritual descendants, America’s post-Protestant liberals, assail the symbols of political heresy with the same self-righteous zeal that prompted their forebears to destroy the “graven images” of popery.
Critics of liberal political correctness point to the Lenin statue in Seattle. After Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, an American bought a statue of the Bolshevik leader and shipped it to the Evergreen State. Today, it stands in Seattle’s trendy Fremont district, in private ownership but in public view. True, the denizens of hipster heaven don’t worship Lenin: they festoon him with lights in December, and deck him out in a tutu for Gay Pride Week. Such ironic, carnivalesque treatment does not entirely defuse the charge of hypocrisy – one can hardly imagine a statue of Hitler, however festooned, in an American venue. But in an opinion piece in the August 25 Seattle Times, one Boris Krichevsky attacks the notion of moral equivalency between Lenin and Lee. Vladimir Ilyich poses no threat, he argues, because Communism has failed, and an explanatory plaque accompanies his statue. Lee in Charlottesville, on the other hand, is a rallying point for white supremacists and other racists. Mr. Krichevsky apparently forgets that China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam carry on the repressive Leninist legacy. Moreover, Lee was at least an American. There is no rationale to maintain a statue of a hostile foreign leader like Lenin. This argument applies, a fortiori, in Ukraine.
Thus, there are many factors to consider. Political fashion is an unreliable guide. What, for example, should we do with the bust of Native American Stand Watie – a Cherokee leader who was also a slave-owner and brigadier general of the Confederate army – in Anadarko, Okla.? Should we dismantle the memorials to the lone, unarmed, anonymous Confederate soldier in such towns as Alexandria, Va., or the entire Monument Avenue complex in Richmond? And in Ukraine, must all those World War II memorials, such as Lviv’s 1970 Monument of Glory complex, be leveled?
A reasonable approach would consider several factors, on a case-by-case basis. Why was the monument created? Is it public or private? Is it perceived to represent official policy? Or is it understood as a record of historic attitudes, however blameworthy? Has a contextual explanation been provided? Does it have artistic value? Is it insulting or inflammatory? In both the U.S. and Ukraine, commissions of cultural, historical and legal experts could survey public monuments in the light of these criteria and make recommendations.
In a way, idolatry and iconoclasm are two sides of a coin. The destruction of images is idolatrous because it concedes power to an object. We Ukrainians are a more thoughtful, tolerant lot. We do not take down statues of Bohdan Khmelnytsky because he made a disastrous political choice, or of Ivan Franko because he expressed socialist and atheist ideas. We respect the desire of some Ukrainians to honor the memory of Red Army soldiers who fought Nazi Germany, even if they were, objectively speaking, fighting for Stalin and Communism. We have a deeper, richer appreciation of history’s complexity than certain latter-day fanatics. Or do we?
Andrew Sorokowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.