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20 September 2017

Ozymandias and Dzerzhinsky

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert... near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Shelley wrote that sonnet in 1817, and it was published in early 1818. We all know what it’s about - decay, nothing lasts for ever, the passing of temporal power and so on. What Shelley doesn’t tell us - at least partly because I suspect he didn’t know - is whether that statue of Ozymandias (Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses 11) did indeed simply decay over thousands of years, or whether it was pulled down by people who came after who for some reason disapproved of the man and therefore tried to obliterate signs of him. For sure, he wouldn’t have fitted into our twenty-first century view of how the world should be - absolute monarch, slave-owner, these are not things sitting comfortably with today’s society. Maybe it was a deliberate act of destruction, rather than the ravages of time.

Monuments act differently on different people. For me, the most emotional - ridiculously, since it all happened a hundred years ago - are the three great symbols on the Western Front: the Menin Gate at Ypres, Canada Weeping for her Lost Sons on the ridge at Vimy and Lutyens’ soaring Monument to the Missing at Thiepval. Yet the poet and author, Siegfried Sassoon, who has far more right than me to comment, since he suffered it all, was disgusted by the Menin Gate. I’m not going to quote the whole of On Passing the New Menin Gate, but the last two lines sum up his view:

“Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime

Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.”

I’ve commented before on the campaign to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes from the campus at Cape Town University (successful) and the front of Oriel College (so far, pleasingly, unsuccessful), and my view of that remains the same. Obliterating signs of the past doesn’t change the events of the past. Removing Rhodes from his plinth on Oriel’s facade will not change by one jot the details of his life or the use to which he put the wealth he earned. Maybe, keeping it there will serve to encourage some to research who he was and what he did. Perhaps that will help us not to fall into the trap articulated by Santayana (if you ignore history, you may be condemned to repeat it). 

Bristol has now got into the act, with daubing on the statue of Edward Colston, and demands to remove his name from those institutions he (charitably) endowed. Well, I don’t expect going to Colston’s school would make anybody a slave trader, but it might make them find out about him and his life; isn’t that better than pretending it never happened? And in the USA, Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest et al, are hitting the limelight. Well,  while you’re about it, how about Washington as well - you can’t be selective in your approach.

Anyway, the reason for coming back to this subject now is that a new dimension to this monument issue seems to be appearing. When the Soviet Union fell as communism in Russia was overthrown, there was an orgy of statue destruction. Lenin, Stalin, Marx, all the perpetrators of the great lie of the twentieth century were dragged down, many of them, I believe, ending up in a stretch of riverside land in Moscow. But the winds of change are blowing again, and in Putin’s Russia, many things are changing. Stalins are stepping back onto their plinths in many Russian cities. And in a town called Kirov, just recently, a new statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky has been erected. Now, Feliks was a seriously nasty piece of work. He set up the Cheka, which mutated into the OGPU, the NKVD, the KGB and - I guess - ultimately the FSB. He was responsible for thousands of arrests and executions during the reign of terror period of Stalin’s rule, and was the king of the Lubyanka. His fifteen-tonne statue opposite that building was removed after huge protests as the Soviet Union died. Now, as well as the statue in Kirov, a recent poll had 45% of Russians supporting a move to reinstate him in his place in Moscow.

So: here’s the question. If it’s right to allow monuments to stay, even though we accept that the attitudes and/or actions of those commemorated would not pass muster in the twenty-first century, is it wrong to re-erect monuments to that group, even after they have once been taken down?  My initial thought was that this was indeed wrong, but actually, following my own logic, I think I have to accept that we should allow it. After all, if the architect of the ‘red terror’ sits again in Moscow, maybe it may provoke some thought about what enabled the killings. Nasty things don’t go away just because you look away. That’s a lesson I think needs emphasising in this time of safe spaces, trigger warnings, no platforms and the like.

(We’ll be back to metals next week.)

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