Monument Fever

By | December 1, 2017

Putin and Alexander III Statue

On November 14, 2017, Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky unveiled in the city of Kaluga (about 200 km from Moscow) a new monument, a statue of Grand Duke Ivan III (1440–1505), the grandfather of Ivan the Terrible. The statue is in the same style as the infamous statue of St. Vladimir in Moscow. The Grand Duke’s figure steps forward, his left foot on something reminiscent of a shield, while with the left he handles a decorated stick, on the top of which a huge eagle with spread wings is sitting. The idea of the monument was suggested by the film director Andrei Konchalovsky, Chairman of the Creative Council of the Russian Military Historical Society; Medinsky is Chairman of this Society. Manufacturing the monument cost 20 million rubles, and its pedestal and the landscaping around it cost 24 million rubles.

Minister Medinsky gave an excited speech: “Today is a joyful day, because today justice is given to one of the greatest, brightest, powerful, effective, but for some reason underestimated rulers of our country… When we talk about Russia, overcoming the turmoil, Russia, the victorious Napoleon, Russia defeating the Second World War, we are talking about Russia, established on the principles of governance, which were laid by Ivan III.”

Even in the 19-century Russian historians evaluated Ivan III’s activities differently. The famous Nikolai Kostomarov (1817–1885), the author of the “Russian History in the Biographies of Its Leading Figures,” wrote:

Russian historians call [him] Ivan the Great. […] The true grandeur of historical figures […] should be measured by the degree of a beneficial desire to deliver to his people the greatest possible prosperity and promote its spiritual development […] His power passed into Asian despotism, turning all subordinates into fearful and mute slaves. Such a system of political life was bequeathed to his son and future descendants. His barbaric executions developed cruelty and rudeness in the people. His immense greed was not conducive to enrichment, but to the impoverishment of the Russian land […] Ivan could be shown by his example rather malignant than beneficent influence on the morals of the people […] The ruler’s actions spread in the customs of his subjects the vices of predation, deception and violence against the weakest […] With such orders meaningless slavish fear of power could dominate, and not a conscious respect for legitimate authority.

Four days later, on November 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin followed Medinsky’s example: he gave a speech at the unveiling event of a statue of one more Tsar, Alexander III, the father of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. The statue was erected in the city of Yalta, in the annexed Crimea. The 4-meter-high statue presents a sitting Tsar, his hands are put on the handle of a saber in front of him. As noted by some of the journalists, the monument reminds one of Alexander III’s statue by the famous sculptor Paolo Troubetzkoy, erected in St. Petersburg in 1909. But in Troubetzkoy’s monument, the Tsar sits on a horse, while in the new monument Tsar sits, almost in the same pose, on a piece of a log.

Journalists also immediately noticed that information on the achievements of Russia during the reign of Alexander III, depicted on the bas-relief placed near the monument, contains serious historical mistakes: the Tretyakov Gallery and the Historical Museum in Moscow, for example, appeared before Alexander III’s reign. In addition, the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky died a few months before the reign, while the monument to Peter Tchaikovsky was erected 50 years after the Tsar’s death. The author of the monument, the sculptor Andrei Kovalchuk, Chairman of the Union of Artists of Russia, denied accusations of historical inaccuracies of the events he depicted, saying that the sculptor-author of the monument can interpret the historical events a little bit differently, which completely coincides with Minister Medinsky’s interpretation of history.

The monument was opened solemnly: ceremonial military companies were standing around, top officials of the region and districts, as well as the Orthodox metropolitan and mufti attended.

In his speech, Putin said: “Contemporaries called him the king-peacemaker, but, as Sergei Yu. Vitte [Russian statesman, 18491915] noted, he gave Russia 13 years of peace not as concessions, but as a just and unshakable firmness. Alexander III defended [Russian] interests directly and openly, and such a policy ensured the growth of Russia’s influence, increasing its authority in the world.”

Putin continued to praise the Tsar for the rapid industrial development of the country, the supposedly progressive labor legislation for that time, the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, for rearming the Imperial Army. In conclusion, he stated:

At the same time, he believed that a strong, independent, sovereign state should rely not only on economic and military might, but also on traditions, that it is important for a great people to preserve their identity, and that progress is impossible without respect for their history, culture and spiritual values.

The reign of Alexander III was called the era of national revival, the real rise of Russian art, painting, literature, music, enlightenment and science, a time of returning to our roots and historical heritage.

The attending journalists noted that Putin talked as if he was opening a monument to himself, especially when he spoke of the power that ensured the growth of Russia’s influence, the increase of its authority in the world.

After the speech, Putin put a bouquet of red roses to the marble base, on which one of Tsar’s phrases is depicted: “Russia has only two allies, its army and its fleet.”

It is clear why Putin likes Alexander III. This Tsar is known as a counterreformer, he abolished almost all progressive and pro-western reforms introduced by his father Alexander II. He limited administration of local and city governments, introduced a secret political police net, enhanced censorship, abolished university autonomy introduced by his father, limited secondary education in gymnasiums of low-class children (and without graduating from a gymnasium, it was not possible to enter a university), increased payment for university education, and so forth. The western-fashioned military uniforms were replaced by the Russian-peasant-looking uniforms. All these changes were made as part of the nationalistically-oriented policy of the so-called “people’s autocracy.”

During Alexander III’s reign, there were waves of Jewish pogroms. Although pogroms were frequently eventually suppressed by military troops, this was not because of humanistic reasons, but because Alexander III considered pogroms as revolts against the authorities. Supposedly Alexander III used to say: “When the Jews are beaten, the heart rejoices, but it should not be allowed.” The admission standards of Jewish children to high educational institutions was toughened, restrictions were imposed on Jews for a number of professions, and in 1891 almost 20,000 Jews were forcibly evacuated from Moscow.

It is expected that soon two more monuments will be erected in the annexed Crimea. In the city of Sebastopol, a statute  to Prince Grigori Potemkin-Tavrichesky, a favorite of Catherine the Great who engineered the annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Empire in 1783, and a monument called “Unity of Russia.”

The Russian Orthodox Church follows the same trend of raising monuments. On December 8, the Mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin signed an order to erect monuments to all 16 Russian Patriarchs, including the current Patriarch Kirill, at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior not far from the Kremlin. Three 2-meter-high figures on stone bases have already been put in place, on the bases there are descriptions of the divine biographies of each Patriarch. There will be 13 more statues. Salavat Shcherbakov, the author of the infamous monument St. Vladimir in front of the Kremlin, is in charge of creating the monuments.


Author: Vadim Birstein

Dr. Vadim J. Birstein is a historian and geneticist. He is the author of over 300 scientific papers and books and has written two scholarly historical works, "The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science" and "SMERSH, Stalin's Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII". He received the inaugural "St. Ermin's Intelligence Book Award" in 2012 for SMERSH.

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