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Plus ça change … Monumental art in Russia

January 27, 2013

Russia has been in a state of transition ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, and one very visible symbol of that time of change has been the change in public and monumental art.  During Soviet times, statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other Soviet-era heroes adorned nearly every city.  Party banners and slogans decorated public spaces.  Now, most of that art has been removed or replaced by commercial or promotional art.  Here are some examples.

inkom bank

One the left is a photograph I took in the summer of 1991 on Ленинский проспект (Lenin Avenue), near Moscow State University.  On the left, the Soviet seal, adorned with the hammer and sickle, surmounts the slogan «СССР – ОПЛОТ МИРА» (“USSR – the bastion/bulwark of peace”).  I took the photograph on the right in the late 90s, probably in 1998.  I was working in Minsk at the time and frequently took the overnight train to Moscow on business.  The foundation of the original sculpture is still intact, but the Soviet slogan has been replaced by the name «ИНКОМ БАНК» (“Income Bank”).

In the center of the city, at what was then Дзержинская площадь (Dzerzhinsky Square), the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the father of what would become the feared KGB, had been knocked down by a mob and replaced with a simple Orthodox cross.

dzer cross    dzer statue

The photo on the left is one I took in 1991 and it shows the pedestal surmounted by an Orthodox cross.  On the right is a Google photograph showing the original statue.  The monument stood in front of the yellow brick «Лубянка», the popular name of the headquarters of the KGB.  Today, the pedestal has been removed and the entire installation has been replaced by a flower bed.

1991 was a tumultuous time in Soviet and Russian life.  It was a few years into Gorbachev’s «гласность» (openness); Boris Yeltsin was elected president in the first free elections in June; there was an attempted coup in August that ended the Communist era in Russia; and the Soviet Union was dissolved in December.  Emotions were high, and not everyone agreed with the changes.

lenin krupskaya

lenin krupskaya twoThis monument to Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, located on Улица Крупской, (Krupskaya Street) had been defaced with white paint.  Yet, admirers of Lenin and Krupskaya – party faithful – placed a bouquet of flowers at their feet, a sign of respect, if not affection.  I took these photographs in 1991.

After the collapse, statues of notable Soviet officials were removed from city squares and pedestals all over the country.  Some of the pieces had been torn down by crowds, others had been removed by the authorities.  This art ended up in the sculpture “Graveyard.”  It’s a holding zone, of sorts.  Visitors don’t come here to admire or study the sculpture, but when they leave, they have a special insight into some events that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Dozens of those works were brought to the annex building of the Tretyakov Gallery on ul. Krymsky Val, where they were stored in large field behind the building.  Some were broken, others defaced with paint, evidence of the zeal with which they were taken down.


Here is a photograph I took there in the late 1990s.  Stalin is in the foreground, and behind him are two statues of Kalinin (Михаил Иванович Калинин).  Kalinin was the nominal head of state of Soviet Russia in from 1919 to 1946, and is notorious because during the purges, he turned in his own wife for “counterrevolutionary Trotskyist activities.”  I stopped by the “Graveyard” in 2011– some of these statues are still there.

oplot graveyard

While I was doing research for this article, I came across this photograph.  (Today I am thanking Google!)  The sign ended up at the graveyard as well.  A red granite Lenin is in the foreground, behind him are busts of Stalin and Lenin.

New names

Also in the aftermath were name changes.  Cities, street names, Moscow metro stations, and public facilities were shed of their Soviet-era names.

The most conspicuous is the change of Leningrad back to Saint Petersburg (Ленинград, Санкт-Петербург) – although Saint Petersburg is still located in Leningrad County (Ленинградская Область) and the train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg departs from Leningrad Station (Ленинградский Вокзал).

And Gorky has been restored to its former Nizhny Novgorod.  (Горкий, Нижный Новгород)  Maksim Gorky was a Bolshevik revolutionary and writer and some say the father of Socialist Realism – he was born in Nizhny Novgorod.  Sverdlovsk has been renamed its original Yekaterinburg (Свердловск, Екатеринбург).  Yakov Sverdlovsk was another Bolshevik figure.  This is the city in which Czar Nicholas II and his family were imprisoned and then murdered in 1918.  Boris Yeltsin, then a party official in Sverdlovsk, had the home in which the Romanovs were murdered razed to avoid its becoming a shrine for Russian monarchists.

Sergeyev Posad lost its Soviet name Zagorsk (Сергеев Посад, Загорск).  This town, named after St. Sergius and the site of Trinity Monastery, is an important center in Orthodox religious life.  For a while during Soviet times, it was the residence of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Church’s administrative center.  Similarly, Vyatka – once Kirov – regained its original name (Вятка, Киров).  Kirov, a Soviet official who was assassinated in the 1930s, was also honored by having the ballet theater and company in Leningrad named after him.  Even though it is now officially the Mariisky Ballet, its is still commonly known by its Soviet name, the Kirov Ballet.

In Moscow, Gorky Street is now Tverskaya Street (Улица Горкого, Тверскаыа улица); Kalinin Avenue is once again Novyj Arbat (Проспект Калинина, Новый Арбат); Marx Avenue is now Hunter’s Row (проспект Маркса, Охотный ряд), recalling its historical role as a marketplace; and Pioneers’ Ponds, surely to Bulgakov’s delight, is again Patriarch’s Ponds (Пионерские пруды, Патриаршие пруды).  The names of Metro stations have changed as well.  One station name change that I find particularly appealing is that Lenin Hills is once again Sparrow Hills (Ленинские горы, Воробёвый горы).  And the national library, once the Lenin Library, is now the Russian State Library (Библиотека имени Ленина, Российская государственная библиотека).


This is a small sample of the changes.  You can imagine the confusion – railroad timetables still use many of the old names, maps and guides cannot keep pace with the changes, and many Russians still use the old names out of habit.  Transitions are not always smooth and seamless.  Here are a couple more examples, one at the beginning of the transition time and one at the end.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who began his career as a Communist Party official in the provinces, in Stavropol, rose steadily through the ranks and became General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985.  In 1989 he became the head of the Soviet State and held that position until 1991.

gorbachev wo   gorbachev w

The photo on the left is an early official portrait of Gorbachev and it’s remarkable in that his birthmark has been airbrushed out.  This was typical of Soviet hagiography – painters added a few inches to Stalin’s short stature, and the Soviet Ministry of Education reissued textbooks in which Khrushchev’s heavy Ukrainian accent was recognized as “standard” Russian.  No flaws on our leaders.  Nope.

On the right is a post-glasnost’ portrait of Gorbachev.  Glasnost’, one of the reforms initiated by Gorbachev in 1986, was a call for increased openness and transparency in government.  There was less censorship, a more free press, and – as here – a willingness to acknowledge flaws, if only cosmetic.  (In Lincoln’s (?) words, “warts and all.”)  These are from the Google (again, thanks!), but I have these posters in my collection, bought in the Soviet Union years apart.  They were the kind of posters found in offices and schools and were widely available.

coka cola

I took this photograph in the Republic of Belarus in the late 90s – it’s at a highway intersection in the southeastern part of the country.  The propaganda on the left reads, “Freshness in the air and in a bottle… Feel the taste of freshness!”  The propaganda on the right, the hammer and sickle, needs no explaining.

I consider myself fortunate to have lived in a time that straddled these periods.  The first of my trips to Poland, eastern Europe, and Russia was in 1984, and my most recent one was in 2011.  My reaction to the changes has also been mixed – I have welcomed some and been dismayed by others.  I’ll likely have more to say about this in blogs down the road.



From → Then and Now

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