07 May 2007

Honor Thy Bronze

A couple of evenings ago I went out to Moscow's Victory Park, the vast complex opened in 1995 to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. While some find the place aesthetically unappetizing, I find it to be both moving and a peaceful place to walk at sunset when the tall bronze obelisk casts an endless shadow across the land.

The weight of history is palpable during the long walk toward the memorial. One by one I pass the engraved stones, each one marking a year of that terrible war: 1941...1942...1943...1944...1945. All in all the walk takes at least 10 minutes at an appropriately reverent pace. That's how large the complex is.

The effect is intensified when darkness falls and the fountains lining the park are lit in red, as if the blood of the tens of millions who died in the war has sprung forth from the soil of the motherland they died defending.

I am immersed in silent reflection as I walk through the park at dusk, trying to grasp the immense weight of this event in Russian and world history. I'm startled by a sudden noise benind me: CLACK CLACK CLACK THUD!

It is the sound of the ubiquitous skateboarders, rollerbladers, and bike riders as they practice their tricks in, around, among, and on the memorial park. In a vast complex of marble steps, railings, benches, and other intriguing surfaces in stone and bronze, the opportunities for tricks are equally immense. They go careening off steps, their boards clattering noisily when they hit the ground. They race along the marble edge of the fountains to see how much air they can get when they reach the end. And they weave in and out of the columns under the museum seeing how fast they can take the slolam.

Indeed, Victory Park has become a mecca for these wheeled teenagers, a veritable playground for boarders, bikers, and skaters. Which is why Victory Park is starting to lose its weighty esseence for me. It's hard to be moved by a war memorial when kids are using it as a piece of entertainment equipment.

The worst example I saw, the most painful and shameful, took place several weeks ago when I was at the park. Behind the museum is a massive bronze installation by the sculptor that Muscovites love to hate, Zurab Tsereteli. This monument to the victims of the Holocaust is titled "Tragedy of the Nations" and depicts emaciated figures either melting into or rising out of the earth, their personal belongings scattered in piles around them. In fact, unlike many of Tsereteli's works, this one is quite inspired.

The monument is layed out in a large semicircle, one side of which are the massive human figures, the other side a curved bronze wall, curling over the marble base as if it were a wave about to break. As I approached the monument, I saw a young guy on a trick bike racing along the curve of the bronze wall to gain speed before launching off the marble steps leading to the monument.

That's right, you heard me: a kid doing bike tricks off a Holocaust memorial.

Originally this post was going to be about the tragedy of memory lost. The tragedy of the old generations dying off and the younger generations never knowing, remembering, or appreciating the massive price paid in human lives to defeat one of the greatest threats to humanity in history. It was going to be a post about how, despite the horrors committed at home by the Soviet state before, during, and after the war, this was something that Russians should remember and honor eternally for their sacrifice was immense. And it was going to be a post about how the memorial to that sacrifice deserves more respect and better treatment than serving as a skating park for a bunch of punks.

And I suppose that that is still part of the motivation for me writing this. But as I was walking through Victory Park to the clatter of flipped skateboards, my thoughts kept returning to another bronze war memorial that's been in the spotlight recently.

I'm referring, of course, to the Bronze Soldier memorial built by the Soviets in the center of Tallinn, Estonia and recently relocated to a cemetery on the outskirts of town. Many of you reading this are familiar with the controversial decision and the uproar it has caused. For those of you who have not followed the story, the Estonian government's decision has sparked outrage among the Russian population living in Estonia as well as among Russians in Russia and the Russian government itself.

Of course, there are two sides to every story. The Estonian population sees the monument as a symbol of the 50-year occupation of their country by Soviet forces that began at the start of the war. The Russian population holds the monument as a sacred memorial to the sacrifices made by brave soldiers in defeating fascism. The results have been disturbing: rioting and looting in Tallinn, demonstrations in Russia protesting the "fascist" actions of the Estonian government, attacks on the Estonian embassy and ambassador in Moscow, and calls in the Federation Council to sever diplomatic ties with Estonia in protest to the relocation of the Bronze Soldier.

With the memory of the Bronze Soldier fresh in my mind, I couldn't but help wonder why a country that becomes so enraged when another country relocates a war memorial doesn't seem to mind when its own war memorial is disrespected every day by teens on skateboards. At best it seems like hypocrisy. At worst it looks like cynicism as nationalist elements in Russia utilize these events to advance their political goals.

Of course, there are many important distinctions that need to be made here. First, the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn was built over the remains of war dead, whereas Victory Park was never the scene of any military action and thus lacks the degree of holiness imparted by the dead. But, the Estonian government seems to be making every effort to treat the remains with care in relocating them to the cemetery.

Second, I realize that the people doing tricks at Victory Park are not the same people protesting the events in Tallinn. But if the Нашисты are indignant enough to demonstrate at the Estonian embassy for days on end, then whey aren't they out at Victory Park guarding the honor of their own war memorial? I find bikers on Holocaust memorials offensive. Don't they? Shouldn't they be out there patrolling the grounds and trying to impose a little order in memory of those who died for the motherland? Or, if they believe in the rights of individuals to do what they want in public parks, shouldn't they also understand the right of sovereign nations to make their own decisions?

In the very least they should know to honor their own bronze before raising arms over the bronze of others.


Lyndon said...

R, I think there's an even more direct example of hypocrisy, based on one article I translated and others I've seen - Moscow authorities have also recently controversially relocated a WWII memorial.

Your post reminded me of a couple of things - kids doing bike and skater tricks around the Mayakovsky statue in downtown Moscow, as well as that iconic perestroika-era photograph of a Soviet kid skateboarding in the shadow of a big Lenin statue (quick search online couldn't find it, unfortunately).

Dinc Arslan said...

Great post. I totally agree with you...