August 27, 2020

The War On Monuments

A recently opened Lenin statue in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. In addition to the destruction and replacement of monuments, controversial new pieces are also being erected.
A recently opened Lenin statue in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. In addition to the destruction and replacement of monuments, controversial new pieces are also being erected.

Past events cannot be assessed based on modern values.

Monuments erected to people who lived long ago and who are now accused of criminal behaviour are being attacked in several Western countries in the course of mass protests. Most media coverage describes the issue but fails to recognise the significant shift in the West’s mentality that these events signify in the worst-case scenario. They are a manifestation of the increasing willingness to adopt an attitude towards the past that is not Western at all but comes, rather, from a completely different era and/or other civilisations.

At first glance it seems as if another large-scale and global so-called war of memory is being waged, in which the human universal manifests itself as a common activity that is part and parcel of the creation and protection of identity.1 Monuments are places that have become an important component of the identity of a particular community, country or nation. Fighting for one’s own monuments and against those of one’s enemies is an integral part of the self-determination of all communities. At some point in time, the fight is clandestine, while at pivotal moments it heats up.

This idea was popularised by French historian Pierre Nora in the 1980s when he counted and analysed the most important symbols of France, which he called Les Lieux de Mémoire (Realms of Memory). The sites of memory may be simple or ambitious, natural or artificial, accessible for immediate experience at first, turning abstract as a result of later processing. Memory and history as a sequence of events that have actually taken place are not synonymous and may even be opposites. Memory is a continually functioning process, our connection to the so-called continuous present; history, however, is a representation of the past.2

The sense of time and, therefore, also attitude towards the past varies according to civilisation. Claude Lévi-Strauss claims that culture begins when the rules of being a human are agreed. He argues that culture is the opposite of nature and all that is natural or biological. All that can be described as general in human nature belongs to nature and is characterised by spontaneous automatism, whereas all that has been determined by norms belongs to culture and is relative and subjective.3

Western Christian civilisation’s way of thinking on the one hand, and the Slavic Orthodox way on the other, are characterised by different attitudes towards the passage of time and time as a resource. Time probably became a cultural entity during the Axial Age;4 being unaware of the passing of time may have been the main factor that allowed people to continue with their natural and monotonous lives from generation to generation before that. Since they were not aware of time, they could not think of a past and a future that would have been at least a bit different from their endless, continuous present.

Dividing time into the past, present and future, and defining the borders between them, is based on cultural agreements.5 The concept of time in traditional cultures was and is based on the premise that the course of things is determined by the sequence of natural events: changing seasons, the first rain as a sign of the beginning of the wet season, marriage, the accession of a new ruler, and so on. The idea of constant development over time, i.e. progress, was alien. The dominant conviction was that all that was real in the ultimate sense must be immutable. In that case, the challenge that consecutive generations came across and that could only conditionally be called progress, was manifested in constantly returning to old, eternal truths.

In traditional cultures, time seems to flow and circle back to its original source, where it remains to spin in the cycle of time. Time is treated like a substance, the essence of life force that can be used. Time may be used up or spent, and it may run out—and this is where an era and the world as it is known up to that point will end. One set of local rulers (and gods) will depart when their time comes, and a new era will arrive and bring new ones.

The core of Western Christian civilisation’s value system aligns with constant progress, i.e. development over time. It is highly doubtful whether this Western idea of development can be fundamentally matched with basic Russian philosophical and religious beliefs. While the first time vector is directed towards the future, the second points to the past or, to be precise, to the perpetual return of the past. Russian culture has devoted a lot of energy to the past—times gone by—since society primarily signifies earlier times, the past. Such a specific mechanism of cultural memory (panchronicity) perpetually retains the past as a component of the present, which is why the past has not passed and will never be over.

Progress does not mean mapping and taking new, as-yet-undiscovered roads. Time is not a resource that offers opportunities but rather an entity that promises to create certain issues and difficulties that must be overcome. Thus, in societies that are immune to progress and time, the past is heroic and future bliss cannot even be described, and problems are created time and again by immediate events that need to be dealt with in some way. Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich described an understanding of collective time that throughout history we have not been living, but trying to survive.6

Returning to traditional religious and moral values was deemed a triumph of the Russian state in the security strategy adopted in late 2015. Such a return is highly characteristic of time-immune survival cultures. People from such cultures consider the greatest threats to be instability and chaos, which reduces the chances of survival, while stability is one of the ultimate benefits. Stagnation and the coagulation of social development are not unambiguously negative phenomena. Mental tolerance and the stoicism that emanates from a person’s endless and unequal fight against the elements that create chaos and a hostile environment are highly valued.

A similar treatment of time can be found in a recent article by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.7 Historians learn nothing new about the past from this essay, but it does reveal a lot about how the Russian leader sees history, how he thinks when he discussesit, and what he could be weighing up when making political decisions. The Russian sense of history sees no problem with Stalin being idolised while alive but vilified after his death. This is what happens with all erstwhile, current and future rulers of Russia, since “[i]n five years, everything can change in Russia, but in two hundred—nothing”.8 Thus, it is no surprise when the past is mined for ammunition to deal with present issues in Russia. All rulers who are in power talk of the past “as things actually were” and no one would dare to argue with them.

The past will not turn into times gone by and nothing else. Since interests change, history and feelings about specific historical events are treated by the state like a boiled potato—during one period authorities try to cool it down, but after a while they heat it up again. It is no surprise that the Russian State Duma is processing a draft act to revoke a decision adopted 30 years ago by the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union. The decision adopted on 24 December 1989 recognised the existence of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and annulled it retrospectively as of the time it was signed. The draft act was submitted to the State Duma on 27 May and 9 June 2020; the foreign affairs committee supported it and forwarded it for discussion.

In progress-immune cultures, history has a special meaning since historical figures and events directly interfere in current activities, influencing people’s actions and emotions. For this reason, it is especially difficult to predict the past, not the future. As Milan Kundera strikingly described this mentality:

The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.9

The unchanging specificity of the Russian sense of history is that historical events with some sort of value are hand-picked, as someone would pick raisins from a bun, and the rest is stored in a secret chamber for safekeeping. Historical memory exists outside time; things that happened a long time ago are more real than the ones that occur today. In extreme cases, a deeply ideologised war is waged over memory, in which the past and present are hopelessly mixed up, without anyone noticing. In that case, entire long sections of the past are forgotten; they are despised and allowed to flow like a continuous grey river, with only a few embellished facts rising up like islands.10 Nothing ever becomes the past, and historical events keep repeating themselves in the collective memory, impacting the decisions and activities that actually occur in the present.

People in the West, however, treat (distant) history like empty babble and they aim to colonise time, i.e. the immediate future, not space.11 In societies oriented towards progress and achievement, ancient history is either bullshit (an expression used by US diplomat Richard Holbrooke during negotiations in the former Yugoslavia) or an entertaining period drama presenting former kings, generals and simple bandits for the delectation of modern people. People may remember past events, but not with such angst and pride as in societies immune to time and progress.

The West’s relationship with the past has turned historical, which can be considered one of the characteristics of the modern mentality. Historicising the past means that it is not remembered for being beautiful, uplifting, important or actualised in some way, but expressly and only because it has passed and is therefore “interesting”.12 The past and researching it undoubtedly engages the interest of Western people, as proved by the proliferation of writing on history and museums. At the same time, it is not the declaration of past events and personalities as holy or sinful that takes centre stage, but the affective relationship with the past. Russian (and Islamic) tradition tends to invest the past with the aura of persistent holiness. This means that possessing objective and dispassionate knowledge of history and exploring it is impossible, since it has been securely encased in a sacred locker.

The attempt to present so-called memory wars as something universal is in the same category as the general relative and socially constructed claim that one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. It not enough to allege that insulting the Estonian national epic hero Kalevipoeg would create equally strong emotions in Estonians as disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad would in Muslims. Unlike Muslims, we are rather indifferent about the past, especially in the form of legends. Attributing too much importance to some past event in order to help resolve real present problems is absurd to us. But this does not mean that we would not protect our identity and way of life, if necessary.

The War On Monuments: Christopher Columbus statue on a car in Columbus, Ohio. AP/Scanpix

When the Nazi occupation ended, Adolf-Hitler Strasse in Tartu was renamed; when the communist occupation ended, the same road, which had been given the name “21st June Street” by the regime, was changed to Rüütli. That step was undertaken to remove the mental scum created by the two regimes that were prolific in memory wars, like cleaning away the pollution they produced in the physical environment. The monument (Bronze Soldier) that was located in the centre of Tallinn was moved to a cemetery in 2007 not because of one-upmanship derived from memory war motives, but in the interests of public order. The fuss and uproar around the monument’s relocation grew ever wilder and more dangerous, inevitably requiring the intervention of the authorities. Today, the monument is in its rightful and worthy place and the problem has been resolved.

In Mäo, central Estonia, there is an obelisk dedicated to the Russian soldiers who fell while taking the fortress of Paide in 1573 during the Livonian war. Malyuta Skuratov, Ivan the Terrible’s most infamous butcher and head of the Oprichnina (repression) created by the Czar, was among them. At the end of 1572, when the Russian force laid siege to the fortress, Ivan the Terrible himself took part in the campaign. Malyuta, his loyal servant, was among the first to storm the castle; chronicles say he was immediately killed or shot. They also describe the cruel ways in which those defending the fortress who surrendered to the Russians were later killed.

The monument still stands, but what of it? Its location in the centre of Estonia engenders no heated emotions. It is, rather, a historical curiosity and an interesting fact. Although it shows Russia has had an active interest in conquering the territory of Estonia for centuries, there is no need or wish to destroy the monument. If we said it was a work of art created by the emissaries of evil to idolise cruelty, it would be our duty to engage with the monument in some active way, but we do not need this.

The so-called war on monuments reveals disturbing tendencies in today’s Western world. It began with blowing relatively small matters out of proportion, and the circle of issues is moving closer to undermining basic Western thought, including legal principles. The desire to actively engage with the past that has emerged in the West means moving in a direction that is alien to that cultural space. In persistently fighting against the heritage of slavery, we will soon get to Aristotle and Plato and begin to reassess their role for the sake of political correctness. Formally, Plato and Aristotle exploited slaves, who they called “living tools”, a very stigmatising description from a modern point of view.

The mixing of history and justice is an extremely dangerous and irrational tendency from the point of view of Western legal thought. Adjudicators cannot think themselves back to the past, erase all that has happened in the meantime and arrive at a rational decision. One cannot assess the events of the past based on beliefs that would have been alien at the time, and there is no way of guaranteeing people from the distant past a fair trial. The only way of escaping the cycle of irrationality is to maintain traditional Western mentality. We cannot keep on returning to ever-more distant past events to reassess them according to modern views, since this leads first to ultimate subjectivity and then to the realm of the absurd.

The West must be able to move on by resolving current issues in a constructive manner, just as has been done around here before. Failing to do so poses the threat of temporal disorganisation, which may set in train devastating processes in society.


1 Donald E. Brown, Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill (and Temple University Press), 1991.

2 Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”. Representations No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring 1989), pp. 7–24.

3 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté, Paris, 1949, p. 9.

4 Karl Jaspers, Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. Munich: Piper Verlag, 1949.

5 Adda Bruemmer Bozeman, The Future of Law in a Multicultural World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971, p. xiv.

6 Svetlana Alexievich, Second-Hand Time (tr. Bela Shayevich).

7 Vladimir Putin, “The real lessons of the 75th anniversary of World War II”. The National Interest, 18 June  20202.

8 Alexievich, op. cit., p. 398.

9 Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Faber & Faber, p. 30.

10 Nietzsche called this approach monumental history that dominates certain eras. See Friedrich Nietzsche, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, 1999 [1874], p. 258. In terms of comparing cultures and civilisations, it is not difficult to notice one set leaning towards monumental history more than others.

11 Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century.London: Atlantic Books, 2004.

12 Rémi Brague, Euroopa: Rooma tee (Europe, la voie romaine), EKSA, 2018, pp. 86–7.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.