Historical revisionism

Lenin's commercial arm

There definitely aren’t as many Lenin statues around as there were 25 years ago.  As the communist political and economic system fell apart, reformers made sure that its founder took a symbolic fall too. In central squares from Tallinn to Tbilisi, crowds cheered as statues of Lenin were unceremoniously pulled down and bulldozed. 

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So this is a rarity—a new Lenin statue.  And Lenin appears to be in his most famous pose, right arm raised, gazing in the distance toward some socialist utopia.  Except that he’s not.  At this mountain resort near Almaty, Kazakhstan, Lenin is on commercial duty, pointing the way to the Russian restaurant.  He's flanked by my colleague Galiya Ibrayeva from Kazakh National University and her daughter, sporting her University of Montana sweat shirt.  It’s really the same as those Che Guevara t-shirts.  Revolutionary icons recycled to raise profit margins.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

Deconstructing Lenin

Statues of Lenin, while not yet on the endangered species list, are not as common in the former Soviet Union or Communist bloc as they once were. As the Soviet political and economic system fell apart, reformers made sure that its founder took a symbolic fall too.  In central squares from Tallinn to Tbilisi, crowds cheered as statues of Lenin were unceremoniously pulled down and bulldozed.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube           

However, Lenin still stands tall in what was once a distant outpost of the Soviet empire--the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. In the broad, fertile Fergana Valley, between two great mountain ranges, the Fergana and the Pamir Alay, Lenin looks out on a sprawling, multi-ethnic city still struggling to adjust to the post-Soviet world.

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Like Stalin, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin was his nom de plume) remains a controversial historical figure.  Indeed, the presence or absence of a Lenin statue tells us something about how ready a country or people is to shake off cultural and ideological links to the Soviet era.  In Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and the Caucasus, the break came quickly and decisively, and the Lenin statues fell almost as fast—in 1989 in Krakow, in 1990 in Bucharest, in 1991 in Tbilisi and Yerevan, and so on.  Yet in Russia, Belarus, eastern Ukraine and some Central Asian republics, Lenin statues still stand in many public squares and parks. 

            In 2012, Russian lawmakers proposed relocating Lenin monuments to museums or side streets, or selling them to collectors, ostensibly to reduce vandalism and maintenance costs.  But the debate in the parliament (Duma) revealed an ideological agenda.  One deputy claimed that the presence of Lenin statues in most Russian cities and towns meant the revolutionary leader still exercised a stranglehold on history, and that was unfair to other Russian historical figures. Didn’t Ivan the Terrible or Catherine the Great deserve equal historical billing?  Predictably, the Communist Party did not like the idea.  As one senior party member put it: “Lenin is the founding father of the Russian Federation. Same as George Washington in America.”   

                Kyrgyzstan, like other Central Asian republics, has a schizophrenic relationship with its Russian and Soviet past—a mix of resentment against military conquest and repression, political and economic control, and nostalgia for a time when everyone had housing, education, medical care and a job, even if pay was low, the lines at the shops were long, and there wasn’t much on the shelves once you got inside.  

                In 1984, to mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), a new Lenin Square was built in the capital, Bishkek, along the main east-west street, Leninsky Prospekt.  Its focal point, in front of the new historical museum, was a statue of Lenin in one of his more dramatic poses, his right arm raised in the direction of the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountains to the south. 

                At independence, Leninsky Prospekt became Chuy Prospekt and Lenin Square Ala Too Square, but Lenin remained, his arm outstretched.  Locals jested that he was trying to direct traffic or hail a taxi on one of the city’s busiest streets. In August 2003, the authorities moved the statue to a more discreet location—a park on the other side of the historical museum.  To mark what the government described, in something of a historical stretch, as “2,200 years of Kyrgyz statehood,” it was replaced by a statue of Erkindik (Liberty)—a winged female figure on top of a globe, holding a tunduk, the circular frame that forms the top of the traditional Kyrgyz nomadic dwelling, the yurt. As the Lenin statue was dismantled, protestors filed a lawsuit and marched with “Hands Off Lenin!” banners.  Communist party leader and parliamentary deputy Absamat Masaliev claimed officials wanted to convert a bomb shelter under the statue into an underground retail complex.  “Who gave the small nation of Kyrgyzstan its statehood?  Lenin!” said another opponent. 

                The removal was supported by a coalition of NGOs.  “Lenin did not offer anything except violence and dictatorship,” its leader, Edil Baisalov, said.  He claimed that there were about 4,000 Lenin statues in towns and villages in Kyrgyzstan. “Isn’t that rather too many for a person who never even visited Kyrgyzstan, and didn’t say a word about our country anywhere in his works?  For Kyrgyzstan to still have so many monuments to Lenin is like Germany preserving statues of Hitler.  If we really want to build a democracy and a new civil society, we must tear such things down.” Other commentators were more cynical. “If the authorities don’t like Lenin any more, why don’t they just remove the statue’s head?” asked one parliamentary deputy. “That way, each new leader could simply screw a model of his head onto Lenin’s body. Just think of the money that could be saved.”  The government ended up spending more money.  In 2011, reportedly because some Kyrgyz believed that a woman holding a tunduk was a bad omen, Erkindik was supplanted by Manas, the national folk hero.

             Although some Kyrgyz nationalists in Osh would support the removal of the Lenin statue, the city has escaped a public spat on the issue, probably because it faces more pressing challenges—a stagnant economy, declining social services, a high crime rate, and periodic bloody conflicts between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the most recent in 2010 when more than 470 people were killed and 2,800 properties damaged.  However, the statue’s reprieve does not denote nostalgia for Soviet rule; it's simply (and Lenin would understand this) a matter of economics. The city does not have the money to tear down or move the statue, let alone put up something more politically correct in its place. Today, it’s a local landmark, a place where visitors pose for snapshots, kids ride skateboards and lovers scrawl their names. If Lenin stays, it will be for that best capitalist reason—because he's good for business.

                Lenin statues come in many varieties.  There’s Lenin with his head raised, looking to the skies or stars, Lenin the action figure rallying the masses, Lenin deep in thought, Lenin looking resolute.  There’s even a Lenin looking rather uneasy outside a taco joint in Seattle.  Kyrgyzstan’s two most prominent Lenins do look different.  Bishkek Lenin, with his right arm outstretched towards the mountains, is the dynamic leader, pointing towards some mystic, communist, egalitarian future.  Osh Lenin holds out his arms as if to greet people.  He seems kinder, gentler, more human.  Considering Osh’s troubled history, maybe the Lenin statue is a symbol worth keeping. 

History is more than the past

          I’m one of those academic misfits, a committed generalist.  I’m interested in many disciplines, as long as they don’t involve equations and statistics.  I graze happily through the fields of the humanities and not-so-quantitative social sciences, snacking on everything from anthropology to comparative religion.  Please don’t box me into a discipline, certainly not a sub-discipline.
In today’s competitive academic world, this might be professional suicide.  But I earned tenure in an earlier era when grazing (I’m sorry, I meant to say “interdisciplinary exploration”) was still acceptable, even valued.

       My first experience of having to make a disciplinary choice came at the age of 15.  At my not-so-distinguished boarding school on the Surrey fringe I had to choose between my two favorite subjects—history and geography—for A level because the school scheduled the classes at the same time.   I chose history, a field which, depending on the sources you use, can be as inter-disciplinary as you want to make it.  I studied geography furtively on my own, learning all the capitals of Francophone African countries. I dozed off in pure mathematics (the substitute for geography) and received a well-deserved D grade.

       I’ve always enjoyed reading the work of scholars who did not have to make disciplinary choices.  My most profound influence was David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country.  Lowenthal brings together history and geography (he has post-graduate degrees in both) with philosophy, political theory, literature, landscape architecture, communication and so much else.  He gave me two key insights about the nature of history:
1.    “History is less than the past.”  History can never recover “more than a tiny fraction of what has taken place” in the past.  What we know is limited by “the immensity of the past itself, the distinction between past events and accounts of those events, and the inevitability of bias.”
2.    “History is more than the past.” It is a selection, a curating of the past, always shifting in meaning, shaped by contemporary values and perspective.   It is always a story, the French histoire, the “imposition of plot upon time.”

        Howard Zinn made history much more than the past in A People’s History of the United States. In trying to counter versions written by the victors, he created his own story and plot, a narrative filled with the testimonies of those people—Native Americans, immigrants, socialists, activists--whose experiences and perspectives were not reflected in mainstream accounts.  Of course, it’s impossible to include all who have been neglected by history.  But Zinn challenged us to expand our view of who to include in the historical cast of characters.

        As Paul Thompson puts it in The Voice of the Past: Oral History, “All history depends ultimately on its social purpose.” That’s why it’s been handed down by oral tradition-bearers and official scribes, taught in schools, recreated in historic sites, documented in film and television.  More blatantly, writes Thompson, the social purpose can be “justification for war and conquest, revolution and counter-revolution, the rule of one race over another.”  And when there’s no history available, you just go ahead and cook one up.

        History cuisine is thriving in the republics of Central Asia as they try to forge new national identities separate from their Soviet past.  As I traveled through the region (usually on the pretext of teaching or doing research), I began to understand how this history is linked to geography—the crazy-quilt pattern of national borders imposed by the Soviets to divide and rule—and to religion, ethnicity, economy, literature, culture and contemporary politics.  If I had been a specialist—researching kinship ties in the Kazakh Middle Horde or rhyme and meter in the Kyrgyz epic poem, the Manas—I don’t think I would have grasped the big picture.  

          Since independence in 1991, the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, each of which inherited the artificial borders of a Soviet Socialist Republic, have been trying to create a usable past—a collective narrative with a timeline and gallery of heroes—to build national unity. Everywhere, this has involved renaming cities, towns, and streets, erecting statues and monuments, creating museum displays, and rewriting school textbooks. In Uzbekistan, historians did a land grab, claiming that anything that ever happened within the borders of present-day Uzbekistan was the country’s historical property.  This makes it possible to depict thousands of years of “Uzbek” history. In Kyrgyzstan, which has almost no written history, there are more gaps to fill. That did not prevent the government from celebrating “2,200 years of Kyrgyz statehood” in 2003.   

          Most of these are official, often government-sponsored narratives—precisely the kind of history that Zinn, Thompson and others despise because it reinforces existing power relations.  But they would understand the history-making process.  In Central Asia, history is as much about the future as about the past.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,