#13 - JRL 7140
New York Times
April 10, 2003
Must What Goes Up Also Come Down?
By Solomon Volkov
Solomon Volkov is author of "St. Petersburg: A Cultural History."
It is almost certain that the toppling yesterday of Saddam Hussein's giant statue in the center of Baghdad will be considered in retrospect as one of the iconic images of the present war in Iraq. As I watched this scene unfolding on television, similar episodes from the not-so-distant yet already faintly hazy past, sprang to my mind.
First, of course, there was the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, which for years divided Germany into the socialist East and the capitalist West. Watching that evening unfold on TV, one could feel the almost palpable physical excitement as youthful drunks madly clawed and hammered away at the hated symbol of this enforced division.
Then, on an August night in 1991, another statue came down. This time it was a bronze of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, which had presided over central Moscow since 1958. One saw the same excitement but markedly less merriment, and the crowd looked more mature, even sober. They had thought ahead, going to the trouble of bringing along five cranes for the job. These people were exacting what felt like an intellectual revenge for the years of living in fear, of being able to talk candidly only with trusted friends -- and then only in a whisper.
A parenthetical thought: lately, parallels have been drawn in the press between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the repressive Communists who ruled Russia. I think an important difference between the two regimes was revealed when the solidity of the comparative statues was tested. The Soviet one had to be dragged away with much effort, exertion, etc. And when it came down, it came down in one piece. In contrast, the Iraqi monument toppled quite easily. And when it did, it broke apart, leaving the hollow boots of the dictator on the pedestal. Of course, the statue's quick demise could be attributed to the superiority of American equipment and expertise, which seem to be in plentiful supply in Baghdad these days.
Compared to the events in Berlin and Moscow, the crashing of Mr. Hussein's statue was a much more modest affair. One got the feeling that the dancing, shirtless men didn't extend too far beyond the camera's eye. This is probably not such a bad thing, because big symbolic gestures, while immensely satisfying at the time, rarely live up to their promise. This is certainly true with regard to Germany, where almost 14 years after the fall of the wall, the economic and psychological division between East and West endures.
As for Russia, there is now persistent talk coming from Moscow's conservative mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, that the statue of Dzerzhinsky (which conveniently survived intact and has been living a quiet life in a Moscow park) should be returned to its former home -- a traffic island in front of the headquarters of the former K.G.B. and its successor, the Federal Security Services. The liberal intelligentsia, of course, vehemently objects to the resurrection. But with polls showing that more and more Russians are looking on the Soviet past with fondness, there is a distinct possibility that one day we will see the once-toppled monument back at the heart of Moscow, gazing imperiously at passers-by.
And if this happened, one question in particular would gnaw at me: is it possible that among those who restored the statue, there were also some who helped to bring it down?