In 1991 I visited the Soviet Union during its dying days. It was a nation of public “art.” Everywhere you looked were statues and murals and other public displays and all of it was propaganda. Most cities had identical statues of Lenin. All public art was done to rigid specifications handed down by the bureaucracies on high. Anywhere you looked you were treated to an image of the committed Soviet worker helping the nation be productive under the watchful eye of the state. The images were idealized, unchanging, and stood in sharp contrast to the dreary and drab life of the average Soviet citizen.
I had a certain fascination with all the Soviet public art because it was so patently absurd. It celebrated, glorified even, a system and a state in a circumstance of steep decline and with endemic corruption. Often such art was in full view, as if blessing the speaker and the statement I was about to hear, as someone told me a lie about the wonderful life of a Soviet citizen so obvious as to make one want to laugh. Works that predated the Soviet era, but somehow survived the purges, were ignored or “repurposed” in comical ways. I could not count how many times I stood in front of a building or statue of stunning beauty and asked my guide about it only to be pointed to something across the street that was just flat-out ugly, or told “it did not matter,” or “it’s not really there.” The Soviet Union had a penchant for denying what was right in your face.
Oh and the churches, some of the most stunning architecture I have ever seen, magnificent beauty and testament to God, surviving as “museums” dedicated to the wasteful tendencies of pre-Soviet Russia, symbols of oppression by the aristocrats that built them. Yet you would stand in them and could easily picture God smiling bemusedly upon the person speaking such nonsense as if to say, “You can deny I am here, but here I am.” Faith survived among the Soviet people, despite such efforts to beat it out of them, and played a key role in overturning the lunacy that was the Soviet state.
And then the Soviet Union fell, and people took to the streets to tear down and destroy the public art that spoke so of the state they were shedding. For a while tearing down statues was practically a national pastime. The most famous of these tear downs, and the most symbolic, was the statue of Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB, across from Lubyanka prison – the building into which so many “political criminals” disappeared never to be heard from again.
I visited Russia in 2005, and while the signs of capitalism were evident the spirit of democracy seemed to have evaded the place. People had found democracy hard work, much harder than a party around a statue being pulled down, and had become complacent. The corruptocracy had begun to take hold, built on the remnants of the old KGB that everyone had so despised. The statue of Dzerzhinsky was gone, but his spirit remained.
Symbolic gestures are just that – symbolic. They accomplish nothing. They are easy, which is a big part of why they accomplish nothing – accomplishing something is hard. Long before the post-Charlottesville statue destruction craze was upon us, I opined about the removal of Confederate memorials. Monuments are what you make of them. It is the substance of accomplishment that actually makes a difference, and assigns to the monument its symbolism.
That is perhaps the saddest thing of all about the current madness that engulfs us – it accomplishes nothing. People have a good time, they feel better, but nothing really changes. A generation is deluded into thinking they did something when all they did was provide cover for the same-old same-old to keep going. It is the ultimate symbolism over substance.
In a world of media symbolism, what we really need is substance.