In the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia, which was only the third time I had been overseas and the first time I had been outside a western democracy. At that time the Soviet Union had just collapsed and the former nation had splintered into what was temporarily termed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Visiting Russia was a very different experience, and a dangerous one; another Australian there at the same time on a similar sort of exchange program, was robbed and stabbed, and eventually died of his injuries.
On about the second or third weekend I was in Moscow, one of my Russian colleagues told me to meet her in the middle of a particular Metro station platform, which I did. We then went up to the surface, caught a trolley bus, hopped off near a park, and walked for some distance into the park. It was a pleasant, sunny day and as we rounded a stand of shrubs, I saw what my colleague had brought me to see: lying on the ground were the remains of statues which had been spattered with red paint and torn from their plinths in assorted public places around Moscow. These were statues of some of the most murderous scum from the Communist regime which had blighted not only Russia, but much of eastern Europe and central Asia. They included Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, Kalinin and Sverdlov.
Everybody knows what a murderous psychopath Stalin was, who by some historians is considered to have killed more Soviet citizens than were killed in Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. However, the others are perhaps not as well known, but were just as guilty of mass murder.
This brings me to the removal of Confederate statues in parts of the United States. It is happening in many parts of the country and has been discussed ever since Dylann Roof murdered nine black Americans in a South Carolina church in 2015, in an attempt to “start a race war”. The neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, was ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee1.
The idiotic behaviour of Donald Trump, in pandering to the most extreme of his presumed support base, in saying initially that there was violence on both sides, apparently caused his staff to get him to read a statement subsequently decrying hate. However, subsequent to that scripted speech, he came out and stated again that there was violence on both sides2. At this speech, Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly’s body language, and his facial expression spoke volumes. He had the look of extreme embarrassment, and at least for part of the time was unable to look the audience in the face3.
One of Trump’s objections was that like many of the Confederacy who are memorialised with statues, people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also had slaves, and he asked should their statues be removed as well4. However, Trump, as usual, missed the point. People like Washington and Jefferson helped create the United States, whereas some 85 years later the Confederacy tried to destroy it by seceding, in part because the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln had opposition to slavery as part of his platform. Many of the Confederate statues were erected many decades after the civil war and some, rather than venerating the dead, were honouring the confederate cause. One can only imagine how black Americans would feel, when it is considered that more than 85,000 slaves died when in the United States, and perhaps as many as 1.5 million died in the American slave trade either in Africa or in transit5. Unsurprisingly, those with a modicum of empathy are not fond of these statues. Empathy is not something with which neo-Nazis are familiar.
It is often said that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and there are some, notably in the Murdoch press (e.g. Chris Kenny), who look upon the removal of these statues as some form of historical revisionism. As historian Tim Naftali said “The use of the term ‘revisionism’ in this matter is a red herring. History involves the ceaseless process of discovery, analysis, interpretation and reinterpretation. The issue at the moment is the symbolism of the statues. Most of those in our towns and cities represent the marking of territory by post-Civil War generations of segregationists who want to perpetuate ‘The Cause’. They were intended to humiliate and scare as much as to celebrate a common experience6” That is not something to revere. These statues would be best placed in a Museum, much as numerous ‘enemy’ artefacts are located in war or military museums across the planet, where their context is explained.
Jason Wilson (Guardian Australia) was actually in Charlottesville at the time of the protests and he tells a vastly different story to that of Trump, and confirms that almost all of the violence was by the neo-Nazis, and that by the counter-protesters was defensive7. Online, there have been several memes appear with images of groups of armed American antifascists marching. They weren’t from Charlottesville in 2017, they were from somewhere in western Europe in 1944. Here we go again.