Confederate monuments deserve Soviet treatment

In Oct. 28, 1956, as a symbol of protest against the Russian control of their country, Hungarians pull down the statue of late Russian Premier Joseph Stalin during a rebellion in Budapest, Hungary.
In Oct. 28, 1956, as a symbol of protest against the Russian control of their country, Hungarians pull down the statue of late Russian Premier Joseph Stalin during a rebellion in Budapest, Hungary. AP

Budapest’s Freedom Square hosts a prominent and controversial Soviet war memorial. Hungarians regularly argue for its removal, but it remains unmoved and guarded. It is an exception.

The bulk of Soviet-era statues in Budapest and in countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain have been removed, relocated, and reinterpreted. The idea is not to erase history, but to contextualize it. And now, as recent events and President Trump rekindle the debates surrounding Confederate statues and monuments, America should look to other countries’ tortured histories and controversial memorials to get a grip on how to handle its own.

In Hungary, Freedom Square’s remaining Soviet monument is a fenced off, sometimes vandalized reminder of a WWII liberating army. Notably located, the Soviet obelisk stands next to the U.S. Embassy, just below the ambassador’s window. Unlike other U.S.S.R. monuments in Budapest, a treaty guarantees this one’s place and preservation.

Other Communist monuments, however, have been removed and relegated to a final resting place just outside of town in Memento Park. The park boasts “the biggest statues of the cold war” and is a lesson in how to reinterpret a nation’s painful past. Supersized statues of Communist-era commissars stand quietly in the elements, without interpretation. Nearby, however, a museum barracks full of educational material puts the era and objects into complete and nuanced context. School groups and tourists visit regularly.

Memento Park’s creation was hailed at the time by Hungary’s President Árpád Göncz for its measured approach. Göncz said it “utilizes politically neutral means of art to emphasize the dignity of democracy and the responsibility of historical thinking.” America could use its own Memento Park for Confederate monuments to present and interpret these symbols and statues of a defeated past. Care and context could create an understanding of the past, but not a reinvigorated living history.

Eastern Europe remains instructive. Hungary is not the only country to move its monuments from their previous pedestals to less threatening presentations and detoxified destinations. Tallinn, Estonia has a field of bronze and stone sculptures strewn about in an outdoor exhibition at the Maarjamäe Palace. There is something disarming about a larger-than-life sized Stalin lying on his back on the ground or seeing Lenin’s brutal bust resting its chin on overgrown lawns.

In Prague, a Soviet IS-2m heavy tank on a massive stone block was erected to honor the Soviet tank crews who fought Nazi forces and helped free Czechoslovakia at the end of WWII. Soviet tanks, however, also reminded Czechoslovaks of a pernicious recent past - they were used to put down the 1968 Prague Spring uprising. Following the 1989 Velvet Revolution, a group of Czechoslovak artists took buckets of paint and visually disarmed the formerly ominous Soviet Tank Square memorial. It is now known as the Pink Tank.

Occupied and captive Eastern European nations may have had an easier time removing the symbols and statues of their Soviet occupiers and oppressors, but even the Russians themselves put many of their Soviet-era monuments to pasture. Shortly after the 1991 Moscow coup that tried to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev and helped end the Soviet empire, statues of former heroes, ruthless functionaries, and self-aggrandizing leaders were taken down. Soviet sculptural detritus was moved to Gorky Park’s “Graveyard to Fallen Monuments.” In its stillness, the Fallen Monuments park still arouses dread — infamous figures such as “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky, the secret Soviet police founder, stir strong emotions.

Despite Eastern Europe’s and Russia’s rapid monument removal following the upheavals at the end of the last century, there are now movements to resurrect the past, rehabilitate the rotten, and relitigate history. In Russia, some of the Sovietica is being salvaged and Stalin is being painted positively by Vladimir Putin.

Budapest, too, is a perfect example of how expediency and opportunism drives politicians and parties to leverage symbols of the past to score popular points today. While a national consensus continues to revile its Soviet past, there is also a movement to use symbolism and a redacted past to rewrite a new national narrative. Freedom Square is now home to a controversial memorial that seemingly absolves Hungary for its Holocaust role, portraying the entire country as victim. In the history game, it is always easier for countries to blame others for their fate, but harder for a nation to face its own past squarely.

The good news? Freedom Square also hosts a striding, sunny Ronald Reagan statue moving confidently towards the still-standing Soviet obelisk. A nearby Budapest tech park privately put up a statue of computer visionary and Apple founder Steve Jobs. In Hungary, enlightened modern history seems in a race to outweigh and out-monument the past.

The United States may be in a similar race. A new, out-of-the-way museum of Confederate statues would be a good start. Finding an appropriate place and context to install removed monuments is the challenge. “Memento Park Guam” sounds about right.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu or on Twitter @KounalakisM.