15 Sep. 2021 21:30
by Paul Robinson
For most of us, and most of the time, statues are part of the backdrop, something we walk past without paying much attention. But recently, in many countries, they have become part of a political battlefield where a number of groups are trying to take control of historical memory in order to shape the future.
In the case of Russia, attention was drawn more to a handful of statues communists erected to honor Joseph Stalin or the founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky. These are private initiatives, however, and they tell us little about the ideological leanings of the Russian state itself. For that we have to look at state-funded monuments.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown his weight on a number of these. A decade ago, for example, he supported the erection of a statue for the Tsarist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, whose combination of reforms and massive resistance to a revolution matched Putin’s own image as the restorer of Russian statehood.
More recently, Putin attended the inauguration of the Wall of Mourning in Moscow – a memorial dedicated to the victims of communist oppression – as well as the consecration of the Sretensky Monastery, dedicated to Christians murdered by the Bolsheviks. Putin’s participation in these two events highlighted his stance on communism – an stance that is misunderstood by critics who attribute his intent to restore the Soviet Union.
The head of the Sretensky Monastery, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, is also the driving force behind a new monument that was unveiled near Pskov last week. This celebrates the 800th birthday of Alexander Newski, Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev and Vladimir. At its location on the shores of Lake Peipus, on the Russian-Estonian border, Nevsky defeated the Teutonic Knights in 1242 and thus saved Russia from conquest.
In his speech at the inauguration of the 50-tonne monument, at the center of which the Grand Duke, his knights and their banners are depicted, Putin emphasized Nevski’s contribution to Russian statehood, saying that Nevsky “lived in a difficult period in the history of our fatherland, when the impending disappearance, actually the disappearance, the loss of our statehood was tragic reality. “
According to the President, “this victory brought the enemy’s attacks to a halt and showed everyone – in the West and in the East – that Russia’s strength had not been broken and that there were people on Russian soil who were ready to fight for it without themselves to spare yourself. ” Quoting Mikhail Lomonosov’s words engraved on Alexander Nevski’s grave, Putin extolled him as a figure who “tamed barbarism in the East and broke the envy of the West,” adding, “His legacy was the strong, centralized Russian state created by his descendants. “
It is typical of Putin’s rhetoric that he emphasizes statehood. The need for a “strong, centralized Russian state” is and has always been a central point of his worldview. But the monument to Alexander Nevsky is symbolic for reasons that go far beyond that and have to do with Putin’s invocation of an outside threat to Russia.
As Putin suggested, Nevsky had to fight against both the West and the East. But his approach to the two threats was very different. As the famous battle against the Teutonic Knights on the wintry ice of Lake Peipus makes clear, Nevsky decided to fight against the forces that stood for the West. He also fought and defeated the Swedes, as evidenced by his title “Nevsky”, which refers to his victory over them on the Neva in 1240.
In contrast, Nevsky made peace with the East in the form of the Mongols. He collected tributes for the Mongol Khan from his subjects and suppressed any uprising against the Mongols in his empire. The difference is clear, and it should be noted that the status of saint Alexander Nevsky enjoyed in the Russian Orthodox Church is not the result of his military victories over the Western Crusaders, but of his success in achieving peace with the Mongols to back up.
A common explanation for why Nevsky fought the West but made peace with the East is that the former was believed to be a more existential threat. The Teutonic Knights wanted to convert the Russians to Catholicism by force. The Mongols, on the other hand, only wanted tribute and were content when the Russians ruled themselves and kept their own culture and religion.
This is a comparison that some people still believe to be valid today. In the West you can see the bearer of a universalist ideology that he wants to spread across the globe. The east (and especially China) is interested in trade and growth, but not in ideology. He doesn’t care what systems other countries have. In the eyes of some, this makes the West the more threatening of the two. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted in an article in 2016, “It was the policy of Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky to submit for a time to the rulers of the Golden Horde, who tolerated Christianity, and thus the right of Russians to their own belief and to it to decide, to preserve their fate, in spite of attempts by Western Europe to bring the Russian land under its full control and to rob the Russians of their identity. “
“I am confident that this wise and forward-looking policy is in our genes,” concluded Moscow’s senior diplomat.
Two weeks ago Lavrov spoke at the unveiling of a second monument to Alexander Nevsky on the grounds of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. And again he took the opportunity to target the West. “We are the target of attempts to get angry, to lose our nerve and to throw us off balance, especially from the west. But unlike in the times of Alexander Nevsky, our backs are covered in the south and in the east,” he said.
The appearance of two state-funded monuments to Alexander Nevsky in two weeks is more than a coincidence. The Russian state sends a warning. The monument on Lake Peipus is particularly significant, facing Russia’s NATO border and facing west. For Nevsky, the real danger came from the west, not the east. It seems that his current successors share this opinion with him.
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Paul Robinson is a professor at the University of Ottawa. He writes on Russian and Soviet history, military history, and military ethics, and is the author of the blog Irrusianality.
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