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What is to be done about Lenin? Coping with the relics of past regimes

Updated Wednesday 1st June 2011

The question of how Hungary approaches the memories of its Communist past has echoes for all cities with painful pasts.

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So, the past hangs around, does it?

A walk around the central part of almost any city will quickly reveal the presence of many commemorative public sculptures. Thus, for example, in Liverpool in the UK there are statues celebrating royalty, aristocrats and other famous people; memorials to the dead of various wars; commemorative plaques showing where famous people once lived; and shops selling Beatles memorabilia.

The memorial to those who died in the Hillsborough Disaster, outside Anfield Creative commons image Icon pgoulbou under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
The Hillsborough Memorial at the Anfield ground, Liverpool

At Anfield football ground, an eternal flame burns in memory of the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster, and there is the statue of Bill Shankly. On the banks of the River Mersey, there are many memorials to those who were lost at sea, mainly during the Second World War

Take a little time to think about commemorative statues, monuments or memorials in your local area (or in an area with which you are familiar). Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What people or events do the statues, monuments or memorials commemorate?
  2. Are you aware of any controversies surrounding the statues, monuments or memorials?
  3. Are any of these statues, monuments or memorials particularly important to you? (There could be many different kinds of answer to this question, but don’t worry if your answer is ‘no’.)

In many ways, statues, monuments and memorials can seem like a durable, immutable presence in the landscape. They may have been built in the past and commemorate people or events in the past, but they seem as if they will survive long into the future, unchanged.

Sometimes they are ill-treated, sometimes they are neglected, sometimes they seem just to be convenient perches for pigeons, but less often are they the subject of intense political debate.

Arguably, the very durability and immutability of statues, monuments and memorials may be one of the reasons they do not spark fierce political debate. Through their apparent permanence, they let you know their place – and consequently your place – in history.

However, in Hungary from 1989 onwards, the statues, monuments and memorials of the past suddenly became a very big issue, for ‘history’ was subject to revision. Through its monuments and symbols, the communist era continued to haunt the post-communist Hungarian state – maintaining a disturbing presence in the political debates of the day.

What is to be done about communist symbols in post-communist Hungary?

As Maya Nadkarni suggests in the article The death of socialism and the afterlife of its monuments: making and marketing the past in Budapest’s Statue Park, by the 1980s communist symbols had become an ordinary part of the Budapest cityscape, with meanings quite different from those that led to their construction.

The question in 1989, though, was political: in a newly forming democratic state, how could communist symbols be dealt with democratically?

Communist monuments could not be treated in the same way as communists had treated statues and monuments of previous eras, by undemocratic diktat.

Lenin in the Budapest Statue Park Creative commons image Icon joiseyshowaa under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Lenin statue in the Bupdapest statue park

Thus, the statues, monuments and memorials of the communist era were to be treated almost as if they were the dead bodies – the fallen – of a previous era, now gone forever, but nevertheless to be regarded with dignity, justly.

Imagine yourself in the immediate aftermath of communism in a former East European state (such as Hungary).

  1. What would you have liked to see happen to communist-era public statuary? What reasons do you have for this answer?
  2. Do you think your solution to dealing with communist symbols treats them democratically, with justice, and with dignity? Why or why not? And do you care?

The literary historian László Szörényi argued that a Statue Park should be created for communist-era public sculptures. The park would be home, as he envisaged it, to all the Lenin statues: a Statue Park located in a former forced-labour camp.

However, the proposal was not met with enthusiasm. Was it fair to treat Lenin in the same way as a political prisoner? Was this the right way to remember Lenin? Indeed, was this the right way to forget the past, by placing it in a prison camp?

For many, it did not seem very democratic, or very liberal.

A new site for the public sculptures was subsequently identified: a bare piece of land in the Tétény area, about half an hour’s drive from Budapest.

Following practices in many Western municipalities, tenders were invited for plans to build the park, including both architectural layouts and business forecasts. The competition was eventually won by an architect called Ákos Eleőd.

His tender probably succeeded because he understood that dealing with communist public sculptures was not as easy as creating either a capitalist-style theme park for them or a communist-style prison camp. Instead, the park would act more like a zoo: a place where the best specimens could be cared for, safely quarantined from post-communist public life, but easy enough to visit.

The statues were to be kept at a distance, yet not pushed so far away that they could not be visited occasionally. They were to become absent from the city, but not so absent that they were effectively purged from history.

For Ákos Eleőd, Statue Park was a way to memorialise the communist past, so that Hungarians need no longer be silent about the suffering they underwent. On the other hand, it was also about the future of a new liberal democratic state, requiring that the communist era be forgotten as new political traditions were created.

Yet, among Hungarians, the meanings associated with the statues were contested, variable and indeterminate. Recognising this, at a meeting on 5 December 1991, the General Assembly (Hungary’s new parliament) opted to vote on which statues were to be included in the Statue Park, and on which were not.

In their voting, the democratically elected representatives tried to take great care to recognise which statues irritated people, and which did not, as well as considering the historical and artistic value of the sculptures.

Ultimately, this was meant to be an exercise in democracy itself – a refusal to treat the statues in the same way that the communist regime had treated people. The ghosts of the communist past were being demonstrably, democratically, laid to rest or, for some at least, openly buried in a Statue Park.

For Nadkarni, however, the destruction or relocation of the statues did not just expel the communist past from the everyday landscape; it also repressed many of the personal and collective sentiments associated with the monuments.

It smacked of a Soviet-style political cleansing of the physical environment.

Nadkarni argues that, by ignoring calls for some statues to be left where they were, the General Assembly had used the statues’ removal to create the illusion that there was a democratically achieved consensus about how to treat them.

Nonetheless, there was no such consensus. For example, most argued that the statue of Captain Ostapenkó should be left where it was, at the main exit out of Budapest. Even so, it was one of only forty-one sculptures eventually relocated to Statue Park.

By claiming consensus when there was none, the General Assembly’s actions bore disturbing similarities to the one-party system in communist Hungary; the Assembly erased dissent.

Although the statues have lost the seriousness and significance they were meant to have under the communist regime, the remaining monuments bear witness to a past that has not really gone away. Despite being displaced, the statues continue to haunt Budapest, and Hungarian politics more generally.

Ostapenkó statue in the Budapest Statue Park Creative commons image Icon Cle0patra under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Captain Ostapenkó

You may feel this judgement on the General Assembly to be harsh, especially since it did openly debate the issues. However, the fate of these monuments continues to be politically contested. There was no consensus in the early days of the democratic regime, nor is there one now.

The attempt to make the past distant – politically and spatially – by removing the monuments to, and quarantining them in, Statue Park has had the paradoxical effect of keeping the past close by, such that it can still bear witness.

Furthermore, the statues left gaps after their removal. In some places, these empty spaces remain. The empty spaces become sites of absence: the location of something that is no longer there, yet which had been all too present.

Now, it is these absences that are present, visible in the ordinary landscape. These empty spaces themselves are constant reminders of how an awkward communist past was handled by post-communist Hungary. Absences also haunt Hungary (and elsewhere too).

In some places, pre-communist-era statues have been restored to their original positions, from where once they had been removed to be replaced by communist statues. There is an irony here: one erased past takes the place of another past, which is itself thereby erased. Each past vies for its proper place in the Hungarian landscape.

Unlike the public sculptures in Liverpool, those in Hungary – whether present or absent, whether distant or proximate – remain an unsettling presence in the landscape. Comparing Liverpool and Budapest, we might be drawn to conclude that the major difference is that the public sculptures in Hungary became contentious as a result of a regime change from a Soviet-style communism to a more Western-style liberal democracy.

However, we should not conclude that Liverpool’s statues, monuments and memorials are not contentious in some way or that they are unlikely to become so in the future.

Thus, for example, there is an ongoing campaign for justice over the death of 96 Liverpool fans in the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster, with the memorial at Anfield acting as a painful reminder that people’s suffering and loss continues.

In many ways, memorials such as this allow the past to be present, to provide a focus for public acts of memory and mourning. The situation in Budapest tells us more about how such public memorials function, and it is worth spelling this out.

The unsettling legacies of the past

We have seen that public sculptures can act to make present the intentions and ideologies of those who built them. In Budapest, for example, sculptures were the public face of both a faltering communist regime and also a new democratic state; they were used by each regime to appear both durable and also close to the people.

Consequently, sculptures projected communist ideologies backwards into the past as well as forwards into the future. They provided a set of reference points for the communist regime, showing where it was, where it was coming from and where it was going to.

Perhaps paradoxically, the removal, relocation and replacement of communist icons performed exactly the same function for the new democratic state. Through the destruction of some icons, the relocation of others to Statue Park and the return of pre-communist-era statues, the new Hungarian government projected itself both backwards into the past and forwards into the future.

Therefore, the lack of consensus in the new Hungary about how to dispose of the public sculptures properly was less to do with the statues’ association with a terrifying and terrible past than with how communist statues (whether in Statue Park or in their absence from the everyday landscape) acted as reminders that this past continued to shape present-day Hungary: in many ways it had not yet been properly dealt with. We can also see this problem in other places.

For example, geographer Karen Till, writing in The New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place has noted very similar issues in contemporary Berlin, with its dilemmas over handling the unsettling legacies of its Nazi past.

In these situations, terrible histories that cannot ever be quite left behind also suggest the possibility that the same terrors may return to haunt the world. Sometimes, this haunting can be imagined to take the shape of ghosts: ghosts who make demands on the living to resolve, or make restitution for, the injustices and horrors of the past.

This article is extracted from a Chapter by Steve Pile in the book Geographies of Globalisation, one of the core texts on The Open University course Living in a Globalised World.
You can try free samples of this course in the LearningSpace.

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