The kind of indiscriminate destruction of public monuments along the lines of what is being perpetrated across America by BLM and Antifa might resemble a revolution, but revolutions don’t necessarily destroy all art, and neither does the wholesale destruction of symbols guarantee a regime change.
To be sure, the demolition of the heritage of an old regime was the high mark of the French Revolution. More recently, during the 2013 Ukrainian Maidan uprising, statues of Vladamir Lenin were toppled and a de-communization program was enacted in order to remove all public artwork bearing any marks of Soviet propaganda. And yet the same corrupt oligarchs remained in power, begging the conclusion whether de-communization was merely a distraction to keep the ideologically-minded occupied while those in power continue their machinations.
A Time of Real Revolution
By contrast, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was definitely a regime changer, and was sealed in the blood of millions of people who perished in the subsequent civil war. However, the destruction of art that went along with that revolution was rather limited in scope as the Russian Communists, then as now, prided themselves in preserving their people’s heritage.
There is no denying that many great treasures were destroyed as the Communist regime sought to clear space for its monumental propaganda. Among the most notable of the works obliterated by the Bolsheviks were the monuments of General Mikhail Skobelev in Moscow and of Catherine the Great in Yekaterinoslavl. In addition to that, all two-headed eagles of the Romanovs’ royal coat of arms were removed and many streets in Russian cities were renamed.
Among the works of art that were spared was a statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg called “The Bronze Horseman,” which Catherine the Great had commissioned to be erected. The horseman statue was the inspiration behind the eponymous poem by the early 19thcentury Romantic poet Alexander Pushkin. The poem, which is a stirring condemnation of autocracy, depicts a protagonist who is driven mad by the ghost of the horseman,
Bolshevik iconoclasm commenced in the spring of 1918, half a year after the coup that brought Lenin to power. However, it’s worth noting that the first round of monument removal started a year earlier under the liberal Provisional government when it toppled the monument of the hated statesman Piotr Stolypin. It didn’t end with Stolypin though, and because the Provisional Government failed to contain the revolutionary momentum, it was overthrown within months.
On April 12, 1918, Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and People’s Commissar on The Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, signed a decree that ordered the demolition and removal from public view any “monuments to tzars and their servants that do not represent historical and artistic significance." Note that the limiting principle- historical and artistic significance- was written into the scheme from the start. How faithfully it was followed was another question altogether.
Not All Art was Destroyed
The original Bolsheviks had been part of the Russian intelligentsia, and thus were relatively well educated. Yet Lenin, according to his biographer Victor Sebesteyn, took little interest in arts and letters. Stalin did, unfortunately, and Lunacharsky, who spoke seven languages, wrote plays and essays, and was acquainted with leading European and Russian cultural figures, was famous for it.
When in 1917, the Red troupes bombed the Kremlin and nearby cathedrals, Lunacharsky, who according to Sebesteyn was considered an overly emotional and incurable romantic by the Bolsheviks, resigned from his post in protest of the attacks on Russian cultural heritage. To placate him, Lenin allowed his comrade to create museums out of the former palaces of the tzars. There is a passage in George Orwell’s Animal Farm describing the animals walking around the estate right after the ouster, and admiring it in awe. It is meant to mirror the moment in the Russian Revolution when the Bolsheviks decided to preserve tsarist art for the people.
Nevertheless, even though Lunacharsky attempted to save some art, his influence was not limitless. The directives to destroy monuments often came from Lenin personally, and demolition was conducted hastily, and without much thought. Contrary to the Bolshevik’s original stated intent, beautiful sculptures were obliterated because it was feared that they had the potential to attract people to the wrong cause. At the same time, certain monuments were left standing for ideological reasons, chiefly because they were seen as inspiring patriotism. The decision about which statues were demolished and which ones were left standing, was often guided by Alexander Pushkin’s opinion about the tzars they commemorated.
Lunacharsky had his differences with Stalin, but actually died of natural causes. For decades his legacy was forgotten, but after the death of Stalin his daughter promoted him as the friend of the arts. Her characterization of him took off in the 1960’s and 70’s, when Soviet dissidents remembered Lunacharsky as the “good” Bolshevik.
Although Lunacharsky was, unlike many of his comrades, no terrorist, the later dissident view of him might be too generous. As Commissar on the Enlightenment he was naturally a sensor, and as such ruined many artists. In fact, some of his critics believe that author Mikhail Bulgakov described his Communist nemesis in several personages present in his novel The Master and Margarita, including the characters of Woland or Satan. In particular, a scene in the novel where Woland holds a ball that Bulgakov based on the revolutionary decadence Lunacharsky and his artist friends engaged in at parties. They were held in stately Moscow mansions that the Bolsheviks had stolen from their owners, where the guests remember young women attending these parties in nothing but shoes and feathers in their hair.
Not a Revolution but a Distraction
In the end, the Bolsheviks preserved Russian heritage because they were not insecure. They were doctrinaire Marxists, who were extremely confident that they were on the right side of history. One that they viewed as a violent progression from one stage to the next, with each stage being a stepping stone for what is come. Lenin believed that proletarian art should be built on the foundation of bourgeois art, and Lunacharsky thought that the Bolsheviks had to obtain highest culture to create a new free society. For all the destruction they perpetrated, the Bolsheviks still saw themselves in the context of Western tradition, and even if they championed art that broke with the past- as, incidentally, Lunacharsky did -they still had an appreciation for the West's historic achievements which they wanted to bring to the masses.
In this way, they were very different from the sub-Animal Farm woke vandals of today. Among the current comrades, there are no Lunacharsky’s to be found among them, no connoisseurs of art or speakers of seven languages. Great art was never inaccessible to the upper middle class mobs, it's just that they are simply uninterested in the aesthetic value of the artifacts they deface and reduce their historical significance only to its propensity to offend some designated protected group.
The New Left that emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s rehashed Marx in postcolonial anti-Western terms, and saw themselves not as a continuation of Western history, but rather as upending the West itself. Today, their descendants are rampaging through our cities, vandalizing or demolishing one monument after another because those statues stand as a testimony to the unmatched superiority of Western art as an inherent good that belongs to all. In short, those statues' very existence represents a stunning rebuttal to their entire woke ideology.
Nor can the Wokies be considered true revolutionaries, since the people currently in charge of American institutions will remain in charge tomorrow. Furthermore, the ideology the rioters are ratifying by looting, arson, and the toppling of monuments is not some insurgent counter-cultural idea they picked up from some fringe blog or pamphlet, which the powers that be are trying to suppress. It is an ideology that has dominated corporate culture, the media, and educational institutions for decades. The rioters are simply executing the will of their prominent elders.
What we are witnessing is in fact more like the Ukrainian Maidan uprising, where their iconoclasm is instrumental to those in power. It’s a slight of hand designed to distract the people from the fact that there will not be a positive shift in either material condition, or personal and intellectual life. They are faux revolutionaries who only act out on the public art because they are allowed to do so.
Photo Credit- the Wall Street Journal