ENGLISH VERSION: Another Huge Statue in Russia? Not Rare, but Hugely Divisive
Moscow does not exactly want for colossal statues.
Nothing says “Soviet Union” quite like the imposing “Worker and Collective Farm Girl,” with its hammer, sickle, forward stride and idealized physiques; or Lenin glowering down on the capital, albeit now staring at a Burger King.
What the city lacks is a spectacular monument to a religious figure, but the Russian Orthodox Church and the culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, are determined to change that. They have championed a project that will alter the cityscape by erecting an 82-foot-tall statue of St. Vladimir, Russia’s patron saint, atop one of the few hills in Moscow.
Muscovites have not embraced the idea. Tens of thousands have signed a petition against the statue, which is to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of St. Vladimir’s death. It is lost on no one that Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, already has a 162-year-old, 54-foot-tall monument to St. Vladimir and that Russia’s conflict with Ukraine helped inspire Moscow’s my-statue-is-bigger-than-yours version.
Aside from the bloody fight to control territory, the conflict encompasses a fierce contest over identity, and over who can claim descent from St. Vladimir, also known as Vladimir the Great, a warrior prince of mythic proportions who established both the Russian Orthodox Church and the prototype of the modern Russian state.
The founding saga holds that Vladimir the Great, grand prince of Kievan Rus, the first eastern Slavic state, compelled his people to convert to Christianity in the year 988, performing mass baptisms in the Dnieper River in Kiev.
Recently, the Kremlin has made a concerted effort to wrap the historical mantle of St. Vladimir around Russia to solidify its claim to Crimea and undermine Ukraine’s legitimacy as a state.
In a speech in December, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia startled historians by abruptly elevating Crimea to holy ground, akin to the sacred site in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims the Noble Sanctuary. Basically, he said, forget about Kiev: Crimea is the true wellspring of Russia and its central faith.
“Crimea is where our people live, and the peninsula is of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralized Russian state,” Mr. Putin said. “It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Rus.”
Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, responded by issuing an executive order for Ukraine to commemorate Volodymyr, as the saint is known there, as the founder of the medieval state “Rus-Ukraine.”
Russian lawmakers promptly accused him of inventing history, as Ukraine did not exist as a state at that time.
“The fabric of the history of Kievan Rus looks very much like a blanket, with each country trying to pull all of it to its side,” Ekaterina Chimiris, a political scientist, wrote in an essay published online by the Russian International Affairs Council.
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The Russian government plans to spend about $20 million this year commemorating St. Vladimir, including building the statue, according to a report in the business daily RBC.
Supporters of the statue generally reject the idea that it is intended to rival the one in Kiev, or that it is being built because a certain other leader named Vladimir is hugely popular right now. But those ideas creep into many comments on the subject.
The statue must reside on a promontory high over the Moscow River because “it resembles the hill on the Dnieper,” said Valentin V. Lebedev, the chairman of an organization called the Union of Orthodox Citizens.
Nikolay Svanidze, a historian and member of the Kremlin’s Human Rights Council, said that the celebrations should draw a parallel between the two Vladimirs. “Prince Vladimir was baptized in Crimea, while Putin ‘returned’ Crimea to Russia,” RBC quoted Mr. Svanidze as saying.
The two main statue protagonists are the church and the Russian Military-Historical Society, a quasi-public organization shuttered after the Russian Revolution and revived by Mr. Medinsky, the culture minister, to help promote the old imperial doctrine of orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality.
“Moscow will take this step toward restoring historical memory,” said Vladimir Legoyda, the head of the information department for the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, noting that Soviet monument builders gave precedence to Marxism and Leninism.
“The Russian church is convinced that the Christian identity of European capitals is not something that should be taken for granted,” he wrote in an email. “Any action to support that will allow us, the people of a multicultural world, to remember our roots at least for a second.”
Opposition to the Vladimir statue started slowly, but gathered steam as Muscovites realized that the city was about to erect yet another grandiose monument on a rare green space with zero public input.
The most notorious precedent is a 321-foot black statue of Peter the Great astride a sailing vessel that towers over an island in the Moscow River. Local legend has it that Zurab Tsereteli, something of a court artist for the previous mayor, welded Peter’s head onto a statue of Christopher Columbus that failed to sell. (The artist has long denied the story.)
Perhaps the only statue Muscovites have been able to remove was one of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the ruthless secret police, who once stood in Lubyanka Square. The rumor that Mr. Putin will resurrect it never dies.
Opponents of the St. Vladimir statue have concentrated their arguments on technical and legal grounds. They maintain that the hill crest is too unstable to support the statue, although the city’s architectural council limited the height to a maximum of 82 feet for safety reasons.
Others dismiss the statue on aesthetic grounds, saying it will mar a sweeping view of the capital from a southwestern promontory called Sparrow Hills. The area is already known for the Gothic Stalinist skyscraper of Moscow State University.
“It is one of the most beautiful views in Moscow” said Natalya Simyonova, an art historian who signed the petition against the statue. “Why destroy it?”
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Proponents of the statue are unmoved by such arguments. During a recent interview, Mr. Medinsky was dismissive of the online petition against the statue posted on Change.org. Brandishing a paper cup, he argued that he could easily gather 50 million online signatures demanding that coffee, tea and hot chocolate be banned as harmful.
Turning to history, the culture minister said that in converting to Christianity, Vladimir had determined the entire pattern of development of the Russian state, whereas Kiev had lost its independence.
“The Moscow princes are the direct descendants of Prince Vladimir, even at that time when Kiev was part of the territory of Poland,” he said. “Vladimir has a greater connection to Moscow than to Kiev.”
Mr. Lebedev, the Orthodox activist, said it was especially important to build the statue “given the modern political situation.”
“This year is the year of the struggle for our heritage,” he added, “the struggle with those who want us to abandon this heritage and bring Russia to its knees.”
Salavat Scherbakov, who won a contest to design the St. Vladimir sculpture, described the struggle over Ukraine and Vladimir as something that struck at the very heart of the Russian soul.
“This is a big historical problem for us,” he said. “Ukraine, Kiev and in this case Crimea are not like some hockey match that we suddenly lost. It is a deadly dispute inside a very old family.”
Barring unforeseen changes, he said, construction could start any day and allow for a