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'The life of the state and the life of the people. They have no meeting point.' The history of tearing down political statues

Saddam statue topples
A U.S. soldier watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad on April 9, 2003. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevi)

Ten years ago this week a group of Iraqis –- with a crane handily supplied by the U.S. marines –- lassoed a statue of Saddam Hussein in the middle of a Baghdad square and toppled it to the ground: cheers followed in Washington -- and years of tears in Iraq.

The tragi-comic back story of the battle with Saddam’s statue was told in the New Yorker by journalist Peter Maass, who watched as Iraqis chipped away with a sledgehammer at the statue’s base, a symbolic act that mirrored the Bush administration’s bungled attempt at a quick, clean break from the dictator’s brutal regime.

A series of fumbles with American and Iraqi flags ensued, until the marine cavalry saved the day. It supplied the “iconic moment” of victory the TV cameras were hungry for, in spite of protests from some journos who were eager to tell the inconvenient truth, that the war was only beginning. Those who dissented were rewritten out of “history.”

“Very few Iraqis were there,” Maass wrote. “You can also see, from photographs as well as video, that much of the crowd was made up of journalists and marines.”  Nevertheless, the event neatly substituted for reality. And it was a great leap forward for the statue-toppling events that have now become de rigeur when dictators tumble.

In 2011, a sculptured golden fist that symbolized Moammar Gadhafi crushing a U.S. fighter plane was smashed by rebels, along with a life-size statue of the Libyan strongman. But fewer hacks were there to snap the moment. Statues of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were smashed with even less fanfare when the Tahrir Square protesters won the day.

Last month an amateur video showed opposition groups celebrating the destruction of a statue of Bashar Assad’s equally ruthless father, Hafez, in a newly-taken town.

But the statue-smashing tradition goes back much farther, to the ancient world, when newer conquerors would raze and smash the symbols of older ones.

But they lacked the technology and propaganda machines of later eras. In the 19th century, German-born artist Johannes Oertel painted a heroic picture of American patriots pulling down a statue of British king George III in Manhattan in 1776 – but eyewitness accounts contradicted his portrait of cheering native people, elegantly dressed women and children looking on. Rather, they said, it was a rag-tag mob.

Fast forward to the Soviet Union in 1991, when Moscow had its own stage-managed “iconic moment” to show the world that communism had collapsed.  

Nikolai Amelin, a 28-year-old street sweeper with a buff body and blond, chiseled features, was plucked from the crowd by a PR-smart aide of President Boris Yeltsin and asked to put a rope around the the massive statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky – the prime enforcer of Joseph Stalin’s terror. The crane Amelin was riding ripped the statue from its base. Overnight, he became the surprised, but triumphant, face of the New Russia.

“It was a decisive moment and it felt like a fantasy,” he told me a decade later, from his sleek central Moscow flat. Now a much-in-demand model, he commanded a wage that few Muscovites could dream of. But at the dawn of the plutocratic Putin era, his old revolutionary spirit was still simmering. He joined a protest movement against developers who were forcing the poorest market vendors from their patches of pavement.

“There are two parallel lives in Russia,” he said bitterly. “The life of the state and the life of the people. They have no meeting point.”

And Dzerzhinsky?

The 15 tonne statue that once loomed over the KGB’s sinister Lubyanka Square is resting in Moscow’s retirement home for old Soviet artifacts, outside the Central House of Artists. Last year the Moscow authorities announced it would be restored to its old glory – and awarded the title of an “object of cultural heritage.”

Olivia Ward covered the former Soviet Union from 1992-2002. She has reported on conflicts, politics and human rights there and in the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.





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