(Wrote this in the summer of 2017 for the Gainesville Sun. Still relevant today.)
Stalin’s got a busted nose.
Shattered in transit, it makes “Old Joe’s” legendary scowl even more pronounced.
His cold granite visage once stood sentinel at the Bolshoi. Now he resides in more humble digs – a leafy park near the banks of the Moscow River.
In truth, Stalin – let’s call him the Soviet Robert E. Lee – has nothing to smile about.
He is surrounded by a phalanx of grotesque figures – some kneeling, some writhing in pain, some with empty eyes and twisted mouths.
Collectively, they resemble nothing so much as demons of the fiery hell Old Joe has surely been consigned to.
And lest anyone forget the “heritage” this man wrought, just over Stalin’s left shoulder is a boxy, cage-like affair containing scores of stone heads – anguish written on each face.
“Victims to the Totalitarian Regime,” we are informed.
Not too far away, Lenin – we’ll call him Russia’s George Washington – enjoys somewhat more generous treatment. Behind him are large aluminum symbols of the USSR – a giant hammer and sickle, a colorful “CCCP.”
But even Lenin doesn’t get off scott-free in Art Muzeon Park – AKA the Park of Fallen Memorials.
Arrayed around him are four gaunt, painfully thin and twisted figures by the sculptor O.N. Garkushenko. One is titled “Descent Into Hell.”
Their proximity leaves little to interpretation – however well intended Lenin’s revolution, Russia’s 70-year experiment in Soviet communism went horribly awry.
In Muzeon, the gang’s all here. There is a bust of Brezhnev and a marble of Marx. Kosygin looks queasy, Serdlov dispeptic and Dzerzhinsky depressed.
Each is accompanied by a disclaimer: “This work is historically and culturally significant, being the memorial construction of the Soviet era, on the themes of politics and ideology.”
The Russians are nothing if not pragmatic.
And in Muzeon they can teach Americans something about how to memorialize people and events that many of us would just as soon forget.
I was visiting Russia when Charlottesville burned with rage, Trump excused the nazis and Gainesville said no to Richard Spencer’s bid for a University of Florida podium. Watching these events from afar, I searched for Russian parallels that might lend context to my own country’s current flirtation with the politics of racism, polarization and discontent.
Not many clues in St. Petersburg. That historic city on the Neve seems these days to be infatuated with all things Tsarist (from Ivan the terrible one to Peter and Catherine the great ones.)
The good and bad of it all being good for tourism, they say.
But Moscow is 400 miles and seemingly two centuries removed from Tsar Peter’s city. If there is anything like a mass infatuation in evidence, it is surely with Putin’s “strong” leadership. His stellar popularity polls must make The Donald green with envy.
Moscow, a bustling city of 12 million, is reinventing itself at warp speed. New money is everywhere – in modern glass skyscrapers, sleek sports cars and luxury condos. Grim, gray Kruschev-era apartments are being renovated to resemble Miami high-rises. Immigrants from breakaway republics flock there in search of jobs. And a baby-boom is afoot – helped along by generous government subsidies to encourage procreation,
After the fall of communism in 1992, Soviet statues and busts were torn down by the hundreds, mostly to be left in crumbling piles. But some have since been “rehabilitated” in Muzeon Park.
Not to be glorified, however.
Nor are they alone. And that is both the genius and the beauty of this park.
Muzeon is a sculpture garden, and Joe and Vladimir and the rest rank as little more than sideshows in the larger context of this magnificent public space.
Not 200 yards from Stalin is a serendipitous tribute to Old Man Mazoy, who, we are told, saved Russia’s rabbits by plucking them out of a flood with his rowboat. Within Lenin’s disapproving line of sight is Shtok’s “The Lying,” a graceful bronze nude shrugging off her nightgown. Next to the aluminum Soviet symbols are hundreds of small statues in a cluster. Angels and bears and children, oh my. Some are cracked and flawed. Some whimsical. Some sobering.
And then there’s the giant hand.
Maybe it’s just me, but the giant hand seems to be waving a merry bye-bye to Old Joe and his gang of thugs.
Moscow does not believe in tears.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.