According to the American Heritage Dictionary, in a totalitarian regime, “the political authority exercises absolute and centralized control over all aspects of life, the individual is subordinated to the state, and opposing political and cultural expression is suppressed.”
For a moment, consider the implications of such absolute governance. All aspects of life are controlled and under one central authority. Education, art, and culture become tools for the state to advance political ends and to suppress unacceptable ways of thinking or viewing the past. History books are written with no necessary correlation to facts.
What happens to memorialization in a totalitarian state? When public remembrance is controlled by the state, what gets remembered and what gets forgotten?
During Stalin”s tyranny in the Soviet Union, millions of people were shipped to Siberia and/or killed by the secret police. However, the plethora of statues of Stalin that appeared during his lifetime across the Soviet Union were meant to depict him as a benevolent leader.
What happens if memorials become propaganda tools for “remembering” something that never happened or isn”t true?
One of our resources discusses the attempt to create a “cult of personality” for Stalin. What is a “ cult of personality” in a tyranny, and how is it meant to serve the ends of strengthening and maintaining dictatorial power?
As the photograph on the right indicates, controlling memorialization and the depiction of history does not necessarily control public memory. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, local statues of Stalin were felled.
In 1991, demonstrators pulled down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in Moscow. He was the founder and erstwhile head of the secret police. He initiated organized terror as a tool for controlling dissent and is considered responsible for innumerable deaths.
In a remarkable turn of events, the mayor of Moscow lobbied to resurrect Felix Dzerzhinsky”s statue in 2002, to put it back in place. The idea generated a heated controversy. Would replacing his statue grant the man and his deeds some degree of legitimacy, or would it, with a 180 degree flip, foster remembrance of a brutal man and terrible deeds that should never be repeated?
Could the same monument, the very same statue that glorified the man, serve as a cautionary reminder of totalitarian control?
Our resource materials also contain an interview with an award-winning artist who designed and sculpted Soviet–style memorials. He defends his work as art, worthy of still being seen in its own right. He was forced to create his memorials within the confines of rigid political and aesthetic limitations, yet he feels that his work still has merit.
Can there be good statues, aesthetically speaking, created under a totalitarian regime? What role should those memorials have in the post–totalitarian society? Are they themselves part of the historical record that needs to be preserved, or are they artifacts of propaganda that should be destroyed?
If the statues of Stalin were torn down after the fall of the Soviet Union, why wasn”t the Voortrekker Monument blown up and leveled in South Africa after the fall or apartheid? What similarities are there between the statues of Stalin and the Voortrekker Monument and what important differences?