The toppling of the monument of Saddam Hussein on April 9 was seen by millions and replayed 24/7, but monuments not built can reveal as much about a country's true condition as ones put up and pulled down.
Barely a week after the statue of Hussein was brought down in Baghdad, a long-delayed proposal to build a monument in Moscow in honor of Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel prize winning pro-democracy dissident, was halted by an unlikely opponent. His widow, Yelena Bonner, bitterly opposes the project because she believes the human rights abuses, poverty and authoritarianism of Russia's political life today do not reflect the principles or vision and, thus, memory of her late husband.
"What is Russia today?" Bonner wrote in a widely-circulated open letter. "It is a country in which a third of its population lives below the poverty line…a country waging a bloody war in Chechnya…a country where nearly every day free mass media are being destroyed by political or financial pressure….this Russia violently contrasts with the idea of erecting a monument to Sakharov." Putting up a monument to Sakharov, she believes, would be a "very big deception."
Bonner's scathing description of Russia today is an indictment not only of the Putin government but also of American media commentary. Fragments of Russia's cruel economic collapse are occasionally reported in the US press, but the full dimensions of impoverishment, disintegration of the middle classes, and official corruption are perpetually underplayed. (See Stephen F. Cohen, "Failed Crusade" for the full story of the media's failure.)
Indeed, only a few days before Bonner spoke out, the New York Times published a boosterish piece–one of many in US business pages–about Russia, which served to obscure the true reality of Russian life. "People are getting happier," correspondent Michael Wines wrote, in a piece that was largely devoted to publicizing a new luxury mall in Moscow's suburbs. Like this New York Times article, most mainstream commentators buy the neoliberal view that Russia is a financial success story.
But ask an expert: Nobel prize winner and former Chief Economist at the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz recently observed in the Guardian that, "No rewriting of history can change the fact that neoliberal reform produced undiluted economic decline in Russia." A period during which "poverty and inequality increase enormously as a few become wealthy cannot be called a victory for capitalism or democracy."
Tragically, providing dramatic evidence of Russia's instability, only hours after Bonner expressed opposition to the monument, Sergei Yushenkov–the legislator who originally proposed the project–was gunned down outside his apartment in a political assassination. One of Russia's most prominent opposition politicians, Yushenkov sympathized with Bonner's views on Russia. Nevertheless, Yushenkov believed that a monument to Sakharov would help remind Russians "that the outstanding sons of our country clashed with the government" over human rights.
In the long run, no monument will improve the lives of tens of millions of people living below the poverty line or repair Russia's ravaged public health system, idle factories, decaying farms, polluted rivers, and collapsing educational system. Nor will it restore democratic accountability, bring back the thousands of soldiers and civilians killed in Chechnya, halt corrosive corruption or force oligarchs to reinvest the billions they've stolen and stashed in offshore bank accounts.
Yet, it is also true that the way a society thinks about its monuments reflects how it deals with its own past, present and future. Bonner's words should serve as a living monument to Sakharov's legacy–and a reminder to us that we are still not getting the real story about Russia from our media.