The political pronouncements of the Russian government can, sometimes, be nuanced, inscrutable even. But just as often the men in ill-fitting suits can’t resist a grand gesture. One such symbolic blunderbuss is the plan — recently approved by the Moscow City Parliament and backed by President Putin — to erect a giant statue of Vladimir the Great on a hill above Moscow. The 25m monument to the sainted prince who brought Christianity to Kiev in the tenth century — and who has long been the subject of a historiographical turf-war between Russia and Ukraine — will essentially be a beardy bronze billboard announcing the current political agenda: Ukraine belongs to Russia and Russia belongs to the Orthodox Church.
Although the very point of public monuments is that they don’t get, and don’t require, much further explanation, some context might be needed here. Vladimir is one of those burly, sword-wielding hunks who populate the grey zone between myth and history. This enterprising prince, who is known as Volodymyr in Ukraine, secured his place in history in around 988 by forcing the population of his kingdom — the third-generation Viking-Slav collab known as “Rus” — to abandon paganism in favour of Christianity. The move was most likely politically motivated, a condition of his marriage to Anna, the sister of Byzantine emperor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer (epic name, epic geopolitical influence), but Vladimir was only too happy to comply: not only had Christianity enjoyed some earlier popularity among the Eastern Slavs, but, chroniclers tell us, the prince had been doing some market-research on monotheisms and had taken a liking to Christianity’s comparatively relaxed stance on foreskins, booze and bacon sandwiches.
Vladimir’s Kiev-based state stretched, almost, from the Black Sea to the Baltic. But, from the 11th century onwards, under the dual pressures of fraternal discord and Mongol invaders, it slowly disintegrated into a cluster of rival statelets. In the course of the late Middle Ages, these lands were acquired and rebranded by the upstart new Grand Duchy of Muscovy, which sought to replace Kiev and bolster its own claim as the successor state to the Rus. As Muscovy morphed into Russia, and then the Soviet Union, and then back to Russia again, this connection with Vladimir and his Camelot-on-the-Dnieper court remained central to national identity, both officially and unofficially.
Meanwhile Vladimir’s alter ego, true yellow-and-blue hero Volodymyr, was hailed by many Ukrainians as the founder of a proto-Ukrainian state with little connection to their bossy northern neighbour. His symbolic importance grew after independence in 1991: the controversial prince went straight on the money and he hasn’t left the one hryvnia note since. Like author Nikolai Gogol and the spelling of Kiev/Kyiv, Vlad/Volod’s putative passport became a favourite topic for narky Wikipedia edit-warriors who try to straighten out the tangled ties between Russia and Ukraine while failing to conceal their froth-mouthed nationalism. (Serious-face historical observation: 19th-century notions of nationhood have little relevance for medieval warlords.)
All these battles over symbols and spellings may seem rather quaint now, as real, bloody war rages in Donbas(s). But they remain important: the propaganda which underpins popular support for Russian troops and Russian-backed separatists relies not just on the demonisation of the “fascist” Ukrainian government, but on the continual, nagging undermining of the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood. As nationalist leaders have always known, people put more weight on the allegiances of millennium-old men of myth than on constitutions or treaties or the lived experiences of the past 20 years. Moscow’s recent Vlad-fad and its statuesque new incarnation help to fuel the opinion, widespread among Russians (and not just Russians) that Ukraine has no independent history of its own and is not, therefore, “a proper country”. (I know that there are plenty of Ukrainian nationalists with a pretty tendentious view of historical facts too.)
Vladimir has a particularly immediate political resonance: in a speech last December, Putin declared the newly acquired territory of Crimea to be a holy place akin to what the Temple Mount is for Jews and Muslims: “It was here in Crimea, in Chersonesus, that Prince Vladimir was baptised, and he baptised Rus. Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force for the state. It was on this spiritual soil that our ancestors first, and for all time, became aware of themselves as a single people.” Vladimir turns out to be the rugged miracle man that can justify the absorption of Crimea and the dismantling of the “myth” of Ukrainian independence. Vladimir the Great, I mean, not Vladimir Putin; that the current president shares his name is just a happy coincidence. Right?
There’s a third big Vladimir in Russian history, one who is now very much yesterday’s man, both in Russian political discourse and in the urban space of Moscow — Vladimir Ilich Lenin. The symbolic grip over the city exerted by the human statue that lies embalmed in its eternal pyramid next to the Kremlin seems to weaken with every faddish marketing prank that besmirches Red Square, and the cult of Lenin seems to have been permanently eclipsed by that of jolly Generalissimus Joseph Stalin, “winner” of the Second World War. One wonders what this forgotten figurehead — and militant atheist — would make of Putin’s suggestion that Orthodoxy is fundamental to Russian statehood.
He would probably have to admit that, after a 70-year dalliance with secularism, plus the occasional flirtation with cults of personality, the mutually codependent relationship between Orthodoxy and autocracy, initiated by Vladimir in 988, is very much back on. Some certainly welcome its return: “We’ve been shy about emphasising the fundamental Christian character of Russian culture,” Vladimir Khomyakov, a member of the group that lobbied for the statue and Orthodox-nationalist activist, told Afisha. “There’s no need to be shy: that’s incorrect and muddle-headed. Setting up a monument to Vladimir is a way of returning to our roots and acknowledging our civilisation.”
In the past few years, the increasingly prominent role of the post-Soviet Orthodox Church in the government-sanctioned idea of Russian nationhood and the Kremlin’s increased political and material support for the Church as an institution have been obvious, especially thanks to the causes celebres of Pussy Riot and, more recently, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan. Thus far the primary architectural expression of the Church’s rediscovered worldly power has been the blingy dome of the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a dominant central Moscow landmark known for its underground garages and strict no-singing, no-dancing, no-balaclavas policy. At only a quarter of its height, and located in the south of the city, the proposed Vladimir statue won’t boss the skyline like the cathedral, but it will be practically ubiquitous thanks to its strategic positioning on the precipitous edge of the Sparrow Hills that overlook the city.
The proposed location of the statue has attracted criticism in the form of a petition with over 17,000 signatures [this could go up before publication], both because of the dangers of building on the geologically unsound clifftop and because it would contravene the protected status of the environs of Moscow State University, the elegantly terrifying Stalinist skyscraper that is one of the city’s best-known landmarks. The blocking of this sight line is clearly deliberate — a further attempt to undo the architectural legacy of the capital’s anti-clerical phase, when the onion domes of holy Moscow were replaced with red stars and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was a swimming pool.
The location has another symbolic function too: in 2013 the nature reserve, observation platform and funicular that comprise Sparrow Hills Park were handed over to the management team behind the transformation of Gorky Park, the manicured playground of wifi, yoga and boules that became a symbol of the (widely welcomed) embourgeoisement of selected public spaces in the capital. For an area like Sparrow Hills, long associated with escaping the pressures of the city centre, inclusion in the riparian pleasure garden of Gorky Park seemed like a natural move, and a further vindication of the appeasement-through-improvement policies associated with city culture minister Sergei “the acceptable face of United Russia” Kapkov. Now, with the arrival of the glowering prince, and the long-awaited removal of Kapkov from government, the message is clear: control, or even the illusion of control, over public space will no longer be ceded to bike-riding liberals as a bread-and-circuses sop for their lack of political agency. Playtime is over.
But for the Moscow City Government’s main interaction with the landscape to be characterised by propaganda, not pop-up restaurants, really marks a return to a long-established norm. The mayoralty of Yuri Luzhkov, who fell from grace in 2010, was a carnival of tasteless public statuary, with thousands of aesthetically and historically dubious bronze creatures willed into being by Luzhkov and his court artist Zurab Tsereteli. Luzhkov’s desire to put a personal stamp on his fiefdom certainly smacked of the political insecurity of the 90s and Tsereteli’s scattershot ugliness was redolent of that era’s postmodern eclecticism. The unmissable emblem of his project — the carbuncular Peter the Great statue on the river Moscow — is a telling counterpoint to Vladimir: whereas the latter seems impeccably Slavic, the former is very much a man of the 90s, all western influence, free trade and weird cutesy little flags.
But, these specifics notwithstanding, Luzhkov’s exercise of central authority through unsolicited statuary drew on long-established practice. The first large-scale public statue erected on Russian soil, the so-called Bronze Horseman, was Catherine the Great’s tribute to Peter the Great, installed in St Petersburg in 1782 as a means of shoring up the German usurper’s legitimacy. The whiff of apocalypse about this rider on a rearing steed, in tandem with the longstanding pagan connotations of such idols, inspired Alexander Pushkin’s epic poem The Bronze Horseman (1833), in which Peter and his demonic mount break free from their pedestal to pursue Yevgeny, a benighted urban everyman, through the streets and to the brink of madness. (Pitch for 2016 remake: the statue of Vladimir comes alive and chases a marketing manager called Zhenya through Sparrow Hills.)
The template set by the Bronze Horseman has been repeated again and again, from Vera Mukhina’s muscular Worker and Collective Farm Girl to Tsereteli’s Peter via chilling Chekasupremo Felix Dzerzhinsky outside the KGB headquarters: central authority forces statues on people to broadcast their agenda and their naked power, and these statues develop a sort of semi-demonic mystique. There have been exceptions, of course, to the heavy-handed autocratic norm — the famous statue of Pushkin in central Moscow, which was sponsored by public donations, or the recently proposed monument to John Lennon (a groovy yin to Vladimir’s stern yang) — but for the most part Moscow monuments have, like Vladimir, been imposed and imposing.
One of the great ironies of the controversial new Vladimir statue is that the ruler himself was allegedly pretty hostile to graven images: back in 988 this zealous new convert hacked down the pagan idols that topped the hills of Kiev. Likewise, the overdetermined symbolism of Russian monuments mean that they become immediately vulnerable to popular or official destruction once the regime that erected them has come to an end. For instance, the dismantling of secret policeman extraordinaire Dzerzhinsky in 1991 and his replacement with an abstractly eloquent Solovetsky Stone, a boulder taken from a notorious gulag, was a landmark moment for the unfinished project of 90s desovietisation. There was even talk, back in the heady days of 2011, of removing Peter from the Moscow River.
It doesn’t look like anyone will have the clout, or the cojones, to prevent Vladimir from taking up residence on Sparrow Hills. And the political atmosphere in Russia is likely to be congenial for this pious and belligerent prince for the foreseeable future. But then again, what a statue means can always be reinterpreted. Maybe some comfort can be recouped by liberal Muscovites by seeing Vladimir not as a symbol of neo-medievalism, but as something else, something antithetical to the current mood. Vladimir — a beard-wearer with a penchant for Scandinavian style; Vladimir — a migrant from the south, welcomed into the city; Vladimir — cosmopolitan with a foreign wife, a penchant for western values and an ecumenical approach to religion; and perhaps, just perhaps, Vladimir — a supranational figure who links Russia and Ukraine, not as big brother and little brother, but as two sovereign nations with a long shared history and different, independent fates. If Vladimir can manage that, they should build a statue to him on every street corner in Moscow.