Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Lessons from Siberia

By David G. Young

Ulan Ude, Russia, September 28, 2017 --  

Siberian cities address communist-era crimes without erasing the historic symbols the Soviets left behind.

A giant head of Lenin is visible from the grand opera house in Ulan Ude.  About two stories tall, locals claim it is the largest in the world.  

No subtlety here
Photo © 2017 David G. Young

The head dominates the main square in this Siberian city that is the capital of Russia's Buryat region, home to ethnic Mongols but also hosting a large Russian minority.

Like many Siberian cities, Ulan Ude has a relaxed attitude about the communist past.  Across Asiatic Russia from Ekaterinburg to Irkutsk, Lenin statues continue to tower over city squares.  There was little of the effort in Moscow and St. Petersburg to tear down communist statues and replace them with pre-revolutionary heroes.

Not the typical opera house honorees
Photo © 2017 David G. Young

While many buildings in Ulan Ude sport a sickle and hammer, the opera house features more than its share of revolutionary decor.  The main hall has a quote from Lenin wrapping around the dome, and the ceiling is painted with grand frescoes of the red army and World War II planes with red stars on the wings.  The second floor has a 1950s bas relief of a Slavic man shaking the hand of his Mongolian comrade in traditional dress.  Over their heads is a bust of Stalin nearly eclipsing Lenin.

Opera tickets for a surprisingly good performance of La Traviata started from a mere 250 roubles --- about $5 -- a throwback to the Soviet past where culture was considered a right for all. But Ulan Ude is hardly stuck in the Soviet past.  Teenage girls at the opera play with their iPhones, and supermarkets are well stocked with imported consumer goods.  But like its relatively new Siberian sister cities, which grew up largely in the Soviet era, tearing down Soviet symbols means turning their backs on much if not most of their history.

While Moscow and St. Petersburg were huge cities hundreds of years before communism, cities like Novosibirsk (where Lenin and sickle and hammer motifs are also everywhere) were barely two decades old  when the revolution came.  Novosibirsk's history is nearly synonymous with that of the Soviet Union.

Locals are hardly unaware of Soviet crimes.  The Buddhist art level of the Buryat history museum (itself housed in a communist-era structure) in Ulan Ude details the destruction of Buddhist monasteries, the arrest, imprisonment and killing of monks during the communist era.

Siberians have somehow found a way to retain the historic symbols of a dark historical era without ignoring the crimes of the state.  For Americans wringing their hands over what to do with monuments to it's own dark Confederate past, a dose of a Siberian attitude toward history might prove helpful.  

Leaving a 20-foot tall head of Jefferson Davis in the main square may be too much.  But it would be a shame to see Confederate statues completely erased from the landscape as has happened to Communist relics in Moscow and St. Petersburg.