Plan for Another Huge Statue Splits Moscow ; Fierce Fight over Identity Erupts as Government Celebrates Patron Saint

By Macfarquhar, Neil | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Plan for Another Huge Statue Splits Moscow ; Fierce Fight over Identity Erupts as Government Celebrates Patron Saint


Macfarquhar, Neil, International New York Times


Plans for an 82-foot-tall statue in Moscow honoring the nation's patron saint, St. Vladimir, have exposed a fierce contest over faith and identity.

Moscow does not exactly want for colossal statues.

Nothing says "Soviet Union" quite like the imposing "Worker and Collective Farm Girl," with its hammer, sickle, forward stride and idealized physiques; or Lenin glowering down on the capital, albeit now staring at a Burger King.

What the city lacks is a spectacular monument to a religious figure, but the Russian Orthodox Church and the culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, are determined to change that. They have championed a project that will alter the cityscape by erecting an 82- foot-tall statue of St. Vladimir, Russia's patron saint, atop one of the few hills in Moscow.

Muscovites have not embraced the idea. Tens of thousands have signed a petition against the statue, which is to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of St. Vladimir's death. It is lost on no one that Ukraine's capital, Kiev, already has a 162-year-old, 54-foot- tall monument to St. Vladimir and that Russia's conflict with Ukraine helped inspire Moscow's my-statue-is-bigger-than-yours version.

Aside from the bloody fight to control territory, the conflict encompasses a fierce contest over identity, and over who can claim descent from St. Vladimir, also known as Vladimir the Great, a warrior prince of mythic proportions who established both the Russian Orthodox Church and the prototype of the modern Russian state.

The founding saga holds that Vladimir the Great, grand prince of Kievan Rus, the first eastern Slavic state, compelled his people to convert to Christianity in the year 988, performing mass baptisms in the Dnieper River in Kiev.

Recently, the Kremlin has made a concerted effort to wrap the historical mantle of St. Vladimir around Russia to solidify its claim to Crimea and undermine Ukraine's legitimacy as a state.

In a speech in December, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia startled historians by abruptly elevating Crimea to holy ground, akin to the sacred site in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims the Noble Sanctuary. Basically, he said, forget about Kiev: Crimea is the true wellspring of Russia and its central faith.

"Crimea is where our people live, and the peninsula is of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralized Russian state," Mr. Putin said. "It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized before bringing Christianity to Rus."

Ukraine's president, Petro O. Poroshenko, responded by issuing an executive order for Ukraine to commemorate Volodymyr, as the saint is known there, as the founder of the medieval state "Rus-Ukraine."

Russian lawmakers promptly accused him of inventing history, as Ukraine did not exist as a state at that time.

"The fabric of the history of Kievan Rus looks very much like a blanket, with each country trying to pull all of it to its side," Ekaterina Chimiris, a political scientist, wrote in an essay published online by the Russian International Affairs Council.

The Russian government plans to spend about $20 million this year commemorating St. Vladimir, including building the statue, according to a report in the business daily RBC.

Supporters of the statue generally reject the idea that it is intended to rival the one in Kiev, or that it is being built because a certain other leader named Vladimir is hugely popular right now. But those ideas creep into many comments on the subject.

The statue must reside on a promontory high over the Moscow River because "it resembles the hill on the Dnieper," said Valentin V. Lebedev, the chairman of an organization called the Union of Orthodox Citizens. …

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