The Meaning of a Marker For 100 Million Victims

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Modesty is the main virtue of the new Victims of Communism Memorial. It is off the Mall, on a small park at the intersection of New Jersey and Massachusetts avenues NW. Although it enjoys good views of the Capitol, this is as yet an undistinguished intersection, where the bustle of Capitol Hill is dissipated into an empty, undeveloped expanse of parking lots. And the memorial is tiny, a 10-foot bronze statue with no particular artistic interest set upon a stubby round stone support. It is a "whazzat?" statue, remarkable to passersby mostly because it isn't a guy on a horse.

But modesty is a virtue. If one were to build monuments commensurate in size to the atrocities they memorialize, the victims of communism would require perhaps the entirety of the federal city. At a dedication service yesterday, speakers regularly invoked the number of 100 million, including in that unfathomable accounting those who perished because of Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot and the various dictators who brutalized people in the name of communism -- the ideology that once promised a radical equity, not slaughter and gulags -- in Africa, Latin America and throughout Eastern Europe.

In a city where the more than 400,000 Americans killed in the Second World War merit a huge plaza of fascistic grandiloquence, in which the 58,000 dead from the Vietnam War are honored not just by an eloquent memorial and some tacky statuary but will soon be given a third monumental structure on the Mall (an underground visitors center), the 100 million victims of communism get only a street-corner marker. It says a lot about the weird politics of memorialization that the disconnect between the size and the purpose of this little structure is a step in the right direction for the city's aesthetics.

Set aside everything that is genuine about this memorial, including the anguish of people who suffered from communist regimes. Set aside the lumpy ugliness of the statue, which is based on the mock-up of the Statue of Liberty carried in Tiananmen Square during the protests of 1989. And set aside yesterday's dedication ceremony in which politicians, including the president of the United States, used the occasion to segue effortlessly and offensively from the victims of communism to the new, apparently endless war against "radical Islamic terrorism" being sold to the American people. To understand the design of this memorial, you have to go back to 2003, when the law governing where and how memorials are made in Washington was amended to declare the Mall "a substantially completed work of civic art."

Since then, to avoid the clutter and desecration of the Mall from the endless clamor of special interests demanding validation in marble, there has been a move to place memorials near, but off the central greensward of the city. Of course, groups with clout and the willingness to bully Congress, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, can always do an end run around legal efforts to preserve the integrity of the Mall. But Lee Edwards, the chairman of the foundation that raised the money for the communism statue, says his group chose not to fight for space on the Mall.

"That would have taken a monumental lobbying effort and the Park Service would not have been happy with that," says Edwards -- a curious but revealing usage of the word "monumental."

The basic shape of the memorial was determined, in part, by the limited size of the mini-park it occupies. According to Lee, a statue representing Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, one of the defining symbols of the Iron Curtain, "was obviously too big on our little plot."

But Washington memorials aren't just about size or location. They are also about process. Several times at yesterday's ceremony, Lee, who is a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, was commended (along with other supporters) for getting the job done. It was a tacit acknowledgment that making a monument isn't just a matter of designing and building something attractive. It's a bureaucratic marathon, and winning that marathon is seen as an end in itself, proof of the political savvy and influence of the monument's supporters (even if they don't get the brass ring, a Mall location).

In this case, despite the putative bipartisanship of the memorial's board, it is a victory for conservative supporters of our new age of bellicosity, and not, alas, much of a victory for anyone who has strong feelings about the evils of communist totalitarianism. Even Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor and a Hungarian American who bitterly lamented his country's failed effort to shake off the Soviet yoke in 1956, seemed as interested in railing against Islam as remembering the victims of communism. He reserved special scorn for former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's lack of support for the now widely unpopular military occupation of Iraq.

Lantos called Schroeder, who has subsequently gone to work for the Russian oil giant Gazprom, a "political prostitute," and joked that "the sex workers in my district objected so I will no longer use that phrase."

It was that kind of morning, and unfortunately, the new memorial is so unprepossessing you can hardly blame the gathered political elites for all but ignoring it in their rush to push new and different foreign policy adventures.

Every monument comes with a set of propositions. There is the ostensible claim, in this case the words: "To the more than one hundred million victims of communism and to those who love liberty," carved on the statue's pedestal.

There is almost always a contentious claim as well, in this case, "the left failed to adequately oppose communism" that is coded into the rhetoric surrounding the monument. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) made this claim implicitly yesterday in a paean to Ronald Reagan. And finally, there is what might be called the monument's ambitious claim, in this case, that the struggle against radical Islam is the natural extension of the struggle against communist totalitarianism, and must be prosecuted with equivalent zeal. It is a politicized claim to relevance.

The small size and negligible visual interest of the new monument is a victory for those who want to limit the cult of memorialization that threatens to overwhelm Washington's public spaces. But it may also be an unintended (or very perverse) victory for those pressing larger political claims for the memorial. They can point to their own memorial and note the gap between the crimes remembered and the size of the monument. By building a monument notable for its modesty, they also have a permanent reminder of the kinds of grievance on display at yesterday's ceremony: That the victims of left-wing ideologies have been insufficiently remembered; that new ideologies, such as radical Islam, are being insufficiently opposed.

If that seems rather tough luck for the actual victims of communism, well, it is. But monuments in Washington are almost always built to the greater glory of their makers, not the victims or heroes acknowledged, as if in a footnote, in the words carved on them.

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