The New Yorker has a great story about the famously broadcast toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue in the early days of the Iraq war. The piece is full of excellent material and highly worth reading in its entirety, but here is an interesting bit toward the end on the subject of monuments and statues knocked down to make symbolic statements during conflicts:
In a way, statue topplings are the banana peels of history that we often slip on. In 1991, when pro-democracy forces led by Boris Yeltsin stood up to a coup by Soviet hard-liners in Moscow, a crowd outside K.G.B. headquarters forced the removal of a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who had led the K.G.B.’s notorious predecessor, the Cheka. The statue was lifted off its pedestal by a crane; its demise seemed to symbolize the end of Soviet-era oppression. Yet within a decade a K.G.B. functionary, Vladimir Putin, became Russia’s President, and former K.G.B. officials now hold key political and economic positions.
Throughout the nineteen-nineties, Svetlana Boym, a Soviet-born professor of comparative literature at Harvard, visited the Moscow park where Dzerzhinsky’s statue was left on its side, neglected and stained with urine. But over the years, as the power of the security state revived, the statue became the object of fond attention; eventually, Dzerzhinsky was raised to his feet and placed on a pedestal in the park. By studying a statue at not just a dramatic moment but during the course of its existence—construction, toppling, preservation—one can sometimes trace a nation’s political evolution, but it takes patience. In “The Future of Nostalgia,” Boym’s book on history and memory, she described Soviet-era monuments serving as “messengers of power … onto which anxieties and anger were projected.” The Princeton architectural historian Lucia Allais, who has examined the destruction of monuments during the Second World War, mentioned to me one of the most famous topplings ever—of the statue of King Louis XV in Paris, in 1792, during the French Revolution. The action was portrayed by its authors as a liberation from the power of the monarchy, but they put in its spot a symbol of a new sort of power: the guillotine. These monumental destructions “are usually acts of monumental replacement, which hide continuities of power … behind the image of rupture,” Allais wrote to me in an e-mail.