Some years ago, in a large open square in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk, I watched ageing Communists gather under the shadows of a very polished granite plinth where, some 30 metres above, Vladimir Lenin stood for decades.
As these geriatric Bolsheviks peddled dog-eared copies of Pravda along with their dogma, the ground around them had changed unrecognisably.
The Soviet Union was gone, the Cold War lost, Communism discredited and their region of Ukraine itself then as now divided between those looking to the Kremlin or Kiev.
I mused then, under the bronze-fixed gaze of Lenin, those ageing apparatchiks were some days the statue, some days the pigeon.
Some of these statues now going have stood for centuries, yet it has taken just eight minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time an unemployed black man lay dying under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota — for time to change. George Floyd is not just making history, the movement in his name is changing history
History might be written by the victors, it is righted by the vanquished. And that is what is happening now, as from the United States to the United Kingdom, from Belgium to Bristol, statues standing to figures from our history are being toppled by forces shaped by our politics.
Our ideals topple idols; revisionism trumps racism, social equality can never accept slavery. The price of colonialism, with all its imperial trappings, mercantile profits and gold-laden galleons is paid in the quill-penned ledgers of misery, slavery, bigotry and – yes, in racism that still permeates the present day.
Divisive not decorative
That’s why statues are going: Not venerable but vain, not civic not uncivil, divisive not decorative.
Some of these statues now going have stood for centuries, yet it has taken just eight minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time an unemployed black man lay dying under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota — for time to change. George Floyd is not just making history, the movement in his name is changing history.
In Bristol in west England last Sunday, it took a crowd protesting for social justice and equality and gathered in Floyd’s memory, just four good tugs on some ties to topple a statue of slave trader Edward Colston. It is a city built on the profits from plantations, the sugars of slavery, the chains of colonialism.
For decades some had wanted Colston gone; within minutes of determined anger and action he was, dunked into the River Avon by the currents of today’s tides.
In Antwerp, a statue to Belgian king Leopold II was removed by city officials. It was more than time for Leopold to be helped on his way, a monarch who oversaw the macheting off of hands when rubber quotas were not filled in his African colonies in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, where talon-tipped whips flayed the flesh off those who broke backs bending to Belgium.
A statue of Robert Milligan, an 18th century slave trader, was removed from its plinth outside a London museum on Tuesday after officials decided it was no longer acceptable to the local community, and London council is to look at others now.
Legacy of colonialism
In Oxford that same day protesters converged on Oriel College in the spired city’s High Street, chanting “take it down” and “shame on you” to demand the removal of a statue of 19th century British colonialist Cecil Rhodes.
He is a man then ardent in his views of British Imperialism and white supremacy, now tainted by excessive abuses and tinged with the reality of racism; his legacy alive in endowments to scholars who eschew his views.
“Rhodes represents such a violent legacy of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, particularly in southern Africa,” said protester Morategi Kale, a South African graduate student at Oxford. “The beginning is to take down a statue that celebrates that.”
In the US, the statues of Christopher Columbus, a controversial figure, are also being taken down. There have been multiple reports of Columbus statues being tampered with — one thrown into a lake, one beheaded, and another pulled to the ground.
Opposition by academics
Many academics and public figures oppose the removal of such monuments, arguing they merely reflect history and should be used as points of discussion.
That’s why General Robert E. Lee, the brilliant military leader of the slaving United States of the Confederacy still stands in places of honour in southern cities in a nation wrestling with the fallout from that Civil War and clashes unleashed now by Floyd’s slow asphyxiation.
In a tree-lined square in London, across the road from mother of all parliaments, stand statues to figures past and present.
Nelson Mandela, a champion of racial equality; nearby a statue of Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts, a seminal figure in the founding of the South African state that jailed Mandela.
Mahatma Gandhi in his dhoti robes, nearby a statue to David Lloyd George, the most powerful figure in the British Empire when Brigadier general Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on April 13 in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
A statue to the 14th Lord Derby who brought about the great Reform Act of 1867 extending the vote to many men of some possessions; and one to Millicent Fawcett, the suffragette who campaigned for the vote for all women.
They belong in museums
Do they all belong together there, shoulder to shoulder? For sure, they do in history books, the tomes of our times past, the pages that allow us to turn a new leaf with each day.
And yes, they belong in museums, a preservation of our bygones. But do they all still warrant space together in public squares?
Statues rise and statues fall as sure as day follows night, night follows day. That is the very nature of such idolatry. Idealism too ebbs and rises.
Lenin and Communism, Hitler and fascism; Saddam Hussain and absolutism. Those images from Fidros Square in April 2003, Saddam toppled in Baghdad to signal the liberation of the Iraqi people — yet we all know only too well how that turned out.
I am reminded of the words of Ozymandis by Percy Bysshe Shelley and penned two centuries ago. They hold so true today:
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Some days you are the statue, some days