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A Public Art Project Casts a Shadow Over Moscow, Crimea, and Ukraine

A statue of Vladimir the Great in Kiev (photo by Andrew Butko)
A statue of Vladimir the Great in Kiev (photo by Andrew Butko)

A towering statue of Vladimir the Great is causing a great deal of anger in Moscow and beyond. The 78-foot-tall bronze likeness of the Slav prince who in 988 CE became the first Christian ruler of Rus — a nation considered to be a precursor to modern Russia — is still in sculptor Salavat Scherbakov’s studio, but its intended location atop a pedestal in front of Moscow State University (MSU) has locals up in arms over fears that the enormous monument will ruin the city’s skyline, the Guardian reports.

Some 60,000 local residents signed a petition demanding a new site be chosen for the statue, which is scheduled to be installed in November as part of celebrations marking 1,000 years since Vladimir’s death. No public input was sought before the Russian Military-Historical Society (RMHS), which is organizing the construction of the memorial, announced the intended site overlooking Moskva River. Another petition demanding the statue be relocated was signed by 2,000 students and faculty at Moscow State University. Meanwhile, activists affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church gathered 52,000 signatures in support of the project.

Renderings of the Vladimir the Great statue (image courtesy the Russian Military Historical Society, via histrf.ru)
Renderings of the Vladimir the Great statue (image courtesy the Russian Military Historical Society, via histrf.ru) (click to enlarge)

“It’s OK to put up busts of scientists and small statues in front of the university buildings because that goes with the creator’s idea of what the whole area is about,” Rustam Rakhmatullin, the founder and coordinator of Russia’s Archnadzor architectural conservation movement, told the Moscow Times. “But a gigantic object like this monument is just alien to it … The law on cultural heritage sites says very clearly that any major construction on the territory of such sites is not allowed.”

While New York City just introduced legislation that would require public review for public art projects, Moscow has no such laws, hence the lack of input from citizens and preservationists or consideration for their preferences. Nevertheless, on Monday the RMHS submitted a proposal to consider other sites for the statue of Vladimir the Great, the Moscow Times reports, citing “geological risks” rather than aesthetic concerns or public feedback as the reason. “They can be dealt with, I guess,” said RMHS deputy director Vladislav Kononov, “but if it costs too much, alternative places for the monument should be considered.”

Beyond its implications for one of the city’s most iconic vistas, the Moscow statue is seen by many as a massive bronze pawn in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ideological game to justify the annexation of Crimea, where Vladimir the Great was baptized. Putin has made honoring his Slavic namesake a patriotic duty, one that dovetails with both his support for the Orthodox Church and the Crimean annexation.

Renderings of the Vladimir the Great statue (image courtesy the Russian Military Historical Society, via histrf.ru)
Renderings of the Vladimir the Great statue (image courtesy the Russian Military Historical Society, via histrf.ru)

“It was here, in Crimea, in ancient Chersonesus, or Korsun as the Russian chroniclers called it, that Prince Vladimir took baptism, before he baptized all of Rus,” Putin said in a speech in December. He added: “Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force for the state. It was on this spiritual soil that our ancestors first, and for all time, became aware of themselves as a single people.”

Crucially, however, the administrative center of Vladimir the Great’s Rus state was Kiev, where a large monument to the prince stands watch over the city. Some see in Scherbakov’s monument an attempt by Moscow to claim the 10th century prince as its own. “It’s obvious that this isn’t an aesthetic or cultural decision, but a political one,” said Alexei Venediktov of Radio Echo Moscow. “It’s a message to the Ukrainian capital to say: ‘St Vladimir is ours, not yours.’” For now at least, that towering message’s final resting place remains unknown.

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