If you are a Yankee, the recent steps in New Orleans to remove public statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes seem appropriate and obvious. The defeat of Lee and the Southern secessionists fighting the Northern states to preserve slavery represented an important victory for American values. But if we repudiate Lee and his confederate friends how should we approach the slave owning first President, George Washington, or the third President, Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves as well, or the racist 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, who was quoted defending the KKK. It is a serious and important, but not simple, issue.
You could say that I was the equivalent of a Yankee when I was working in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 1992-3. In fact, I was indeed a Yankee (“a person who lives in, or is from, the US”). I visited both newly independent, former Soviet Republics six times during those two years with my IMF team of central banking experts. The excited and somewhat bewildered people of these countries were debating what they should do with the many, and sometimes gigantic, statues of Joseph Stalin and Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov). They knew that they would have to live with the Socialist Realist statues and art of the USSR, not to mention the architecture of public buildings, for a longer time, just as we continue to endure the horrible architecture of the 1960s. But could they, should they, have to continue looking at Stalin, the second most deadly ruler in human history. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 40 million people (mostly Russians), ahead of the 30 million deaths under Hitler’s leadership of Germany, but behind the 60 million (mostly Chinese) who died from torture or starvation under the rule of Mao Zedong.
Between my first visit to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (we visited them back to back and were flown in and out in private jets) in April 1992 and my second visit in July-August any remaining portraits of Stalin in public buildings had been removed, as were the smaller public statues. And plans were underway to remove the large ones. The removal of Stalin was a relatively easy call. Lenin was a more difficult issue, rather like George Washington if Washington had gone out of favor. Lenin was the founding leader of the Soviet Union (the Chairman of the Council of Ministers) and of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic that preceded it. He was the political theorist who transformed Marxism into the government structures and policies that we knew as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were two of those republics. Lenin continued to be respected if not revered in 1992. My personal interpreter, Steve Lang, photographed as many Lenin statues as he could, suspecting that they would not be around long. Virtually every village had at least one.
As you can see in the picture below a huge portrait of Lenin (about 20 feet tall) still hung in the background of the main auditorium in the National Bank of Kyrgyzstan during our first visit there in April 1992. In the picture we were meeting with the staff of the NBK to report on our recommendations and work plan. I am presenting the Governor of the NBK, Kemelbek Nanayev, with my Adam Smith tie (the image of Smith’s head appears throughout the tie) and Governor Nanayev was reciprocating by giving me his own tie. Our Russian interpreter from Moscow was looking on and so was Lenin. When we returned three and a half months later, the Lenin portrait had been removed.
But Lenin did not disappear as quickly in some other places. He remained on the wall of the Chief Accountant of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, Ms. Abdulina, for some time. Ms. Abdulina was, I would guess, in her early 60s and was very bright and forward looking. After explaining to her the new accounting needs as the NBK issued its own currency and undertook its own monetary policy, she moved quickly to set up a team of young accountants (they were all women) to receive her training in producing a daily balance sheet to reflect bank deposits with the NBK and more broadly what we call reserve money (the monetary liabilities of the central bank). She said that it would be a waste of time trying to retrain the older more senior ones. I liked and respected her very much, but she would not remove Lenin from her office wall. In fact, she never did. On my final visit with the IMF in March 1994 (I have been back many times since under other auspices), Ms. Abdulina had been moved into a new, larger office. Lenin was not displayed on her new office wall. She never had to deliberately remove him from her office wall but now her office was free of him—a very clever finesse.
Lenin was not as directly responsible for the death of millions as was Stalin, but is hardly a lovable character to those of us who grew up in the west. According to George Orwell, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol… was read to Lenin on his deathbed and according to his wife, he found its ‘bourgeois sentimentality’ completely intolerable.” Why Socialists Don’t Believe In Fun Dec. 1943. Nonetheless Soviet citizens had grown up seeing him as the great founder of their country and many could not let go of that easily.
The United States and especially, but not exclusively, its Southern States are now facing the same issue. Should earlier heroes, whose actions or values are now condemned, be removed from the public square?
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu defended his plan to remove Confederate monuments across the city in a speech earlier this month:
“These statues are not just stone and metal. They’re not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy — ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for….
“There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth….
“Last year, President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments about the need to contextualize and remember all of our history…. Remember President Bush’s words, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them….”
We are removing these statues, “Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all, not some.”
I was blown away by the Mayor’s wonderful speech and urge you to read all of it: New Orleans mayor Landrieu’s address on confederate monuments
Among the statues removed were those of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis about which Mayor Landrieu said: “It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”
What should we and other countries do when past heroes cease to deserve or have our respect? They are, after all, part of our history. The first principle, as articulated by Obama, Bush W, and Mayor Landrieu, is that that history should be told and understood honestly. The second principle is that historical actors should be understood and judged in the context in which they acted.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners in a time in which that was accepted and common as horrible and unacceptable as we see it and know it today. They were otherwise men of great wisdom and courage who deserve our respect. Robert E. Lee inherited slaves but freed them before the Civil War was over. However, he led a war against his country and fought to preserve the institution of slavery. Many former Soviet Republics moved their statues of Lenin and Stalin to historical parks outside of the towns they had occupied where their history could be told honestly and in the context of their time. The statues of Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard will also be relocated away from the heart of New Orleans. I find this to be an appropriate resolution to the pain their presence brought to many of today’s residence of this fascinating city.