Thursday, 11 April 2013

Prague's Iron Lady

At 5 o'clock in the morning of April 28th, 1991, Czech art student David Černý, along with several accomplices, advanced on a plinth in Prague’s Kinsky Square, armed with brushes and paint pots. On top of the plinth stood a wartime Stalin II heavy tank, set up in the square by the former communist authorities as a monument to the Red Army's liberation of the city in 1945. Under cover of night, Černý and his band of pranksters painted the tank bright pink.

The next morning, when the authorities found out what had happened, they weren't amused. The Minister for National Defence, Mr. Dobrovsky, made a hasty apology to the Soviet Embassy for the "vandalism". The Czech Army mobilised a bunch of squaddies to re-paint the tank in a more respectful military drab green. By 8 May, the General Prosecutor had charged Černý with "public disturbances."

In April 2013, a 45 year old old drama teacher set up a Facebook group called "The Witch is Dead" in order to organise street parties to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher. This - and other acts of blatant disrespect for the deceased - provoked predictable outrage from members of the political establishment, along with a furious bout of naming and shaming from the Daily Mail and Telegraph, probably in the hope that she'll get the sack for expressing her dissent in such an offensive manner.

Respect and dissent continue to be touchy subjects. Listen to this boilerplate Iron Lady obit:
She was known as an iron lady, both loved and loathed....Consensus and compromise, they said, were not in her vocabulary. She'd won a bloody war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, took on Britain's powerful labor unions. She ignored IRA hunger strikes....Determined, dynamic, and deeply controversial, Thatcher leaves an indelible mark on the world's political landscape.
The Red Army was likewise loved and loathed, deeply controversial and won a war far bloodier than the Falklands spat. On the one hand it took, and inflicted, the vast majority of the casualties in the war against a genocidal Nazi regime bent on world conquest. Taking on something like two thirds of the Nazi war effort, and losing some nine to eleven million combatants in the process, was no small sacrifice - and that was just military deaths (thirteen to fifteen million Soviet civilians were killed). Heck, the Soviet Union was already spending blood and treasure on the fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil war, while the British and French governments were sitting around, allowing the fascists to carve up Spain in the name of "non-intervention" (conveniently ignoring the massive German and Italian military intervention propping up Franco's coup).

If that was the only context, defacing the Monument to Soviet Tank Crews seems like nothing more than an act of puerile disrespect. But there's more to the story.

There were terrified Soviet soldiers advancing against suicidal odds for fear of the NKVD goons in the rear who'd shoot anyone who retreated. There was complicity in the destruction of Poland (the occupation during the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Katyn massacre, the Red Army pausing on the outskirts of Warsaw to let the Nazis exterminate the participants in the Warsaw uprising). Then, the brutal occupation and oppression of eastern Europe, the tanks rolling in to crush the Hungarian uprising and the Prague Spring.

Under those circumstances, it'd be surprising if uncorking years of bottled-up anger and resentment didn't result in a spurt of joyous defiance.

It'd be a harsh world if we lost all respect and fellow feeling, whether it was for the unimaginable suffering and sacrifice of an army of millions, or for the grief of a single bereaved family. But it's also a harsh world where our instinctive feelings of respect and empathy for other people's loss is hijacked by cynical apparatchiks to airbrush history, to silence dissent, to justify cruelty and to rub the losers' faces in it. I don't want to dance on Thatcher's grave and I feel uneasy about the jubilation (which is, on a political level, misplaced, since so much of modern Britain is exactly how she'd have wanted it), but I'm also sickened by the carefully-orchestrated obsequies and sanitised half-truths of the establishment consensus:
All three party leaders united to praise the legacy of Margaret Thatcher today, as MPs returned to the Commons to mark the passing of one of Britain's most influential prime ministers. 
Pass the sick bag. It's enough to make you long for a bit of absurdest dissent. If we have to have a memorial to the Iron Lady on the Fourth Plinth, I reckon another pink tank would be an appropriate symbol for somebody who crushed everything in her path, had a steely hatred of compromise and was both loved and loathed by millions.