This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

On May 1, 1955, after more than five years of work, a 51ft granite statue honouring Joseph Stalin was unveiled on the Letna hill above Prague.

It was the biggest group statue in Europe at the time, and had necessitated the demolition of the newly built Slavia Prague stadium and the hard labour of hundreds.

Its creator, Otakar Švec, committed suicide just days before it was due to be unveiled. Unfortunately for the Czechoslovak government of the day, Stalin had died during its construction and his successor, Nikita Khruschev, decided that the USSR wasn’t quite so keen on the old cult of personality after all.

Just seven years after it was unveiled, the gargantuan statue was blown up with 800kg of dynamite.

Its removal came after Khrushchev’s so-called ‘secret speech’ in which he condemned Stalin for, among other things, mass purges of rivals, deportations of ethnic people such as the Tatars and the Chechens, forced labour camps, state-sponsored anti-Semitism and operating a cult of personality.

The Herald:
To the bold statue defenders of modern Britain, such things can probably be dismissed as having been ‘in a different time’.

The issue of statues and memorials commemorating controversial historical figures has been back in the news this week after a plaque on a monument of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, accusing him of being “instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade”, was removed.

When the House of Commons voted to abolish the trade in 1792, it was Dundas who tabled resolutions calling for a gradual approach with the aim of ending the trade altogether by 1799. Between the initial vote and the eventual abolition of the trade in 1807, it’s estimated 500,000 African people were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic.

In 2020 City of Edinburgh Council voted to reflect on this problematic legacy with a plaque at the base of the monument to Dundas in St Andrew’s Square.

This was, in itself, controversial as historians are divided on just how influential the late Viscount was in extending the slave trade. As revealed by The Herald, one of Dundas’ descendents took matters into his own hands on Sunday night and removed the A3 brass panel, stating that the city “had no authority to install the plaque without consent of the owners in the first place”.

Wrestling with Britain – and Scotland’s – role in the slave trade has proved to be yet another battleground in the culture wars. Glasgow became wealthy on the back of the transatlantic slave trade and the tobacco barons who bestowed their colonial riches on the city, with some 62 streets named after slave owners.

Suggestions by anti-racism campaigners that Buchanan Street or Ingram Street could be renamed were greeted with howls of protest from certain quarters, while even more ridiculous behaviour was on display after a statue of Sir Edward Colston took a dunk in Bristol harbour.

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A senior executive of the Royal African Company, Colston had made his fortune in the slave trade and, following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, his statue was launched into the murky deep. That led to the farcical sight of right-leaning volunteers standing guard around other prominent statues in the UK to prevent them suffering a similar watery end.

This is not to say, of course, that such people would have been linking arms to encircle Joseph Stalin’s statue in 1962. After all, it’s one thing objecting to any criticism of Winston Churchill and quite another to physically defend a statue of someone whose policies contributed directly to mass starvation even if he played a crucial role in defeating Nazism in World War II.

It would appear for some people that neither removing statues and monuments of prominent slavers and other controversial historical figures, nor installing plaques to give additional context to whatever their achievements might be is acceptable.

In many former Eastern Bloc countries, statues of Marx, Lenin, and the rest have been moved to dedicated spaces to be exhibited as museum curios, though it’s hard to imagine that being acceptable to the statue defenders either.

Instead we must at least wave away such things as vagaries of history or, it seems, simply refuse to acknowledge they occurred. Doesn’t that seem a little, I don’t know… Stalinist?

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