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During the recent upheavals in Ukraine, the global media has reported periodically on street protests that focus on statues in public spaces. By March 2014, news outlets were noting that an interactive map produced by protesters had recorded the toppling of more than 100 statues of Lenin across the country. Such acts of iconoclasm (i.e. ‘image breaking’) seem familiar to audiences who recall watching news footage of Soviet-era monuments toppling after the fall of the Berlin Wall, or of US Marines using an armoured personnel carrier to pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Bagdad during the Second Gulf War. Globally, audiences understand that a deposed statue symbolises protesters’ wishes that public space should be signified as being under the control of a new regime. Recent pictures of images being broken in Ukraine reinforce what we all know:  the country is a site of political struggle. Yet, with the exception of some Russian news outlets, few journalists bemoaned the loss of the monuments of Lenin any more than those of Saddam Hussein. Unlike the Taliban’s demolition of the enormous Buddhas at Bamiyan in 2001, or the current damage to World Heritage sites occurring in Syria, such acts were not labeled pejoratively as ‘vandalism’. 

Smart phone ownership among Ukrainians means that news agencies have been able to draw on dramatic photographs and videos posted online of statues falling and, often, also showing the subsequent re-use of the pedestals of deposed sculptures. In one case, student supporters of the Maidan movement pulled down a sculpture of Lenin in Kiev and replaced it with a toilet painted gold, symbolising a similar item that was, supposedly, owned by the now deposed President Yanukovych. Such images help to make visible the invisible and on-going shifts in power relationships that so trouble Ukraine. Yet, in that country up to 1,500 monuments to Lenin remain standing and news reports still abound of Ukrainians who oppose protesters by forming human shields around the sculptures, protecting them and their pedestals from attack. To such defenders of public sculpture, the actions of iconoclasts might well seem to be better described as vandalism.

Seen through the lens of the French Revolution, the seemingly esoteric question of whether toppling a statue of Lenin is an act of iconoclasm or of vandalism appears rather significant. As I noted in a BBC4 documentary, Tearing Up History, that aired this week; the word vandalism was coined during the Revolution to bolster attempts to preserve objects at risk of being damaged by contemporary iconoclasts. For revolutionary preservationists, an object should be protected, regardless of its unpalatable political or religious connotations, if teams of artists and educated amateurs judged it to be of aesthetic and/or historical value. To destroy an object valued in this way was indicative of ignorance and barbarism akin to that of the Vandals who sacked sixth-century Rome. During the Revolution, few French people shared the preservationists’ ways of valuing art objects. However, the massive subsequent surge in compulsory education and growing access to the press in its many forms means that nowadays huge numbers of people quite rightly feel confident when making judgments about whether or not a symbolic act of breaking is an act worthy of condemnation as vandalism.

Of course, the term ‘vandalism’ has changed its meaning since its first recorded use in 1793. Today, it is often used to refer to damage to somebody else’s property, regardless of the aesthetic or historical value of the damaged goods. Yet, the term is scarcely being used in such a reductive sense when UNESCO and the global media condemn damage to World Heritage sites. But, are the Lenin statues or, for that matter, those of Saddam Hussein entirely lacking aesthetic merit? Are they not of historical value, if only because they recall important periods in the histories of the nations in which they were erected publicly? Were such monuments worthy of preservation? If the Taliban behaved like vandals, did Ukrainian protestors and US Marines? When journalists decide to condemn, or not to condemn, an act as ‘vandalism’ they do so for an audience many of whom will feel, in this globalised media age, that the choice of one term or another is inappropriate. Given that monuments so often fall before, during, or just after periods of violence in public spaces, it is worth bearing in mind that we all hope our children will be able to live in peace with those of people alienated by seemingly innocent choices of words.

Dr Richard Clay, Senior Lecturer in History of Art, University of Birmingham