It is lost on no one that Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, already boasts a 54-foot-tall monument to St. Vladimir, and that Russia’s conflict with Ukraine helped inspire Moscow’s my-statue-is-bigger-than-yours version.
MOSCOW — Moscow does not exactly want for colossal statues.
Nothing says “Soviet Union” quite like the imposing “Worker and Collective Farm Girl,” with its hammer, sickle, forward stride and idealized physiques; or Vladimir Lenin glowering down on the capital, albeit now staring at a Burger King.
What the city lacks is a spectacular monument to a religious figure, but the Russian Orthodox Church and the culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, are determined to change that. They have championed a project that will alter the cityscape by erecting an 82-foot-tall statue of St. Vladimir, Russia’s patron saint, atop one of the few hills in Moscow.
Muscovites have not embraced the idea. Tens of thousands have signed a petition against the statue, which is to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of St. Vladimir’s death. It is lost on no one that Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, already boasts a 162-year-old, 54-foot-tall monument to St. Vladimir, and that Russia’s conflict with Ukraine helped inspire Moscow’s my-statue-is-bigger-than-yours version.
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Aside from the bloody fight to control territory, the conflict encompasses a contest over identity, and over who can claim descent from St. Vladimir, also known as Vladimir the Great, a warrior prince of mythic proportions who established the Russian Orthodox Church and the prototype of the modern Russian state.
The founding saga holds that Vladimir the Great, grand prince of Kievan Rus, the first eastern Slavic state, compelled his people to convert to Christianity in 988.
Recently, the Kremlin has made a concerted effort to wrap the historical mantle of St. Vladimir around Russia to solidify its claim to Crimea and undermine Ukraine’s legitimacy as a state.
The Russian government plans to spend about $20 million this year commemorating St. Vladimir, according to a report in the business daily RBC.
Opposition to the Vladimir statue started slowly but gathered steam as Muscovites realized the city was about to erect yet another grandiose monument on a rare green space with zero public input.
Opponents have concentrated on technical and legal grounds. They maintain that the hill crest is too unstable to support the statue, although the city’s architectural council limited the height to a maximum of 82 feet for safety reasons.
Others dismiss the statue on aesthetic grounds, saying it will mar a sweeping view of the capital from a southwestern promontory called Sparrow Hills. The area is already known for the Gothic Stalinist skyscraper of Moscow State University.
“It is one of the most beautiful views in Moscow,” said Natalya Simyonova, an art historian who signed the petition against the statue. “Why destroy it?”
Proponents of the statue are unmoved by such arguments.
Turning to history, the culture minister said that in converting to Christianity, Vladimir had determined the entire pattern of development of the Russian state, whereas Kiev had lost its independence.
“The Moscow princes are the direct descendants of Prince Vladimir, even at that time when Kiev was part of the territory of Poland,” he said. “Vladimir has a greater connection to Moscow than to Kiev.”
Lebedev, the Orthodox activist, said it was especially important to build the statue “given the modern political situation.”
Salavat Scherbakov, who won a contest to design the St. Vladimir sculpture, described the struggle over Ukraine and Vladimir as something that struck at the very heart of the Russian soul.
“This is a big historical problem for us,” he said. “Ukraine, Kiev and in this case Crimea are not like some hockey match that we suddenly lost. It is a deadly dispute inside a very old family.”
Barring unforeseen changes, he said, construction could start any day and allow for a November unveiling.