Just about all that is worst in the Stephen Harper regime is about to be made concrete in Ottawa: the Memorial to the Victims of Communism.
There has been a complete lack of consultation and transparency around the project. It has “privatized” the creation of a public historic site, while stealthily underwriting the project with public resources. It hands the rewriting of 20th century history over to narrow corporate and ideological interests. It plays to the most reactionary elements of the Tory party base.
Ottawa’s city council voted 18 - 6 to oppose the memorial. They call for the monstrosity to be moved somewhere else. But the land used is under the jurisdiction of the National Capital Commission, a vassal of the Harper regime.
It will occupy the last piece of open space in downtown Ottawa, space that had long been earmarked for a badly needed new court facility. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada is opposed to both the location and design.
One architect who was part of the jury to select the design and site for the memorial resigned her post and went public with her opposition. Shirley Blumberg complained that the granting of an “incredibly prominent, almost sacrosanct” location would distort “Canada’s true history”. She told the Ottawa Citizen: “I think it completely misrepresents and skews what Canada is all about.”
She also warned that published numbers for the memorial’s costs–$5.5 million–were dishonest. “The way it is now, it’s at least two or three times that, with the technologies they are proposing for the concrete. “The kind of architectural building technology they’re talking about is super-expensive, at the cutting edge, unaffordable and I don’t think would stand up to our climate.”
Speaking about dishonest estimates, Ludwik Klimkowski, head of the private “charity”, Tribute to Liberty, which is raising money to pay for this shit show says the land is valued at $1 million. The federal Public Works department says it has not performed any evaluation because “the land is not being disposed of.”
Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky estimates the true worth of the land at between $16 and $30 million, depending on the building occupying the site. So the stealthy public underwriting of this “private” enterprise is exponentially higher than the Harper government admits. When the project was first proposed, the feds said the public cost would be no more than $1.4 million. Even without factoring in a true land evaluation, public contributions have grown to $4 million, coming from three ministries. You can bet there is a lot more public money under the table.
As bad as all these things are, they are arguments for the memorial to be moved to a different location, not scrapped. But besides being ugly, wasteful and badly located, the monument views history through the lens of Stephen Harper’s right-wing ideology, not historical scholarship. The waters begin to get murky when you consider that many of the “victims” of so-called Communism were Nazis or members of Eastern European regimes that sympathized with fascism. Also, many Communists were Jews fighting against the Holocaust.
Compounding the confusion is the rise of Stalin in the Soviet Union, beginning in the late 1920s and truly consolidated by the late 1930s. Through a process of bureaucratic maneuvering, show trials and purges Stalin and his allies exterminated almost all of the Bolshevik leaders and activists who had made the successful 1917 revolution.
While the rhetoric and symbolism of “Communism” was retained, the essential ingredients of Communism–internationalism, working class self-emancipation, liberation from all forms of oppression–were rolled back or crushed. In their place arose a new Russian nationalism and a form of capitalism controlled by the state and its bureaucratic functionaries. The epitome of Stalinism, the idea of “Socialism in One Country” would have been an anathema to the real communists of 1917. So, many of the victims of Stalinist “Communism” were the communists themselves. You can be sure that Leon Trotsky, the great revolutionary theorist and writer murdered by Stalin’s assassin in 1940, is not one of the victims intended to be remembered by Harper’s monument.
Under Stalin’s control, the USSR used brutal methods to build up capitalist infrastructure in record time, in order to compete internationally. Forced relocations of entire ethnic populations, slave labour camps for political dissidents, and driving much of the peasantry off of the land and into urban factories: Stalinism did claim millions of victims. But Western regimes made things worse by attempting to blockade and strangle the USSR economy. In Ukraine, a multi-year drought, Western economic sabotage and Stalinist appropriation of crops led to a famine that killed millions. But to boil this down to “Victims of Communism” is a gross historical revision. When Hitler invaded, a section of the Ukraine population enthusiastically joined in. Atrocities against Ukrainian Jews, Roma people, Tatars and ethnic Poles were committed by right-wing Ukrainian nationalists. Many Ukrainians welcomed the Red Army as liberators when they drove the Nazis out in 1945.
But Harper and his crew want to rewrite a complicated and bloody history as a simple-minded good guys versus bad guys fairy tail. The Memorial to the Victims of Communism is part of that myth making.
Happily, even if they don’t know all the historical details, most Canadians can smell a rat. In May, a national poll revealed that a majority (51 per cent) strongly opposed the memorial on this location. Opposition among those living in the Ottawa area was 83 per cent. Encouragingly, a majority think the land should become a memorial for historical injustices committed against First Nations within the Canadian state–the victims of colonialism and capitalism. As the horror stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are made known, that is the memorial Ottawa needs, and the historical truth we all need to learn.