RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
America is in the middle of a national debate over what to do with statues of controversial figures in our history. NPR's Lucian Kim says something similar happened in Russia. He's got the story of a park in Moscow where Soviet-era statues go to die.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Felix Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the Soviet Union's feared secret police. And for decades, his statue stood in front of KGB headquarters in downtown Moscow.
KIM: In August 1991, as the decrepit communist regime crumbled, pro-democracy protesters tore down the statue. The despised communist hero, wearing a goatee and a greatcoat, was dumped on a vacant lot near the Moscow River. Other toppled Soviet statues followed. And the next year, Moscow turned the chaotic collection into a sculpture park. Park guide and historian Artyom Golbin was born that same year.
ARTYOM GOLBIN: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: He says the sculpture park now displays more than 700 sculptures from the 1930s to the present day. It's been incorporated into Moscow's Gorky Park, a riverside haven with cafes, yoga classes and shady lawns.
MASHA LIPMAN: It is one thing what statues mean when they are in conspicuous sites - in main squares and big streets. It's quite another thing when statues like that are collected among many others in a park.
KIM: Masha Lipman is a political scientist who has studied Russia's changing relationship to its monuments. She says in the sculpture park, the context of the Soviet statues has changed entirely. And in that sense, they've lost their symbolic power.
LIPMAN: Also, it's a nice park. You can just go for a walk there or sit down and picnic.
KIM: Rollerbladers now skate past the Avenue of Leaders, which includes sculptures of Soviet rulers like Vladimir Lenin, Leonid Brezhnev and Josef Stalin. Stalin, with his hand in his coat, is made of pink granite and is missing his nose.
GOLBIN: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: My guide points at the sculpture right behind Stalin. It's a contemporary work - stone heads in a cage symbolizing the Soviet dictator's millions of victims.
GOLBIN: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: Artyom Golbin says he considers Soviet sculptures a part of Russian history, some of it good, some it it's bad but in any case, important artifacts of the Communist period.
NATASHA ZAMKOVAYA: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: Visitor Natasha Zamkovaya agrees.
ZAMKOVAYA: (Speaking Russian).
KIM: "The same applies to controversial statues in the United States," she says, "because they remain part of American history."
Masha Lipman says statues themselves cannot stop social change, just as their removal does not guarantee it.
LIPMAN: Fighting with symbols of the past does not necessarily help solve the problems of the present.
KIM: Felix Dzerzhinsky may no longer stand in the central Moscow square, she says, but that hasn't stopped the security services from remaining an all-powerful force in today's Russia. In fact, the once-toppled statue of Dzerzhinsky in the sculpture park has since been restored and put back on his pedestal. The statue is now under government protection as a cultural monument. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "BEARDS OF THE PATRIARCHS"
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