Countless images from Ukraine linger in my mind these days – fathers cradling their dead toddlers and pregnant women staring ashen faces from stretchers and mothers filling sandbags with their sons. These images are haunting and relentless, portraits of a beleaguered people struggling for survival.
Rightly or wrongly, the cultural similarity between the United States and Ukraine has made this conflict seem more personal to me than those raging in Afghanistan or Myanmar. There’s the McDonald’s at the back of the bombed-out plaza. A robot vacuum cleaner in the corner of one of the last photos a kyiv man saw of his surviving family. My daughter’s rolling suitcase looks a lot like the one next to this crumpled body. My husband wears T-shirts like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Don’t I have a jacket like that moaning mother wears? Am I not driving a car like this family’s, the car with their handwritten signs, urgently announcing that they are transporting children, taped to the windows? I see people huddled on mattresses in a metro station, under a sign announcing the music festival which was due to take place in Kyiv at the end of March – now a shocking reminder of the life before. I wonder if any of them had planned to attend.
In each image I see echoes of my life and how quickly it could all be stripped away. And yet, the only image that made me think the most is not at all that of destruction. This is a photograph of a statue in Odessa buried under a mountain of sandbags.
I imagine all the people who filled those sandbags to encase the statue, passing them from hand to hand in a line of determination and determination. Even as Russian troops closed in with their blind bombs, this community set about trying to preserve its heritage.
I tried to imagine how I would keep myself busy if I prepared for missiles to fall from the sky. Although I’d like to think otherwise, I suspect I’d mostly be frozen in fear. It would be dishonest to count me among those who would visit local landmarks in my hometown to make sure their windows were boarded up and their valuables put away.
And yet, I appreciate that those who remember these things are also worth saving. It touches something deep and tender in me to see a country trying to protect what others seek to destroy. It looks like a particularly hopeful act of defiance, a visual reminder to the invaders that Ukrainian humanity, ideals and history cannot be conquered no matter what happens on the battlefield in the weeks to come. to come.
The image lives in me too, because that’s not always how cultures behave.
It was probably during my fourth or fifth visit to the Forbidden City that I first became aware of what I now consider to be the most distinctive feature of the Chinese national museum: the scarcity of artifacts. My family lived in China on the outskirts of Beijing for four years in the 2010s, and whenever we had visitors from the United States, we dutifully took them for a walk around the Forbidden City. Wear comfortable shoes, I would advise. And be ready to walk.
I’ll be honest, it wasn’t my favorite stop on the tourist trail. It really involved a lot of walking. After a while, to my untrained eye, the palace gates all started to look alike. And when I climbed the steps to look through the windows, I discovered that in many cases, instead of actual artifacts, there were only images of artifacts. Then I assumed that the treasures were kept elsewhere or loaned to museums around the world – and maybe many were. But once, when I casually remarked about it to a Chinese friend who had joined us on the tour, she quietly explained, “Our people destroyed a lot during the Cultural Revolution.
Across China, in a massive campaign launched in 1966 to rid the country of the Four Olds, millions of people were killed, tortured and imprisoned. But the fanatics of the Cultural Revolution also aimed at material history. They smashed pottery, burned books, destroyed artifacts and erased history in an effort to rid their country of what they considered archaic customs and ideas. As my friend explained, in many cases the historic structures themselves have been preserved. But much of what you expected to find there has been destroyed, a monument to the absence of a culture that is turning in on itself, cannibalizing its own history to make room for the future.
From that day on, when I saw the framed pictures of Qing Dynasty pottery instead of the pottery itself, I felt like I was in a hall of mirrors. It was a country trying to remember what it had tried to destroy. The Shard Box, an entrepreneurial family business in Beijing, had my favorite solution to the problem: specialists in taking shards of broken antique china and repurposing them into beautiful boxes and jewelry, they create entire stories of empires rising and downhill that can fit in your transport. -on bag.
I don’t tell these stories together to elevate one as morally superior while denigrating the other – or to call one culture noble and one ignoble. I know enough about human nature to know that we all have a mixture of both. And disparate circumstances mean the comparison doesn’t go that far. But the two extremes got me thinking about where my own country fits into that spectrum.
“One hundred and two Confederate symbols have been banned from public spaces in the nearly five months since [George] Floyd, a black man, was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police,” reported HuffPost in October 2020. Others have gone down since then. In my own community, one of the local high schools was renamed from Robert E. Lee High to Legacy High, a controversial move that I supported.
But it wasn’t just Confederate leadership honors that fell. Only public outcry prevented the San Francisco school board from renaming schools after such figures as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. A statue of Teddy Roosevelt has been removed from the New York Museum of Natural History. And across the country, statues of lesser known and less controversial figures have been vandalized.
Is this our own cultural revolution? The extreme right and the extreme left say “yes”, although in different senses. The far right would have you believe that these actions are all the same – all efforts to rewrite history, to falsely discredit our country’s past as hopelessly lost to the sins of racism. The far left echoes the cry of the revolutionaries, insisting that we must tear down these statues to atone, indeed, for a national past hopelessly lost to the sins of racism.
I think of it while reflecting on the sandbags piled up around the statue of the Duke of Richelieu in Odessa. As the moments leading up to his possible destruction ticked away, were local citizens debating the merits of his life and leadership? Did they discuss whether or not his memory was worth saving? Or did they bury him in sandbags just because he was their history, believing that this alone made his statue worthy of protection?
And what are we going to do with our own contentious memorials? Should a black child be educated in a school named for Confederacy by a community that was angry at forced integration? I would say no. Should we demolish the monuments of our first president because he was a slave owner? I would also say no. Could the Roosevelt statue’s controversial legacy of “patriarchy, white supremacy, and settler colonialism” have been resolved by removing the flanking statues and adding an explanatory plaque? May be.
I have no easy answers. I suspect that if we were honest, we wouldn’t admit any of us, despite our often violent insistence to the contrary.
I know it is possible to remember a story without harboring nostalgia for your wrongs. “Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Nazi armed forces, but many grandfathers fought or fell in love with them. Instead, it has a dizzying number and variety of monuments to victims of his murderous racism,” wrote Susan Neiman for Atlantic in 2019. Germany lives with tension in its history, and I suspect that collective memory is one of the reasons why Berlin was so quick to rally to Ukraine’s cause.
We haven’t learned to live with tension in the same way here, but if we want to preserve the democracy we have inherited, we must continue to wrestle with the questions. The Odessa sandbag statue reminds us that there are other ways to preserve our national memories. But it should also remind us that loss of freedom and loss of history have often gone hand in hand.