I was in Warsaw on Nov. 17, 1989, the day that the city decided to take down its statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky. Given that Dzerzhinsky, a Polish aristocrat and dedicated Bolshevik, was best known as the founder of the organization that became the Soviet KGB, and given that hundreds of thousands of Poles were murdered or deported by the Soviet KGB, this was a popular decision. Crowds converged on the scene and cheered loudly as a crane removed the figure from its base.
Why had it lasted so long if it was so unpopular? The statue was a symbol of Soviet domination, and while the Soviet-backed communist regime ruled the country, from 1945 to 1989, nobody dared remove it. Even after a non-communist government was finally elected in June 1989, it took some time before anybody thought about the statue. So why Nov. 17? Perhaps it was because eight days earlier, on Nov. 9, East Germans walked for the first time through the Berlin Wall. People felt that a historic moment had arrived. Change was in the air. Walls were falling, statues were toppling, and Warsaw wanted to participate in this symbolic revolution too.
A year later I was in Lviv, in western Ukraine, when that city decided to remove its Vladimir Lenin statue — another symbol of Soviet domination, bloody dictatorship, terror and famine. The cause of that decision was, once again, genuine political change. It was September 1990: Restrictions on politics and press had just been lifted, the debate about Ukrainian independence had just begun, and suddenly nobody was afraid of the Soviet state anymore. A crowd in the small town of Chervonograd had demolished its Lenin statue and Lviv followed suit; these things were viral, even back when there was no social media .
The removal of the Lenin statue was important not because it was political theater, but because it reflected real change, at least for some. In the space where the Lenin statue had stood, a lovely square in front of the opera house, people gathered to debate. Some felt afraid; others felt, as President Trump now says he does, that old statues were part of “history” and shouldn’t be removed. Nostalgia for the autocratic system that Lenin represented was still strong, and indeed many monuments to him remained all across Ukraine — at least until another wave of political change, sparked by a street revolution and a foreign invasion, inspired another wave of removals. Just this month, 26 years after the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, the Ukrainian government announced that it had finally removed every single remaining Lenin statue, all 1,320 of them.
I thought of both of these moments a few days ago, when I read the words of the writer Vann R. Newkirk IIin the Atlantic about his childhood in North Carolina: “For most of my life I didn’t know Confederate statues could come down.” Nor did he know — I didn’t know either — that the statues to Confederate generals and soldiers in the American South were erected not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but decades later, as a part of the imposition of Jim Crow. To anyone with experience of 1989-1990 in Europe, his earlier assumption that the statues were a hateful but an immutable part of the landscape seems familiar; so does his delight to discover, in 2017, that they can be removed.
But there is another parallel. Polish and Ukrainian statues came down as the result of a revolutionary moment, a sudden break in the political situation. In the United States in 2017, we are living through what feels to many like a similar, though not entirely analogous, revolutionary moment. The election of Trump, the first American president in decades to use unapologetically racist language — starting with his insidious slur that Barack Obama was not American, moving on to his reference to Mexican “rapists” and continuing with his refusal to condemn neo-Nazis — has smashed the ordinary rhythms of American political life. Suddenly, in Trump’s America, a statue honoring a Confederate leader looks like not just a boring monument to the distant past but a living political statement about the present.
As I’ve said, these movements have always been viral; there will be plenty of copycats, and some of them will be silly or self-serving, especially those organized by students who imagine that changing a building’s name changes something real. But the movement to topple Confederate statues is precisely the opposite: People want to change the statues because they want to resist something real — a real threat, which may be accompanied by real violence. As long as Trump is in office, the movements against Confederate monuments, from the public and from public officials, will continue. I hope they have the same success as protesters in Warsaw and Lviv did.