I will start this essay with my central thesis:
The practice of taking down monuments is a physical manifestation of city dwellers’ attempts to gain political power they are otherwise deprived of by the larger unit of the state.
From here I will introspect to several seemingly remote cases of urban disobedience. Under a close scrutiny these cases have fundamental communalities not only in their physical manifestations—monument removal—but in the political hierarchies and power dynamics that conditioned them. All the monument demolitions described in this paper took place amid tumultuous times and political upheavals larger than the unit of the city and often larger than the unit of the state. The purpose of this text is not to analyze these dramatic political moments but only to speak to the special act of monument demolition in these larger than life contexts.
This paper examines monument removal cases starting from the recent protests against police brutality triggered by the murder of George Floyd in the United States, to the anti-communist, anti-corruption, and anti-central government demolitions in the Soviet and post-Soviet cities. These cases are used to pinpoint the small-scale local mechanisms of urban self-determination that lead to the removal of monuments and crystallization of their monumental voids.
The world in the twenty-first century continues to become more urban: the United Nations estimated that more than half the world’s population lives in cities. One would assume that by now, with over a century of rapid urbanization behind us, cities would have also gained political control over the rest of the larger political units around them. They have indeed developed some influence; yet, surprisingly, even in the most decentralized states, cities are still politically in the hands of authorities outside of the urban sphere and scope. The political underprivilege of cities in the face of the state is a phenomenon so common that it allows for comparing contexts as seemingly different as the Soviet, post-Soviet, and American monument demolitions.
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