In 1993, I was stumbling along the rough concrete sidewalks of Alma Ata, then the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. I was late for an interview with an official of what was now an independent nation rich in oil, natural gas and uranium.
The street map I had was old. I stopped a Kazakh woman in a kerchief and asked, “Is this Lenin Street?”
“Not anymore,” she replied. “It is Apple Street.”
Therein lies a small history lesson. Every human society, it doesn’t matter, where undergoes a major reassessment of how its humanity squares with its history.
The former Soviet Union is an excellent example. Its architect, V.I. Lenin, was a brilliant organizer but a killer. Josef Stalin murdered at least 20 million (who’s counting?) during the Great Purge and later in the war against Hitler.
Time and again, the old USSR and now the Russian Federation would undergo a change in leadership and the statutes would come down. They did when Stalin died in 1953 in Eastern Europe. Russians were shocked when new chieftain Nikita Khrushchev gave his liberal-minded “Secret Speech” in 1956 denounced Stalin. When another liberal, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, came to power in 1985, he pushed the national conversation even further.
By that time, I was reporting there for an international magazine. I visited a tractor factory in the town of Vladimir in 1987. Its very bright deputy director who would go on the Harvard Graduate School of Business, smirked uneasily when he said the factory was still named after Andrei Zhdanov.
He didn’t need to mention that Zhdanov was a Stalin thug who oppressed artists like Anna Akhmatova and Dmitri Shostakovich. He also was instrumental in starting the great purge of the 1930s during which 1.5 million people were imprisoned and more than 680,000 were shot.
The old statues really started to come down after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. The Zhdanov plant got a new name (although the way things are going under Vladimir Putin, the statues are starting to go back up).
So, what’s may point? That all societies need to air their history and their myths – including the ones that white Southerners have clung to for yours. Are some so arrogant as to claim they are above what other nations undergo?
Mother Jones, one of my favorite magazines, has story listing just how many streets, schools and public buildings are named after dubious characters. In Jacksonville, Fla., they renamed a high school named after Nathan. Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. North Carolina has renamed school facilities named after former Gov. Charles Aycock, a white supremacist.
And for the truly strange, look no farther than Richmond. The Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School is on a street named after John Singleton Mosby, a famous Confederate cavalry raider.