Design: From Karl Marx to a Big Mac

Communist statues and buildings keep falling in Eastern Europe. But where do the treasures go?
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The Independent Culture
Some time in the Twenties, a statue was erected alongside the road between Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It portrayed Lenin and Stalin, sitting side by side on a bench, discussing - it is assumed - the onward march of Communism. When Stalin took over from Lenin as Soviet leader, he ordered the removal of his predecessor, leaving his own likeness to muse alone on the onward march. But then, when Stalin himself was discredited in the mid-Fifties, he too was removed. All that now remains is the bench.

Well, not quite. When I travelled the entire length of the road earlier this year, there was no sign of even the bench. It, too, seems to have been melted down.

Yet the story of the amazing shrinking statue remains a potent fable. It symbolises not just the Ozymandian transience of powerbut, more topically, the dilemma currently facing every former Soviet republic: what to do with all those grandiose chunks of marble and masonry, those mini-mausolea and Stalinist "wedding cakes" that they inherited from their former masters. To prop up or pull down?

Certainly nobody wants to spend money on maintaining them. Politically, they're embarrassing; aesthetically, they're often an eyesore. But the real problem is that removing them can create something even worse - a toothless gap in the urban smile.

In Kazan, capital of the Russian state of Tatarstan, a woman in her fifties encapsulated the mixed feelings of her generation: "The old Soviet leaders, yes, they may have been monsters - but their statues were like reference points when I was growing up. Now some squares are unrecognisable. When you take away the statues, you take away a part of my childhood - like removing your Nelson's column."

A young man beside her would have none of it: "They weren't erected by a grateful people. They had a purely political purpose - as symbols of repression; to remind us who was in charge. That's why we must get rid of them."

But at least a statue can be readily replaced. Indeed, in Russia the recycling of plinths has a long tradition. In the town of Rybinsk, on the river Volga, you will still find a statue of Lenin. Even now, every 22 April, local Communists gather round it to celebrate his birthday.

But the pink granite base is the very same as that which, before the 1917 Revolution, supported a statue of Tsar Alexander II (which, incidentally, was raised by public subscription). All that changed was that the double- headed eagle was chipped off and replaced by a plaque with the hammer and sickle.

Now, in their turn, across the former Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle are being erased. The Albanian army even has a special belt-grinding unit to remove the emblem from military buckles.

Buildings are more difficult. Over 70 years, many of the Soviet republics were "given" works of architecture by Moscow - often as a mark of favour or distinction. Sometimes these could be quite useful, and still are. Any Soviet city of more than a million people, for example, was entitled to its own metro - which is why capital cities such as Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku have splendid underground transport systems modelled on the Moscow original, even if these days they can barely afford to run them.

But Tbilisi also got a rather less welcome gift. This was a huge "tribune" - a dais on which the Georgian presidium could line up and take the salute at passing parades. To heighten the theatrical effect, it was backed by a multi-arched structure of sculpted shells soaring more than 30 metres into the air. With characteristic irreverence, the locals dubbed it "Andropov's Ears". Today, only the arches remain. Intended as a mere backdrop, they lead nowhere - a total mystery to any visitor ignorant of their original purpose.

Rather more practical is an imposing building with double columns on Rustaveli Avenue. This started life as the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin Institute of Social Sciences, with each of the great men depicted in his own niche on the frieze above the columns. You can guess the rest: today every niche is empty and the building is known simply as the Institute.

There is a fitting conclusion to this walk through architectural history. At the end of Rustaveli Avenue is Tbilisi's new McDonald's, opened in February amid great controversy on account of its proximity to the statue of Georgia's national poet, Shota Rustaveli. Its illuminated red-and-yellow "M" blazes forth like a beacon to capitalism. From Marx to McDonald's. Every age has its icons, but at least the hamburger sign has the modesty - and the foresight - to be in plastic.

Zakheim's (52A Ledbury Road, London W11; 0171-221 4977) sells revolutionary posters, Communist propaganda, busts of Lenin and commemorative porcelain. Lassco (St Michael's Church, Mark Street, London EC2; 0171-749 9944) has some Soviet art and artefacts