Russians fight political battle of the busts

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EVERY WORKING morning for the last fortnight, two dozen men and women have crossed Moscow's snowbound streets to spend the day in a grubby corridor staring at a closed courtroom door. They do this because they are, in their own eccentric way, angry. As they settle down for another dreary day of reading newspapers, they unfurl posters bearing the legend "Free Andrei Sokolov".

Andrei Sokolov makes an unusual martyr. He is a 20-year-old unemployed baker, one of millions of urban youths whose disillusion with the nation's kleptocratic system prompted a search for other solutions. His answer - shared by some of his dishevelled supporters, but unusual among the young - was to become a radical Bolshevik.

When a memorial to the last tsar, Nicholas II, appeared in Moscow, he was outraged. At 4am one day, he blew it up, using a cocktail of explosives made from fireworks. It was, he said later, his revenge against a "bloody tyrant". Experts estimated the cost of repairs at more than $10,000 (pounds 6,250). Thus, Sokolov has spent the last 18 months in custody in Moscow's feared Lefortovo prison, before being tried on terrorism charges in a court closed to the public.

"They want to frighten people," said Viktor Pichuzhkin, a grizzled, black- robed Orthodox cleric bearing a large cross, an icon, and the nickname "Red Priest" because, although a man of God, he is also a passionate Leninist. "I don't blame Andrei for anything. What he did was very small, and was only meant to get public attention."

The case reflects the eagerness of Russia's security services to clamp down on political unrest, a strategy that will surely harden as the country's economic depression deepens. But it also strikes to the heart of another peculiar national characteristic, baffling to the average Western European.

Monuments really matter here. The Stalinist passion for projecting ideology on to hideous monolithic public sculptures has fused with an older attachment to icons. Russia's rifts - between liberal democrat and Slavic nationalist, monarchist and Soviet - are too tangled, too deep, and have run too long, to be resolved by words. The battle has become crude, waged over symbols - often with real weapons. Erect them or violate them at your peril.

A few days ago, the ardently royalist sculptor Vyacheslav Klykov provoked the ire of Communist extremists by unveiling his third statue to Nicholas II, in the village of Podolsk, 25 miles from Moscow. His first two were blown to smithereens by tsar-hating bombers. This time, he plans to have Cossacks guard his work.

Memories are still fresh of Moscow's horrified reaction in 1996 when they first saw the enormous statue to Peter the Great (who hated the city) near the Kremlin. It was later found to be wired for detonation - a crime police blamed on young Communists.

"Monuments are almost sacred to us," said Ekaterina Sviridova, 23, a comrade of Mr Sokolov's. "They live in the heart. Even when we are starving, you will find people collecting money to put up a memorial to someone."

Officials complain that Moscow is awash with small, unauthorised tombs to victims of cars crashes and murders. The mafia recently erected a five-foot stone memorial to two of its leaders, who died in a shoot-out. When the authorities objected, they received threatening phone calls. It was eventually cleared away by city workers hiding behind the wheel of a crane.

But one monument above all others is the focus of acrimonious political dispute. Shortly before Christmas the Communists in parliament won a non-binding vote to restore the founder of the Soviet secret police to his pedestal outside the Lubyanka, the old KGB headquarters.

The hardliners among them have never recovered from the day, in August 1991, when an ecstatic crowd watched the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky being winched away. It now stands in obscurity in a sculpture garden opposite Gorky Park.

The left view Dzerzhinksy's rehabilitation as a step in their march back from the shame of Soviet collapse. But non-Communists - mindful that Dzerzhinsky founded the Cheka, the murderous executioners of Soviet terror - are horrified. "Dzerzhinsky is one of the most horrible butchers in history," said Yuli Ribakov, a democrat. "How can we possibly reinstate his statue in the centre of the Russian capital?"

In a reasonable society that question should not need to be asked. But Russia is not reasonable. That much the hotheaded Sokolov has discovered: last week he was sentenced to four years in prison.