Wait a minute — we’re honoring him?
Cities all over the world rename streets and put up statues to commemorate local heroes and beloved public figures. But to the bafflement and irritation of many people in St. Petersburg, Russia, their city has recently honored three people they would hardly call heroic or beloved.
Remarkably, the least controversial of the three is Kim Jong Il.
Kim, the former North Korean dictator, was brutal even by the standards of Russia, which has seen its share of tyrants. What did he do to merit a plaque? He stopped by a local factory 15 years ago.
Even more eyebrows were arched when a bridge was renamed in honor of Akhmad Kadyrov, a Chechen leader who was assassinated in May 2004. That was widely seen as a political sop to Ramzan A. Kadyrov, Akhmad’s son and the current president of Chechnya, the restive region in the Caucasus.
Noting that Akhmad Kadyrov had supported Russia in the Second Chechen War, a spokesman for the governor of St. Petersburg said, “Russia remembers and honors its heroes.” This even though Kadyrov, in the First Chechen War, led an anti-Russian militia and was seen in propaganda videos calling on Chechens to kill as many Russians as possible.
More than 90,000 people signed an online petition protesting the renaming, to no avail. Maksim Reznik, an opposition politician, tried to challenge the decision during a legislative meeting, but his microphone was abruptly switched off.
Then there is the new plaque commemorating Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the Finnish military officer and statesman. He fought for Russia in the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, when Finland was part of the Russian Empire. But after the Bolshevik Revolution, he led independent Finland’s army during World War II, when Finland was allied with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union.
The leaders of the St. Petersburg Military Engineering-Technical University, situated in the barracks where Mannerheim served in the 1890s, were evidently overlooking that later part of his life; the national minister of culture even turned up for the unveiling.
But locals see the general as complicit in the devastating German siege of St. Petersburg during World War II, when it was known as Leningrad. Vandals have twice doused the plaque in red paint.
In this case, opponents may be getting somewhere. Prompted by an outraged communist lawmaker, the Russian prosecutor general’s office said in August that it was opening an inquiry into the plaque’s installation.