Heroic Death and Selective Memory: The US’s WWII Memorial and the USSR’s Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

In: The Presence of the Dead in Our Lives

Just as war is a struggle to the death over conflicting values, so are war memorials a struggle over death and its meaning. This paper focuses on two parallel efforts to memorialise those who served during World War II (called the Great Patriotic War in Russia): the US’s World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the USSR’s Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia). What I will argue is that both of these memorials, rather than simply honouring the sacrifices of the dead, convey a deliberate political message: that those who died were heroes, and that a heroic death is one in which the sacrifice is worth it. Such a politicised agenda requires not only that collective memory be formed and preserved by an architectural structure, but that these mnemonic spaces also promote a forgetfulness of memories to the contrary. In this, these two memorials, one originating within democracy and the other within communism, demonstrate Harvey Weinstein’s point that ‘memorials represent a complex nexus between politics, trauma, collective memory, and public art.’ The paper begins with a brief discussion of heroic versus tragic death as archetypes. Next, I examine and compare the American and Soviet monuments with attention to how the elements of timing, geography, architecture/art, and flow determine what is remembered, what is repressed, and in what form the Presence of the dead is invited to these spaces. I suggest that despite their significantly different wartime experiences and politics, both countries built triumphant renderings of the war - memorials that celebrated heroic death while denying tragic death - to promote not only national unity but also a patriotism based on militarism.

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