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According to Wiki, one of the intended functions of monuments is to act as a tool for spreading political information:

Monuments are also often designed to convey historical or political information, and they can thus develop an active socio-political potency. They can be used to reinforce the primacy of contemporary political power, such as the column of Trajan or the numerous statues of Lenin in the Soviet Union. They can be used to educate the populace about important events or figures from the past, such as in the renaming of the old General Post Office Building in New York City to the James A. Farley Building, after James Farley, former Postmaster General of the United States.

Ukraine notably got rid of all their Lenin statues in the aftermath of Russia's occupation of Crimea. But just how effective are monuments in convincing people to change their minds one way or another? I.e. have there been any attempts to directly measure the impact of adding (or removing) a given statue on the political stances of local residents?

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    History and pride in free nations. Propoganda can also be argued. But can a definitive answer be made to this question?
    – DogBoy37
    May 15 at 23:05
  • @DogBoy37 I think so? You could poll people for something like "1. Have you seen the statue of X? 2. What's your opinion of X?". Then see if people who have seen the statue were at all affected by it. May 15 at 23:10
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    Why would the issue be whether they change opinion instead of whether they help form it in the first place? Changing someone's existing opinion is a much harder process than simply being a part of the things that formed that opinion in the first place, and I would expect monuments to do the latter more than the former.
    – terdon
    May 16 at 9:57
  • @terdon sure but can we measure whether this actually works? Usually the state education (propaganda) machine works on numerous levels, how do we know whether monuments are actually useful at all? May 16 at 12:24
  • No idea, and I think it's an interesting question. I just suggest that you should focus on how/whether monuments contribute to forming opinion rather than whether they can change it.
    – terdon
    May 16 at 12:27

5 Answers 5

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This is a difficult question to answer, rigorously or otherwise, but scholars have tried to do so. Here is a sampling of their conclusions. Overall, there is not a strong and conclusive answer one way or the other. Most scholars think that there is some impact, but it is hard to quantify.

One pair of studies on the topic entitled "Effects of Confederate Monuments on Political Attitudes and Behavior" looked at the impact of Confederate Monuments in the American South, motivated by the general issue raised in the question, which is challenging to operationalize into a study.

The first study reached the following conclusions:

Among white and Black Southerners:

  • Race does not significantly predict likelihood of saying Confederate monuments were about Southern heritage, a Lost Cause, or history

  • Race does significantly predict likelihood of saying Confederate monuments were about racial injustice/slavery

The second study reached the following conclusions:

How do state laws protecting Confederate monuments affect Black and white Southerners differently?

  • Black Southerners feel like they are less likely to belong, while white Southerners overall are unaffected

    • Black Southerners did not show significant effects for political efficacy or participation
  • Racially resentful whites are less likely to engage politically, while whites who are not racially resentful intend to participate more

  • Southern identity and conservatism do not help to explain how whites respond to Confederate preservation laws

Another scholar, commenting in the wake of a successful effort to take down a British monument honoring a controversial figure, however, concluded that:

It is clear that monuments and statues are largely ineffective in commemoration because people lose sight of their symbolic significance.

A third perspective states:

Monuments are not mere blocks of stone or bronze figures erected to beautify a park or cityscape. They are tangible representations of historical legacies that reveal a great deal about the fabric of the societies in which they stand. They can serve as a trigger for protest and violence or as catalysts for reconciliation and social cohesion.

In the first instance, contestations over monuments are rarely about the object itself but rather about underlying tensions dividing a community, be they based on unaddressed historical grievances, the sense of injustice from marginalised communities, manipulation for partisan political purposes, protests over economic disparities or other grievances. The fall of the Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015 is a case in point. Students and faculty were frustrated by the university’s slow pace in transforming the curriculum, reforming hiring practices, dealing with racism on campus, and addressing students’ complaints about tuition fees. The statue of the 19th century colonial-era businessman, an unapologetic racist, provided a target for their collective grievances, a symbol of the indelible stain of colonialism’s legacy in South Africa. The Rhodes Must Fall movement sparked similar protests around the world.

In the second instance, monuments can contribute to promoting a sense of inclusivity in pluralistic societies. For example, in the Kazakh city of Petropavlovsk the monument of the Kazakh poet Abai stands side-by-side with the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin symbolising friendship between the Kazakhs and the Russians, the two largest ethnic groups in the region. In 2019 the French city of Bordeaux–the second largest port in France complicit in the transatlantic slave-trade during the 17th to 19th centuries—erected a statue of Modeste Testas, a young woman kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery by a Bordeaux slave-trader, in recognition of the city’s slavery-era legacy and the Afro-Europeans living in France today. Increasingly, monuments such as this are changing the memory landscape of the cities and communities in which they are situated and contribute to a sense of shared heritage.

Do monuments matter? Yes. But what matters more is how controversies over existing and planned monuments can be addressed in effective and responsible ways

Another paper, entitled "The Effects of Public Memorials on Social Memory and Urban Identity" also makes the case that they do have an effect, although it doesn't focus on the political impact that they have. It argues that:

In recent years, instead of paramount monuments and separate or enclosed memory sites, the examples of memorials integrated into cities have been increasing. Representing memories in this way not only reminds people of their social history without visiting a place specially, but also provides a correlation and helps to develop an empathy with citizens and strengthens urban memory. This paper draws attention to the contributions of memory sites to social memory and urban identity, and then points out the effects of designing memorials that are integrated into daily life in cities on societies from a design perspective

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According to Wiki, one of the intended functions of monuments is to act as a tool for spreading political information

I'd argue it's not so much information that they spread but some sort of sentiment.

Like how often do you read the description of monuments, google their origin, ask people about them or whatnot ... if you're not a tourist. I suppose it's not that often and that there are plenty of people who walked past these objects on a daily basis without knowing their origins, even using them as meeting points without getting into their lore. Seriously, how often have you read a street name dedicated to a person and actually looked them up? I even went to named institutions and don't know much about the people who gave them their name.

So in terms of spreading information directly they are likely very ineffective.

Statues and monuments aren't there to teach history; they are there to glorify it. You literally put people and events on a pedestal and often literally make them larger than life. So the size, the material, the craftsmanship, the style, the posture all already contribute to an effect even before you know who is actually depicted.

Like seriously erecting a giant monolith, so a faceless rock, in times where making these things is a major feat in engineering, can propagate the sentiment of "we can do things you can't imagine and we have the wealth to waste that as art".

Or how monarchs sat on a throne to make them look larger, how rooms were designed to make the audience feel small, how perspective can be used to hide or reveal things and so on. So it's already hard to compare statues.

Then it's the fact who is depicted, so who gets the honor of being present, and are they just present there or are they literally omnipresent. So if even the smallest village has a statue of the big leader, you know how far their influence ranges and THAT is likely the message it was supposed to send.

Also when were they erected. Like apparently the studies on confederate monuments revealed that it's also the act of erecting that is a message. So most confederate monuments weren't erected after the war, but way later, often coinciding with the civil rights movement to send the message of who is in charge of the town and their position without using the n-word.

Likewise tearing down statues and monuments is a symbolic act of resistance. The statue wouldn't have done anything, but taking control over the public sphere can be a major symbolic victory.

Similarly whether sprayers are allowed to take control over it or whether the city cleans and restores it regularly. So these can be active battlegrounds for generations as to who controls the public square.

Or is it something that is rock solid that has always been there, from pictures of today to paintings of the 16th century. Then it might serve as anchor point for conservative movements to pretend the long legacy of their ideals and systems, even if they are just tagged on to something or even if the statue just looks old but isn't.

And so on. So the sentimental effect is different for different statues and might change over time. From tourist attractions to non-verbal reminders of power.

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  • But does the actual monument matter at all or is it just a Schelling point for people who already think one way or another? In other words is there any causality of "erect statue" -> "change sentiment"? Or is it always "sentiment change" -> "erect statue" and the statue itself has zero influence on anything? May 16 at 15:02
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    "Statues and monuments aren't there to teach history they are there to glorify it. " Indeed. And they're not about changing your political beliefs, they are about bringing selected people and events to your attention and attesting their significance. May 16 at 17:16
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    @JonathanReez: The statute itself, as I understand, effectively indicates how the sentiment changed; it says that the person who put up the statute agrees with what the represented person or idea had to say, and the continued existence of the monument says that the society is of the same sentiment. Similarly ,the tearing down of a monument effectively says "We don't agree with that sentiment indicated by the person or idea that this statute represented.". May 16 at 23:13
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    @JonathanReez It's somewhat the attempt to manifest a sentiment, to give it a lasting visible symbol in the environment. Like probably a lot of past monuments were dick measuring contests. Like being able to erect these things is emblematic of the economy of a region, as they cost a lot and are practically useless. So building an impressive statue of themselves and having it remain after death was probably a status symbol for a ruler and their dynasties. While if you look up stock photos symbolic of revolutions, it's very often tearing down statues of the former leaders manifest the change.
    – haxor789
    May 17 at 9:53
  • @JonathanReez What it symbolizes, whether the symbol works and what comes first probably depends on the specifics. Like suppose a country is in a depression and you erect a statue of a thing that was won years ago with a large festive celebration, than this either lightens the mood and the statue might serve as a reminder of that mood or it might spark even more anger and depression as the government is wasting precious resources needed elsewhere. So if the message of the statue was supposed to say "we are great" the destruction of it might serve as "No you suck", both symbolic.
    – haxor789
    May 17 at 10:24
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The human mind has a great ability to associate a lot of ideas and feelings to innate things like an act, word, colour, graphic, picture, statue etc. Religions rely heavily on such symbolism to communicate their ideas and ethos. The Christian cross is a great example that sums up the basic fundamental of Christianity in it, due to its complex representation of Christ's sacrifice for humanity. The Pillars of Ashoka, by an indian emperor, and the Nazi Swastika of Hitler are famous examples of symbolism in politics. Similarly, statues of political leaders (and other monuments) are symbolisms for a political idea or ideology that are not primarily meant to change people's political beliefs but to reinforce them among the believers. (Of course, they are also meant to arouse curiosity and introduce the "ignorant" to the political idea / ideology the symbol represents).

In your example, the statues of Lenin in Ukraine are / were meant to remind the Ukranian of their shared political and historic relations with the USSR, and to reinforce his ideology among the Leninists in Ukraine. This politically benefited the Russians as having a shared history makes it easier to establish a rapport and build deeper ties with another society.

Similarly, the destruction of Lenin statues is also a symbolic political act by some Ukranian politicians to convey their intention to break all ties with Russia while deliberately ignoring their historic ties. It is also a political message to the west that some Ukrainians are quite willing to ditch the ideology of communism, represented by Lenin, and fully embrace western capitalism.

This is being done with relative ease and nearly no opposition in Ukraine now because the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians have generated a lot of ill-will among the common public against Russians, and a right-leaning government is in power there that has banned, persecuted or jailed nearly all other opposition leaders on some pretext.

Just as Russia claims to seeks "denazification" of Ukraine with it aggression, some right-leaning Ukrainian politicians consider the destruction of such political monuments a part of the "Decommunization" of Ukraine.

As for how effective such acts of destruction of political symbols are to change people's political beliefs, it can be pretty effective over a period of time (decades, if not a century) if used with other political tactics (like revisionist history, banning political ideas, persecuting the ideologists / oppositions, forced indoctrination etc.). The whole idea is to prevent the next generation from being "contaminated" by these political ideas while they are being indoctrinated with the desired political ideology of those in power.

Colonial history is a testament to how effective all this imperialist inspired political tactics can be for eliminating entire cultural and political beliefs in a country, given enough time.

Whether it pans out similarly in Ukraine remains to be seen - if Ukraine is truly democratic (which it is not today), the political left- there is unlikely to be so easily suppressed, and will oppose any such tactics that will politically undermine it, thus making this task much harder for the Ukrainian political right-.

(For more on symbolism in political communication, please refer to 'Semiotics' - it is the field that studies signs and sign-using behaviour).

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Monuments, street naming, etc have tremendous impact on the reception of ideological framework since people will consider true by default the things that are literally set in stone.

You can surely debate political topics and have your own opinions and outright reject the common beliefs, but if you grew up in the city which had a specific set of monuments you will consider them as neutral political background, whereas in fact they may be very opinionated by themself.

The beliefs that you think are common are the ones encoded by monuments and naming.

However, it takes a long time for monuments to do their thing. To the people who were already politically aware at the time, contemporary monuments are "that new thing" which visibly promote or discredit some cause, and hence they don't work. It would take at least a decade for monuments to cement the public opinion.

With Lenin it's less clear, though, since statues of Lenin did not carry much political meaning by themselves. Everybody has a Lenin of his own. To ones he's a ferocious tyrant, to others a socialist and a democrat, to others yet a maker of a dozen new nation states, and so on. Is Lenin a NEP-man or a Military Communist? You decide.

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    have tremendous impact on the ideological framework => but do they, really? Is it causation or correlation? May 15 at 23:26
  • It's a co-evolution.
    – alamar
    May 15 at 23:28
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    The Kingdom of Poland came into existence 1000 years ago. Most of those countries were states hundreds of years ago. Lenin did not create them. Even in the 1910s, the outcome of WWI was not dictated by Lenin. Crediting Lenin with creating these nations seems a bit like crediting Práxedes Mateo Sagasta with creating Cuba, because he was in charge when Spain lost the Spanish-American War.
    – prosfilaes
    May 16 at 21:36
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    Poland disappeared and reappeared many times and poles lived under an assortment of regimes; and in Poland when it functioned, multiple ethnicities used to live. All of that divergence is now being swept under the rug, including by monumental means.
    – alamar
    May 16 at 21:45
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    @alamar The elephant in the room is that Russia is currently using variations of that narrative to justify it's wars of aggression and annexation, by using the multiethnic as "basically Russian" and by claiming to "protect" these Russians outside of Russia, by invasion and annexation. Claiming that Lenin essentially created them. When in reality they constituted themselves, Lenin actively failed to prevent that and settled for a Soviet UNION rather than more infighting or even losing influence there altogether. So the significance of that is not as one-sided as you make it sound.
    – haxor789
    May 17 at 13:29
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To address the specific example of Lenin - it is not one statue that constituted propaganda (and perhaps some were even kept or simply moved), but the fact that there was a statue in every park, Lenin square in every town, etc. (I think the busts of Lenin in government offices and schools had been removed long ago. Lenin was also mentioned in the Soviet anthem and ubiquitous in school texts.)

This is like George Washington in the US or Charles de Gaulle in France - imagine what effect removing references to either of these in their respective countries would have.

Another argument is the toxicity of the very presence of Lenin and other Communism-related imagery from the point of view of eastern Europeans. They may consider presence of Lenin's statues as objectionable, as Nazi symbols in Germany and other places affected by Nazism.

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  • I can see this working on the scale of Lenin where there’s hundreds of thousands of statues. But does it work in convincing people on a lesser scale of (say) dozens of statues? Lots of political battles are over one or two statues dedicated to this or that historical figure. May 19 at 10:47
  • @JonathanReez I think it is very variable. Some monuments/memorials may have symbolic significance for certain movements. In other cases it is just politicking - e.g., France is full of monuments to Louis XIV and Napoleon, neither of which is representative of the modern French values... still, there was little enthusiasm for the proposals to replace them by monuments to whatever is fashionable ideology of today. May 19 at 13:53

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