A Final Monumental Reflection

“Deeds, not stones, are the true monuments of the great.”

— John L. Motley

Change is inevitable. Traits, ambitions, skillsets, ideas — they all evolve, parallel to our own growth. In retrospect, these 6 weeks have proven to be challenging, but also equally gainful. At their end, I have found novelty, both within myself and within my studies.

At the beginning of June, I felt a simultaneous sense of exhilaration and vulnerability. The Digital Humanities summer program provided me with my first undergraduate-level research experience. I was full of ideas, some of which were difficult to verbalize and give shape to. That’s where the vulnerability lay, I think. The doubt stirring underneath my consciousness, with only a few appearances, but many influences. Was my research proposal truly interesting?  Did I, as the only rising sophomore in the eclectic group, have the ability to ask questions and reach answers within the confines of 6 weeks? Was I responsibly conveying these answers through my paper and my project, or was I warping reality through the influence of my own biases?

Looking back, my desire to explore monuments across all of Eastern Europe seems rather nonsensical. I admit that at some points, when I was advised to narrow down my ambitions, I felt hurt. I hid it, but underneath my skin it spread like a mottled bruise. Too many nights in a row, I stayed up late, looking through my database and wondering what could be so wrong that I should change it. In my mind, I needed a tangible reason to change direction — generally put, ‘too broad’ was simply not good enough.

But I realize, six weeks later, that I needn’t have spent those nights in the company of a database, accompanied by a lingering sense of doubt. I should have turned towards myself, instead, and questioned my own intentions. Why had I allowed myself to accept the notion that my first research ideas should be the pillars upon which I would build an empire? Unlike the monuments that I was to examine, I was not made of stone. No. As a human being, I was meant to be swayed by the winds of change, for change is what fuels progress, and progress is what ultimately leads to growth.

Now, I am grateful for the guiding hands on my shoulders, which steered me in the direction of the right path. I remember walking down the steps of Skillman Library and allowing myself but a few seconds to be disappointed: in my over-zealous ambition, in my jumping in head-first, in the fruitlessness of close to 3 weeks worth of work. But I had seen others stumble and fall and get back on their feet right away — and that meant I was capable of that, too. So with a new-found strength in my steps, I made my way home.

Home is where my new project spread its roots, too. Bulgaria. The motherland, where everything just seemed to flow so easily, so smoothly. My research became much more enjoyable, because the monuments that I was examining — at some points, I had actually seen and touched in person. There I was, then, separated from home by thousands of miles and an endless ocean, and yet, I somehow spent my days at this home. I devoted countless of hours in finding the links between the abstract concepts of history, and the tangible treatment of monuments. And nothing could have been more fulfilling, because I had finally found my direction, and reached my place.

Six weeks later, I am returning to my motherland. And if there is one thing I know for sure, it is that I will gaze upon Bulgaria’s communist-era art (which was, once upon a time, built upon the thrones of fallen heroes and dictators) with brand new eyes.

Monumental Reflection, 4

The past week has been rough. I had spent a lot of time (nearly half of the duration of the project) researching monuments that I would not need, questions that were not essential.

However, as it turns out, my scope was far too ambitious and my question was far too broad to formulate a well-written, scholarly research paper. Therefore, I have narrowed my scope down from the entire post-Soviet Eastern Europe, to Bulgaria. At this point, I have also decided to tie the treatment of Communist monuments in Bulgaria to the governmental-imposed idea of a ”double liberation”, rooting my argument in several key components:

  • The separation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire as a clever governmental tool for depicting Russia as the liberator.
  • The idea of a national enemy as crucial for forming a national identity. The use of this ”first” liberation as a basis for the ”double liberation” idea: the sense of brotherhood between the Soviet and Bulgaria, enforced by strengthening the link between the Russian liberator and the Soviet liberator.
  • The connection of the two occurrences has been reinforced by building Soviet monuments near by monuments commemorating the Russo-Turkish War, or by symbolic places where historical battles took place.
  • The hypothesis that this “double liberation” is the reason why unlike many other post-Soviet states, the Bulgarian government has continuously worked in some ways towards protecting communist monuments, rather than destroying them. E.g. 1992 treaty of cooperation between Russia and Bulgaria, and Boyko Borissov’s encouragement of communist landmark restoration programs.
  • Despite the government’s support, there are still 3 different narratives of how society perceives Communist monuments (anti-fascist, nostalgic, and commercial), wherein the double liberation plays a crucial role in the nostalgic and commercial perception.

Therefore, my main research question has (so far) shifted to:

How has the idea of a Bulgarian “double liberation” influenced the state’s treatment of Soviet monuments?

I believe this to be a much more concise idea, because it is rooted in a historical argument.  Additionally, I can still use the mapping method in order to strengthen my point, by placing both Soviet and Russo-Turkish monuments in relation to each other, layering on basis such as: funding, commemoration, state’s treatment, society’s treatment.

Overall, after brainstorming for a few hours today, I have reached peace with the way this project is headed. A part of me fears potentially meeting with Prof. Sanborn because he could discourage me from everything that I just rebuilt from scratch… But another part of me knows that even if that happens, I have already learnt that rebuilding is not that bad, after all.

Monumental Reflection, 3

Finally, I am content with how things are turning out.

I have compiled a list of all the books I wish to use, and I am in the process of extracting valuable information from them. Thanks to that, I have created what is, in my eyes, a well-written 6-page outline of how I see my paper and research argument to be. Sarah and Mr. Clark have emphasized the importance on narrowing down my scope, so for now I have confined my 10 case studies to 4 countries only – Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and what was once East Germany.

Taking into consideration Sarah’s suggestion of narrowing it down to only 1 country, 4 may still seem like an unaccomplishable overkill, but I have taken into consideration that monuments are not demolished or vandalized every single day. Additionally, in some cases the treatment of monuments that I am planning to analyze has been tied to the same political event – a political event that has sparked outrage internationally. Thus, in my eyes the project is not and should not be seen as an examination of the political relations of 4 countries and Russia. Rather, this project aims to show that although monuments aim to preserve a time in history, to make permanent someone or something that is fleeting, the treatment of these monuments depicts instability, rather than permanence. And this instability is based on fluctuating social and political events, which I see as a smaller scale than political relations! Monuments are undeniably tied to history – consequently, to ideology and values – and so the ways in which they are viewed and treated changes according to what lens history is seen through.  Because this lens changes due to its relationship with the political and social scene, I aim to prove that the way communist monuments are valued changes in the same way.

I have started working on narrowing down which monuments I want to use as case studies, but I will continue researching what is controversial. Additionally, my aim is to expand my total database to 300 monuments by the aim of this week. However, I need to emphasize the importance on the case studies, rather than on the supplementary database itself. That being said, I will try to choose my final case studies by the end of the week as well, and start gathering information on them. I will simultaneously be uploading this information on the WordPress platform that I started creating, and when I have gathered enough, I will start my analysis and incorporate it into the final paper, as well.

On a brighter tone, it’s Monday! The start of a new week, which will be fuelled with new energy and enthusiasm. I’ve got this!

Monumental Reflection, 2


“Monuments are for the living, not for the dead.”

-Frank Wedekind

 As the second week of this journey draws near, a new question emerges on the horizon. Did the Communist regime start establishing ideological monuments within and beyond USSR borders gradually, or all at once? After today’s DH meeting, the more I think about it, the more appealing it is strive to achieve a project in which the map can track the establishment of monuments throughout the years. However, the tools utilization and coding aspects of the project will be a daunting task.

 With every new day, I am reminded of the short time that I have to work on something that is of a larger scale. On the one side, my research is not done and I have not yet created a dataset. On the other hand, I also have not chosen what tools I want to use and I have not learned how to use them. And finally, I have yet to choose the platform that I will build my project on. All these things I plan to (meaning, personally feel like I need to) sort out by the end of Week Two. On a brighter side, my research question, thesis and outline have been formulated!

It feels as though I have spent a lot of my free time on achieving personal goals that I had set for this summer (reading books and learning languages, mainly), yet I have not dedicated enough time to do the required research on the subject. That being said, I need to step my game up, so from this moment onward, I need to prioritize. Needless to say, DH is on the top of my list right now!

Last night, an Art History professor emailed me links to some useful books – tonight, I will give them a look, and I will start building from scratch.

Monumental Reflection, 1

“Every dictatorship, whether of man or of party leas to the two forms that schizophrenia loves most: the monologue and the mausoleum. Moscow is full of gagged people and monuments to the Revolution.”

– Octavio Paz

One can tell a lot about a nation not just by what is creates, but also by what it destroys. Despite how controversial Communist monuments in post-Soviet Eastern Europe are, they remain as testimonies of national perseverance and evolution. They have stood as silent witnesses to the peaks and troughs of political regimes. With cold, somber eyes, many of these Communist survivors have observed the dynamically changing social values that have brought about political, historical, and social transitions.

Albeit imbued with state ideology, they are art, built upon the empty thrones of fallen dictators. Memorials to students who stood in the path of tanks, to soldiers who bore the deepest wounds of war, to parties that built national history. The people esteemed as heroes in the eyes of some, yet condemned as malefactors in the eyes of others. They are paved over. Renamed. Blown apart. But sometimes … Sometimes, they survive, and each and every one of them has a unique story to tell the world.

Growing up in Eastern Europe, I watched as monuments were abandoned, ridiculed, destroyed by human aggression and passage of time. But I also saw tourists who stood in awe in front of bigger-than-life sharp figures. I watched as youth furiously scrubbed away the contempt painted upon men who, whether for good or for bad, made history. I gazed at how piece by piece, meaning was brought back to monuments that had been left behind.

These are all reasons why this Digital Humanities project is so meaningful to me. How does society’s perception of ideological monuments change? Throughout the years, what are the values that these monuments have carried? Why are monuments destroyed, and what sparks the desire to bring life back to them? How does the digital world play a role in the treatment of physical world edifices? I will attempt to answer all of these questions in the 6 short weeks that I will be conducting research.

One of my biggest aims is to create a digital record of Communist monuments in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. I foresee that I may not be able to track down all the monuments due to limits of time, but I will try to include at least a dozen monuments from each represented country. After the formal timeline of my research reaches an end, I plan to further work on this, until at one point I have mapped down all the existing monuments. Additionally, I have pondered whether to add photographs of each monument, but since I will face a lot of copyright issues in finding usable photographs, it is not definite whether this will happen.

When I have an initial list of the monuments that I will include in the visual database, I will begin looking for primary and secondary resources, in order to explain the values that they have been imbued with throughout history: reasons for building, history of the depicted figure (if human), treatment of the monument, popularity as a visiting site, and lastly, popularity on the internet. Evidently, not all monuments have been treated in a similar fashion, so I may not be able to track the ever-changing values of every monument in the database. However, I will be ready to compromise and, at least as a base level, create a categorization of all the monuments.

After examining those features, I hope to reach certain conclusions about these monuments, based on the aforementioned questions. For instance – the different values imbued at different periods of time. Additionally, a major part of my monumental examination is focused on the role that the digital world plays in the preservation of a nation’s architecture, culture and history.

Throughout this whole process, I will try to be as flexible as possible due to the research question’s large scale and the consequent time-consuming data collection. The idea of a visual database, including categorization and examination of at least a dozen monuments from each country, is important to me, and therefore I will do my best to adhere to it. However, I am willing to compromise on my ideas regarding everything else.

Hopefully, I will face only minor bumps on the road as I embark on this ideological Eastern European journey!