10 March 2022
Hats off, Ladies and Gentlemen
By John Watson
When the Ukraine is again a free and peaceful country, assuming that it one day achieves that status, people will build a statue to President Zelensky on a prime site somewhere in the middle of Kiev. It will show him at a heroic moment, defying the invader perhaps or refusing an offer by the US to evacuate him, there are many such moments to choose from. And when future generations pass that statue they will recall his acts of heroism as perhaps we recall Churchill’s leadership of the country in the Second World War when we look at his statue in Parliament Square.
The two statues will have something important in common. Each will recall heroic actions, and let us hope heroic achievements, carried out by a great man in very difficult circumstances. They should not, however, be taken as an assertion that everything either man did was great or that his life was in some way faultless. I know little about Zelensky’s past although I have no reason to assume it to be other than perfectly decent and respectable but, even if that was not the case, if it turned out that he had been cruel to his wife, or not particularly honest or had taken a stance in public affairs which today’s standards would deplore, the heroism of his current stand would remain and it would still be right to celebrate it. After all Churchill got plenty wrong, not just the decisions made in relation to the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, but his reluctance to accept Indian independence, his opposition to the abdication and plenty of other things as well. Someone once said of him that his he was a man who got most things wrong but got the one really important thing right and it is what he did about that one really important thing which is justly celebrated.
If you look at the statuary of London this theme is repeated over and over again. Boadicea was no Liberal Democrat and may well have had many dark deeds to her name. Her statue, however, catches her at that great moment of defiance, taking on an empire which stretched across the world. Nelson too had his off moments, a letter opposing the abolition of slavery being one and the breakup of the Hamilton marriage being another, but his position on the Trafalgar Square column is not about his worthiness as a human being but rather his astonishing achievements as an admiral both at Trafalgar and at the victorious engagements which preceded it.
The more insipid of our fellow citizens argue that there should be no statues because of the risk that the subject may not turn out to be blameless in every feature of their life. No doubt that often chimes with their own consciousness they are unlikely to do anything worth commemorating in stone themselves and that public recognition of the acts of others provides rather an awkward contrast, but at the root of the thinking there is an error. If it is acts which deserve recognition, why should the perpetrators be perfect in other respects? In any case who are the wise and clever judges who are fit, despite biblical advice to the contrary, to judge their fellow men. There are plenty who are prepared to have a go, of course. In every pub, in every political party, in every church and in that modern equivalent of church the complacent, judgemental, politically correct drinks parties of North London. Recognise that statues should celebrate deeds and not people and much of the need for this sort of judgement falls away.
Of course it doesn’t solve all the problems of whether to erect or remove statuary. If an organisation funds philanthropic gifts with money derived from wrongdoing perhaps the gift is not the subject for celebration at all. Or perhaps the vision which engendered the gift may be. There are a thousand different ways in which facts can be viewed but the important thing is that the judgement should be of deeds not of men. So when, as I hope to do one day, I see a statue of Zelensky in a square, I will not remember the man –after all I do not know him- but rather an astonishing display of courage, leadership, self-sacrifice and political skill. In those attributes his actions must rank with those of anyone. Hats off, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Cover image by Ukraine Presidential Office on Wikimedia