Come to think of it, every city probably has a monument or two it becomes associated with. There is a Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, which transports me back to my childhood, spent reading Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. There is the Statue of Liberty in New York, but also a Raging Bull on the Wall Street in Manhattan. There is Motherland Calls! (Родина-мать зовёт!) in Volgograd in Russia, commemorating the battle of Stalingrad in the Second World War. There is Romulus and Remus statue in Rome depicting a she-wolf nursing two brothers. And of course, there are plenty of religious monuments of all faiths all over the world, which also speak for the local customs and traditions. Every monument - be it sombre or playful, old or new - is a cultural symbol which echoes national values.
So what kind of values come to mind when we hear about a new monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the infamous AK-47 automatic rifle, which is to be unveiled in Moscow in September 2017? The 7-metre sculpture is said to cost 35 million roubles ($538,000). Don't get me wrong - Kalashnikov was obviously an ingenious designer, but even he was tormented by his own invention. In a letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church before his death in 2013, Kalashnikov wrote that he was haunted by the thousands of deaths his invention was responsible for. “My spiritual pain is unbearable,” he wrote. “I keep asking the same insoluble question. If my rifle deprived people of life then can it be that I … a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?” It's not Kalashnikov that unnerves me - it's the commemoration of his gun, the weapons in general, the cult of war and, inevitably, of murder.
What kind of city or its government chooses to put up a monument which celebrates the act of killing? I imagine taking schoolchildren to see the new statue and instilling in them - what exactly? You see, I have been brought up on the cult of the Second World War, everyone in the Soviet Union was. We read books and watched films about the Great Patriotic War, the exceptional sacrifice of our grandparents; we were taught to hate fascism, to worship our heroes and to be ready to die for our motherland, should the need arise. And it so happened that later mere boys, who had been spoon-fed war stories, were sent to Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 and then returned to their mothers in zinc coffins. To add insult to the loss of grieving mothers, there was nothing remotely patriotic about that war.
And so I have been hoping all this time that the cult of war has been fading in my home country, but the opposite is true. The new statues being erected in Russia are commemorating Stalin and now Kalashnikov. I see that and I understand it, but I can't accept it. My own values have changed.
If I were asked to come up with an idea for a new monument for a city I live in, here is what I'd suggest. Recently I spent a day at a Central London hospital, which for me was an oasis of unreserved kindness. I have been incredibly well looked after even despite the long wait and the nervousness about being in a hospital. It's as if the staff were wired differently from the phlegmatic, chronically stressed Londoners one accounts on the tube every day. My nurse came to London from the Philippines. She works 12-hour shifts four days a week and a short shift on her fifth working day. A short shift means an 8-hour day. She was cheerful and gentle. She taught me what dedication to one's work really means. She was the model of empathy. She made me want to cry from the sheer gratitude to be showered with so much kindness. And so if I were to commission a new monument in London, it would be a work of art dedicated to a NHS nurse. Something life-size and approachable. Children would be taught to value our healthcare staff, diversity and kindness. And I hope adults too would nod with gratitude passing it by.
As for Kalashnikov in Moscow, I'm sure it'll serve its purpose and instigate fear cultivated by the current Kremlin government. I can only hope that one day Russia will earn its respect through its achievements in science and technology, education and healthcare, art and social justice.