The heady battle over Parnu's headless Lenin

  • 2004-04-15
  • By Steve Roman
TALLINN - Take a stroll through the quiet, residential streets of springtime Parnu and, for the most part, you'll find exactly what you'd expect to find - school kids riding past on bicycles, old men walking their dogs, a Finnish couple taking a break from their mud treatments.

In April, with the seasonal deluge of tourists still a few weeks away, the street scene in Estonia's "summer capital" looks just like it would in any other town of 45,000. That is, until you see Lenin.
His imposing figure is mounted on the back of a Soviet-era truck, parked on a patch of lawn behind the Parnu Museum of New Art. About twice the height of a normal man, the statue is the remains of the monument that for decades stood in front of the Communist Party headquarters in Tallinn.
But you might be hard-pressed to recognize the figure of the famous Bolshevik leader. Lenin's head and right hand have been replaced by oversized, fibreglass appendages of someone else entirely, namely Parnu-born physicist Georg Wilhelm Richmann, who was killed by ball lightning in 1753. After dark you can make out an orange light flashing inside Richmann's hollow head.
As bizarre as this mobile art installation may seem, it's not half as weird as the story of how the Lenin statue ended up here in the first place - a tale of post-Soviet iconoclastic art and, more recently, of a heated political and personal tug-of-war between two of Parnu's most prominent citizens.
In the late 1990's, Mark Soosaar, a well-known filmmaker and director of the Parnu Museum of New Art, was looking for an equestrian statue of a totalitarian leader to fill the space in front of his museum, which is itself a totalitarian building from the 1960s. Ironically, it had previously been Parnu's own Communist Party's central committee headquarters.
"The first idea was to raise this horseback statue and cut the head away," said Soosaar, explaining that he wanted to create an image like the headless rider from Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Soosaar didn't find exactly what he was looking for, but in a garden near Tallinn, along with statues of other fallen heroes like Kalinin and Kingisepp, he came across the Lenin statue.
Originally sculpted by Nikolai Tomsky in 1950, the statue had been Tallinn's chief Lenin monument from then until independence in August 1991. That's when it was famously taken from its pedestal and hauled away before cheering crowds.
As luck would have it, its head and right hand had been stolen while it was sitting around in this garden..
"I was very happy because I was seeking a headless statue and finally I found it," said Soosaar.
The result of the find was a new art installation to ring in the new millennium. For 2000, the headless statue was put on a pedestal in front of the museum, with flashing orange lights in place of its missing head and hand and a sign reading "Goodbye 20th Century."
And it was a hit. No doubt helped by the simplicity and clarity of its image, it quickly became a favorite of tourists, as well as a quirky icon of the town. According to Soosaar, even visiting dignitaries like European Commission President Romano Prodi and Finnish President Tarja Halonen stopped by to take snapshots of the statue.
But not everyone was happy with headless Vladimir Ilich, and about a year ago the Parnu city administration, in particular Deputy Mayor Eino-Juri Laarmann, ordered its removal and prohibited its picture from being used in any official city tourist brochures. As Laarmann explained to The Baltic Times, in his opinion, a monument without a head and hand is not a monument at all. "It's just hooliganism," he said.
Laarmann made the point that, no matter how much Lenin was disliked for what he did in his lifetime, it was improper to criticize him or ridicule his image after death.
"If a person was, then he was, and if he did something, he did it," he said, likening the display of a headless monument to the desecration of a corpse. "For a civilized people, that's not normal," he said.
Soosaar countered that the order to remove the statue was initiated by "some people who don't understand conceptual art, and who are somehow even fighting against art because art is something which is not for them."
He also told The Baltic Times that he thought the order was a personal attack on him, a sort of revenge for his successfully blocking the city's plan to build apartments in the historic Rannapark near the beach. Soosaar happens to be head of Parnu's city planning commission.
In any case, in May of 2003, according to Parnu Postimess, Laarmann ordered the statue to be removed.
"The town administration explained that we needed this space for parking cars, but there was just space for one car, no more," said Soosaar.
Soon after, the statue was forcibly removed, and much was made of the fact that the work was done by none other than Laarmann & Co. Laarmann kept the statue in his garage until Soosaar forced him to return it, pointing out that it had been legally leased to Soosaar by the Tallinn city administration. (Last month the administration finally sold the statue to Soosaar for the grand sum of one kroon (0.07 euro)
As the city promised, the pedestal was gone, replaced by the parking space. But not to be outdone, Soosaar had the statue mounted on a truck and parked in that very space. The decapitated Lenin was back where he wanted it. Legally, said Laarmann, they couldn't force him to unload it.
The city's next move was to post signs prohibiting truck parking in that space. Soosaar moved the truck onto a patch of museum property, off the street, on the other side of the building.
"When I put this car on the grass they removed it again and took it away. They were really very angry because I was the winner in this situation, and people were laughing a lot," said Soosaar.
At the end of last year Soosaar changed the statue, and the artistic concept - by adding the current head and hand designed by local sculptor Riho Kuld - and made it known that after physicist Rickmann's head has been on the statue for a while, it might be replaced by those of other famous Estonians.
But the addition of famous Estonian heads is unlikely to win over the Parnu city administration, but Soosaar is convinced that the people are on his side.
"Ninety-nine percent of people who pass by are smiling or laughing," he said.
In any case, you may get the chance to judge for yourself. Soosaar said he was considering taking the mobile statue on a tour of Estonia this summer.
The statues' new caption, posted on the truck's front grill, reads "Beware of the 21st Century." In light of the way Parnu's political feuds have heated up thus far, it's a warning worth listening to.