Remembering Lenin

A community association in London has sparked a major row by erecting a plaque to commemorate one of history's most controversial figures

A legacy worth remembering?
Christian May
On 1 February 2013 13:34

A few weeks ago, the Chief Executive of English Heritage announced that government cuts threatened the survival of their popular blue plaques scheme, which recognises contributions made to national life by pointing out that "so-and-so lived here."

Facing a savage reduction in their budget from £130 million to just £92 million, the Chief Executive, Simon Thurley (salary, £163,000) said that the organisation faced a very uncertain future. Indeed, so drastic had the situation become that his colleague in charge of the blue plaque scheme feared that the advisory panel (which includes Stephen Fry and Bonnie Greer) might have to be stood down.

What a relief then, that the Evening Standard reports the blue plaque scheme is here to stay and a crisis has been averted. (No word on where the axe will fall instead but it probably won't be on the Chief Exec's £600,000 pension).

It might surprise you to know that English Heritage is not the only organisation that puts up blue commemorative plaques. A community association in Bloomsbury has been doing it for years, and their imitation plaques recognise artists, authors, academics and musicians who lived in the area.

So far, so Big Society. But the group has sparked a major row by erecting a plaque to commemorate the fleeting association that a first floor flat on Tavistock Place had with one of history's most controversial figures.

In 1908, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin took a room in the borough and spent a couple of weeks working on some pamphlets that would set out his political and social ideology. With the backing of Camden's Labour Mayor, a blue plaque now marks the spot.

One Tory Councillor wrote to the local paper, pointing out that "Thousands died in the red terror he instigated. The descriptions of Cheka terror are virtually beyond description: victims were slowly lowered into furnaces or boiling water, buried alive, or covered in water to become living ice statues in the cold." He went on to ask, "had Franco lived in Camden, would we be comfortable erecting a plaque to him?"

Cllr Marshall was rounded on by Professor Bill Bowring, who spoke at the unveiling of the plaque. The professor said, "As in every civil war in history there were atrocities on both sides. But the only evidence for the crimes with which Cllr Marshall charges Lenin is to be found in the White propaganda of the time. These allegations are highly questionable."

And so the scene was set; a classic story of local politics and historical debate. It was irresistible, and I duly pitched it to my editor as part of my MA in Broadcast Journalism.

I spoke to Conor Burns MP, who features in the film, and he said the plaque should never have been erected. He asked "if Hitler had written a few chapters of Mein Kampf in the borough, would they put up a plaque to him?" Standing in front of a sketch of Reagan and a photo of Lady Thatcher, he condemned the Mayor of Camden for taking part in the ceremony.

I also spoke to the charming Professor Bowring, who pointed out that we can't alter history. Lenin lodged in a room in Camden, and there's nothing wrong with pointing out this connection to 20th century politics.

A spokesman for Camden's Mayor told me that she attended the event simply to support a community association who do a huge amount for the local area in terms of conservation and improvement, and that in so doing she was not making any statement about Lenin's politics or his place in history. However, given that the borough recently turned down an application to erect a small bust of the late Christopher Hitchens, it's not hard to see the colour of Camden's politics.

I had less than two minutes to tell the story on film, and with the help of Hannah Miller and Lillie Rosenblatt, we put together a piece that highlights the debate. It got me thinking about the politics of our capital's memorials and I hope to make a longer film on the subject. In the meantime, I think The Commentator should start campaigning for that statue of Hitchens.

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