The Mother of All Statues

“Heavy Metal Motherland.” Historian Nina Tumarkin coined this term in The Living and the Dead to describe the woman-as-nation statues that rose across Soviet republics during and after World War II. Best known and often recalled are Kiev’s “Mother Motherland” (1981) and Volgograd’s “Motherland Calls” (1967), two gargantuan figures crowning memorial centers to the Great Patriotic War and the Battle of Stalingrad, respectively.

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“Mother Motherland” and “Motherland Calls”

Visitors to Tbilisi and Yerevan are likely to remember two of their peers. Tall, proud, and commanding, their figures stand upon pedestals upon hills, raised skyward above their homes. They are, of course, the Kartlis Deda and May Hayastan—icons, landmarks, and guardians of their homes. Before heavy metal motherhood, these figures share membership in the long-standing Western tradition of personification through the female form in sculpture. Think, for one moment, of notable statues and monuments that include a female figure. How many of these figures represent an actual individual, and how many are allegorical? How many represent a collective or an ideal like justice, peace, freedom, or wisdom? (Marina Warner has provided the best assessment of this trend in Western art, pointing out the tradition of personification in not just sculpture but also paintings, poetry, and mythology. Check out her work here!)

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The Caucasus Mothers

Kartlis Deda and Mayr Hayastan—or the Mother of Kartli and Mother Armenia—are examples a specific materialization of this trend in Soviet monumental art. When they were unveiled (in 1958 and 1967, respectively), the image of the mother was not new to Soviet aesthetics. In early iconography, images of women accompanied those of men in Party posters to show the communal, inclusive face of the proletarian project. A woman walking alongside (or behind) a man in a field, holding tools for a worker, or carrying a hammer and sickle with her companion—these images are ubiquitous in all Soviet art. Around World War II, however, artists and propagandists gave the allegorical woman a new leading role. She became The Mother, calling her sons to combat and instilling wartime values in her children. This role gained strength through the course of the war, appearing time and again as a representation of a collective and a symbol of the Soviet nation.

This woman had two variants. In many memorial obelisks and tablets that appeared across the Soviet Union in the 40s and 50s, she was pure emotion. Artists often depicted her standing by a soldier or holding his wounded body—the nation mourning her dead sons. The Kartlis Deda and Mother Armenia belong to another group. Grander in appearance and budget, often in capitals or major wartime sites, a handful of mother-as-nation monuments rose across the Soviet Union from the late 1950s to capture not mourning but strength. Standing either stood alone or as the pinnacle of a memorial, this new mother was a leading lady. She looked upward, stood tall. Her body did not stoop or mourn. She acquired a sword. She embodied power. She was, in all senses of the word, Heavy Metal Motherland. (Except for “Motherland Calling,” who was made of around 8,000 tons of concrete!)

In Yerevan, she raised her sword atop the Victory Monument in 1967—five years after a statue of Stalin was removed from the same exact place, eleven years after the Secret Speech made his memory toxic, and fourteen years after he died. To the best of my knowledge, she is the only mother-as-nation to have replaced a statue of Stalin. Like her comrades in Kiev and Volgograd, she stands upon a hill, covered in a long dress and bearing a sword. However, while the former figures hold their weapons aloft in a call to arms, Mother Armenia stands defensively, arms raised to her chest, holding a sword in both hands across her body, warily looking ahead. She looks protective and ready, as if a combatant herself. She also differs in her name, which is a reference to the titular state rather than the ubiquitous “motherland.”

Kartlis Deda is also unique in this aspect. As the “Mother of Kartli,” she refers to the historic region upon which modern Georgia and its capital stand. She is, actually, an anomaly in the Heavy Metal Mothers club. Her physical form embodies a strong duality of character, for one. She holds a cup of wine high in one hand and a sword low in the other—signs of hospitality and defense, a hearty welcome and a latent warning simultaneously. (Interestingly, she and Mother Armenia both hold their swords perpendicular to their bodies. The idea that the pose is meant to form a cross in silhouette is widespread but not well-investigated.) She has the most exaggerated female form of all four mothers and is also the only one that stands alone, rather than as part of a World War II memorial. She rose atop Sololaki Hill in 1958 on the 1500th anniversary of Tbilisi’s founding, two years after the city suffered some of the most violent demonstrations in the Soviet Union and in the midst of softening Kremlin policies toward Georgia.

In short, these figures are a treasure trove. They are widespread in the former Soviet space and have an astonishingly rich net of connections. They speak, moreover, to phenomena in and beyond Soviet spatial and temporal borders. I giddily await the day when someone takes up their call to arms and heads to the archives. Or, of course, for the chance to do it myself.

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