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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Newest Sphinxes Recall Victims of Repression

Sphinxes have always been among St. Petersburg's best-known trademarks. Bridges and embankments of the Northern city -- which is as far away as you can get from these mysterious creatures' Egyptian birthplace -- have dozens of them. Two more, installed last week on Naberezhnaya Robespiera, will become one of the saddest and most tragic of St. Petersburg monuments.


"To the victims of political repression" -- reads the inscription on the granite monuments positioned across the Neva River from the infamous prison called the Kresty (the Crosses). The sphinxes are the work of Mikhail Shemiakin, probably the most prominent of thousands of emigr? artists from St. Petersburg.


The bronze sphinxes were shipped from New York, where the artist had cast them in his home studio. They were installed on the embankment despite the reluctance and even resistance from the city's chief artist and architect, who found fault with the statue's base and the shape of a cross that is part of the monument.


It was only after Mayor Anatoly Sobchak's intervention that Friday's dedication ceremony was held. It was a modest affair, under pouring rain. Each sphinx is like a double-faced Janus: The half facing the prison is a bare skull, the symbol of death. The red granite pedestals are inlaid with copper plaques. People crowd around to read the sad, prophetic quotations from Osip Mandelshtam and Anna Akhamatova, Nikolai Gumilyov and Academician Dmitry Likhachev, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Vysotsky, Joseph Brodsky and others who suffered -- some unto death -- in decades of oppression and terror.


The site itself is symbolic. It is here, in view of Kresty, and a block away from the infamous Bolshoi Dom, the KGB's massive St. Petersburg headquarters, that children and grandchildren of the repressed every year lay wreaths on the waters of the Neva. It was around here that thousands of women, among them Akh-matova, spent endless hours, days and months waiting for word about their loved ones. In her well-known poem "Requiem," Akhmatova wrote that if a monument were ever erected to her, it should be built here.


For Shemiakin, the monument is more than just a gesture. A non-conformist underground artist thrown out of Leningrad a quarter of a century ago, he has become a successful artist in the West. Since perestroika he has become an activist in issues involving his native country. His best known political campaign was to start a foundation to rescue Russian soldiers from captivity in Afghanistan.


Does he feel discouraged by resistance to his gifts to St. Petersburg? "I love this city and these people so much, that I will always want to keep on doing something for them," Shemiakin said.