Kerry Folan

Creative Nonfiction

Kerry Folan’s creative nonfiction has recently appeared in Ninth Letter, Los Angeles Review of Books, Southeast Review, Literary Hub, and River Teeth, among others. She teaches writing and literature at George Mason University and lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.


Empty Pedestals

When Vytautas Vičiulis left his home in the town of Klaipeda, in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, on the night of March 2, 1989, carrying a mysterious black bag, he did not tell his wife, Regina, where he was going—only that he would be out briefly.

Regina didn’t know that, earlier in the day, angered over Lithuania’s new “Gorbachev” constitution, Vytautas had waited outside the City Hall in an attempt to speak with the mayor. She didn’t know that he had spoken by phone to his mother and sister, back in his home village in the Skuodas district, and told them that he wouldn’t be returning. She didn’t know that his sister, alarmed by Vytautas’s last words to the family—“We only have the tricolor flag. We have to go fight!"—was already making plans to come to Klaipeda on the first morning bus to check on him.

Regina did know of Vytas’s idealism. She accepted that he was not like other people. “Vytas should have been born 100 years earlier, or 100 years later,” she would say. But she also knew Vytautas had not been sleeping much recently. He explained that he was working, reading, painting, that creativity required tremendous inner energy and dedication, and she thought perhaps this was good. She agreed that he seemed better since his rest in the psychiatric hospital. His paintings were recently of bright things: fishermen, children playing, the good goddess of home fire, Gabija. But there was also the painting of Lenin's head among smoke, and another of a human figure in the shape of a flame.

Regina would have recognized the image of a human flame. In 1972, 19-year-old Lithuanian Romas Kalanta famously set himself on fire in protest of Soviet occupation of Lithuania. He is said to have been inspired by images of Americans marching in the 1960s—but in a totalitarian state, democratic protest was not an option. Instead, the body became the tool of protest. Some starved themselves in hunger strikes, but they wasted to nothing. Those who used fire burned bright enough to be seen. Kalanta’s self-immolation ignited demonstrations across the Lithuanian territory in the ’70s. Though the history books do not mention them, dozens of ordinary men replicated his act in the decades that followed. But on the evening of March 2, 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall on the horizon and Lithuanian independence already within reach, Regina couldn’t have guessed Vytautas had made up his mind to become one of them. So, she prepared dinner as usual.

It would be nice to think that on that particular early spring evening, Regina let her mind wander beyond the daily trials and cares of the household to that other spring night, years ago, when she and Vytas met. She would later recount the details for reporters: Vytas’s brightness as a young man, the way he kept smiling. The first time he visited her at the kindergarten where she worked, how he was so nervous he couldn’t figure out where to put his hands. The beautiful friendship that bloomed between them that first spring.

When dinner was ready, Regina called for Vytautas. He didn’t respond. She searched the house, even the basement. Vytas wasn’t there. Eventually, she left the house to look for him in town. She walked through the neighborhood, asking friends if they’d seen him. She passed by the Sea and said later it had never appeared so threatening. Eventually, Regina reached Lenin Square.

In the ’80s, there were Lenin statues everywhere in the USSR. There were the typical Lenins: Lenin in a suit jacket, pointing to a Communist utopia. Lenin holding the lapel of his suit jacket, pointing forward. Lenin holding a rolled-up document. Lenin beckoning the people to him. Lenin pointing ahead, giving a passionate speech and holding a cap. Lenin in a long coat, gesticulating with one hand and holding the lapel with the other. Lenin in a long coat, with one hand in his trouser pocket and the other blowing in the wind. Lenin in a long coat, with one hand in his trouser pocket and the other behind his back. Lenin in a long coat, with one hand holding the lapel of his jacket and the other holding a rolled-up document.

There were also the unusual Lenins: Lenin sitting with a book in one hand. Lenin standing on a globe. “Winter Lenin,” in a thick coat and Russian hat. “Relaxing Lenin,” in a casual suit, leaning back on a park bench. “Theatrical Lenin,” gesticulating wildly. “Rockstar Lenin,” gilded in gold. “Giant Lenin,” a twenty-seven-meter-tall statue atop a thirty-meter pedestal.

The Klaipeda statue was an unusual Lenin, the only copy of the monument which still stands outside Moscow’s Ploschad Ilicha metro station. It was designed by Lithuanian sculptor Gediminas Iokubonis, who won a Lenin contest. In Iokubonis’s vision, the leader of the Proletariat stands upon a low stone base, rather than on a pedestal, in a unique pose: his head bowed slightly, legs apart, arms clasped behind his back. It’s a difficult statue to read, ambiguous in posture.

The copy in Klaipeda was positioned at the center of several slim stone tiers and marked by military tanks in each corner. As Regina passed by the statue, searching for her husband, distracted and concerned, she heard people scattering buckets of water and sweeping. Cleaners. Later, she would tell a reporter that they appeared to her like ghosts. She did not find Vytautas that night.

Soon, Regina would receive a call from the hospital. She would learn that Vytas had wrapped himself in the Lithuanian flag—the tricolor flag—and set himself on fire in front of the Lenin monument. By the time she learned of her husband’s suicide, he was 98% covered in burns and supported by a ventilator. He would die at nine o’clock in the evening the next day.

The cleaners Regina heard that night had been called in by the authorities. Their job was to remove all traces of Vytautas Vičiulis and his protest before the morning. When the sun rose on March 3, 1989, the square was empty, as though nothing had ever happened.


I first began thinking about Vytautas Vičiulis’s story because of a recent exhibition of post-Socialist landscapes by photographer Matthew Moore at the Academy Art Museum, which is a few blocks from my home in Talbot County, Maryland. In inky black and white, Moore’s images depicted the now-empty spaces where Soviet statues once stood, which he calls “scars,” and the eerie pastoral spaces to which they have been relocated. I found the photos haunting.

I also found them resonant. A few blocks away from the Academy Art Museum is the Talbot County courthouse, in front of which stands a monument commemorating the “Talbot Boys,” ninety-six local men who fought in the Civil War. Though I walk by this statue each day with my dog, it took me months after moving to Talbot County to realize that the quaint monument on our courthouse lawn celebrates Confederate, and not Union, soldiers. The monument is recessed from the street, positioned off to the left side of the courthouse, nestled in the shade of a giant oak. You must walk around the back of the statue to recognize the stars-and-bars design of the flag. You must step within the courthouse grounds to read the text and register the significance of those three startling initials: “To the Talbot Boys 1861-1865 C.S.A.”

I grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland, to the west of the Chesapeake Bay, which splits the state in more ways than one. The Western Shore tends to align itself with the industrial North. Though I knew vaguely that Maryland had once been a slave-holding state, the books taught in my schools emphasized Maryland’s history on winning side of the Civil War—that we stood for the Union, against the Confederate belief that white men “had the right to property in negro slaves,” as the Confederate Constitution puts it.

The Eastern Shore of Maryland, the traditionally agricultural part of the state, aligns more with the South. Though in the 1860s Talbot County voted not to secede from the Union, slaves were once sold at an open market where the “Talbot Boys” monument now stands.

Like other Confederate monuments, the “Talbot Boys” was imagined long after the Civil War ended, in 1914, during Maryland’s Jim Crow era, by a lawyer named Joseph Seth. Originally, it was just the plinth with the engraved names. Two years later, in 1916, Seth lobbied for a statue to be mounted atop the base. “It is my desire to get away from the conventional soldier figure which is found on all of the monuments North and South, and to get an allegorical figure representing youth and courage,” he wrote. The United Confederate Veterans secured the funds.

Today, a slim-hipped farm boy, barely a teenager, wearing dungarees and a humble hat, stands atop the memorial. He resembles Johnny Tremain, of children’s literature. A Confederate flag leans against his shoulder where a rifle might rest, unfurling across his back like a cape. He grips the flag in both hands as though his next move might be to plant it in the ground.

Directly across the red-brick walkway is a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave on a nearby plantation and is by far the most famous person to ever emerge from Talbot County. The monument was erected in 2011, a century after the Confederate memorial, a decade after the suggestion of a Douglass monument was first floated within the community.

Though the debate over the Douglass statue was over by the time I arrived on the Eastern Shore, I learned of its fraught history through local gossip. Members of local veterans’ groups had protested the statue, claiming a de facto agreement that the courthouse lawn be reserved for military memorials. Those in favor of the statue argued that opposition was merely racism masquerading as patriotism. After years of debate, in 2004, the County Council finally voted 3-2 to approve a statue honoring Frederick Douglass in front of the county courthouse—with the compromise that it would not stand taller than the "Talbot Boys."

The Frederick Douglass Honor Society held a contest to find the best Douglass design. Submissions included Douglass in a suit jacket, standing at a pedestal; Douglass in a suit jacket, seated; Douglass in a suit jacket, posed next to a lion. The winning design depicts Douglass in a suit jacket, giving a passionate speech, one hand raised high (but not too high) above his head. Jay Hall Carpenter, the sculptor, says he imagined Douglass in the act of delivering the “Self-Made Men” speech he presented, to a segregated audience, in the main room of the Talbot County courthouse in 1878. It was a speech he gave more than fifty times in his long life. In it, Douglass examines the human fascination with great men:

“Emerson has declared that it is natural to believe in great men,” he begins. “Whether this is a fact, or not, we do believe in them and worship them . . . We do this not because he is essentially different from us, but because of his identity with us. He is our best representative and reflects, on a colossal scale, the scale to which we would aspire, our highest aims, objects, powers and possibilities.” It is as good an explanation as any for the impulse to create monuments to our heroes, and to argue about which should be the tallest.

It wasn’t always so. In 1831, John Quincy Adams wrote in his journal: “Democracy has no monuments; it strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon a coin; its very essence is iconoclastic. This is the reason why Congress have never been able to erect a monument to Washington.” In the founding decades of the United States, the monarchical concept of commemoration was dismissed as obsolete. Monuments built in honor of great men were considered relics of the Old World. In the New World, the true memory of democracy was supposed to live in the hearts of the people.

Of course, this ethos was short-lived. It took only fifty years after the initial debate over the democratic ethics of a monument dedicated to General George Washington for the tallest obelisk in the world to be constructed in his honor. Since then, the outsized faces of great men have been erected in every town and city in the country. They have been carved into the sides of American mountains. There is even an American monument on the moon.


In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, citizens of former Soviet-occupied countries demanded the erasure of the Lenin and Stalin memorials left behind, just as decades before, they demanded the removal of Nazi icons leftover from that occupation. In Hungary, a statue dedicated to Soviet heroes in a park near Parliament was painted red, multiple times, in protest. In Sofia, Bulgaria, protestors defaced a monument to the Soviet army by painting its figures in the likeness of Superman, Santa Claus, and Ronald McDonald. In Olomouc, Czech Republic, students tied hundreds of balloons to the dual monument of Lenin and Stalin there and attached a banner with an inscription: Fly to Warm Landscapes.

In 1991—two years after the Berlin Wall came down, two years after Vytautas Vičiulis set himself on fire in Lenin Square, one year after Lithuania became the first Eastern Bloc country to declare sovereignty—Klaipeda’s statue of Lenin was removed. Removed, but not destroyed. It now stands, absurdly, atop a grassy knoll in the Grūtas Park of Soviet sculptures. There, Lenin is surrounded by trees, rather than tanks. Hands still clasped enigmatically behind his back, head still bowed, he eternally surveys the pastoral landscape.

Vytautas does not get credit for forcing the removal of the statue. His suicide is not considered to be a successful protest. Staged as it was just months before Lithuanian’s sovereignty, it was viewed by his countrymen as an almost pointless act, unheroic, remembered (if at all) for the unnecessary pain it caused his family. Yet, strangely, a year after his death a monument was erected in his honor. An unassuming granite marker in the shape of a box, a symbolic urn, rests on the ground in the spot of the immolation, “V. Vičiulis,” etched on the side. You could trip over it if you weren’t paying attention.

It’s hard to say for certain why this tiny monument exists at all, considering the failure of impact of Vytautas’s act—except to imagine the short, strange, interstitial era between 1989 and 1991, after Lithuania declared sovereignty, but before they were granted independence, when no single national narrative could prevail. It must have served then as some small proof of national resistance, a necessary counterpoint to the still-Soviet landscape, which was by then ironic but nonetheless dominant. So, for a period of a year or two, Vytautas’s humble urn and Lenin’s towering statue both sat in Klaipeda’s re-named Renaissance Square. The two monuments faced each other across the cobblestone, writing stories of opposing histories.


In Talbot County, the argument over the fate of the "Talbot Boys" statue has become a visible symbol of two opposing histories. On my street, yellow lawn signs calling to “Move Talbot’s Confederate Monument” face off against blue ones arguing to “Preserve Talbot History.” A petition was circulated defending the statue. “The Talbot Boys is local history, it is also art,” the petition reads, and originally it was successful. In the summer of 2020, despite months of national demonstrations against systemic racism in our country, the Talbot County Council voted 3-2 to keep the "Talbot Boys" monument in its current place in front of the courthouse.

But monuments are not history, and they are not art. Monuments are rhetoric. Quoting Claudia Rankine paraphrasing James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” When monuments become symbols, they become the answers that obscure the questions.

This fall, the Talbot County Council held another vote on the statue, and this time the County Council voted to move it from its current position in front of the courthouse to Cross Keys Battlefield, a private park in Harrisonburg, Virginia, “as soon as is practicable.” Soon, Frederick Douglass will stand alone in front of the courthouse, one hand raised perpetually in the air, forever explaining our fascination with great men. And while I’ll be glad to see that Confederate boy soldier go, I wonder about the stories we will be able to tell ourselves when he’s gone. When Douglass stands alone, will it be easy to forget that many of us did not want him there?

Monuments have never been about preserving history. They have always been about shaping collective memory. For now, nestled in the shade of oak trees, flanking either wing of the courthouse, Frederick Douglass and the Confederate boy soldier continue to face off, writing opposing stories of history. And in a way, this strange, contradictory image might tell us more about ourselves than any single narrative can.