I am looking for another word or idiomatic phrase for "monument" that would not connote memorialization, but would connote that it is functions as a symbolic replacement for what it represents, more specifically, a demonstration of some future (or empty) promise.

E.g. In 1930s, Stalin built in Moscow 8 skyscrapers that were supposed to demonstrate socialist care for housing, but it did little to alleviate really-existing housing shortage; these houses were like monuments or idols (objects of worship) for the regime, distractions from reality with which Stalin could say: we have solved the housing crisis, let's move on. Another example could be Ceaușescu's metro in Bucharest in a country that was largely running on cart wheels up till the 1980s... It doesn't have to apply only to material structures, but also to institutions, artworks, etc.

Sample sentence: Rather than helping to solve the housing shortage, Stalin's skyscrapers functioned as _______ of/to/for an abstract socialist future.

P.S. I feel "window-dressing" does not really capture it

  • 2
    They are a token response. They merely pay lip service to the real problems.
    – Jim
    Sep 7, 2017 at 6:47
  • Placeholders? Dummies? Sep 7, 2017 at 13:53
  • Did you answer your own question? "functions as a symbolic replacement for what it represents" so... Rather than helping to solve the housing shortage, Stalin's skyscrapers functioned as symbols for an abstract socialist future. or perhaps (tribute, emblem)
    – xQbert
    Sep 7, 2017 at 16:06
  • Worth noting here that monument can be used in the way you want without denoting memorialisation: to be an important and permanent result of an action or characteristic - dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/…. For example: Protesters have called the building a monument to corporate greed.
    – SGR
    Sep 8, 2017 at 7:29

10 Answers 10



adjective — used to describe something that is done with very little effort and only to give the appearance that an effort is being made (Merriam-Webster)

As in: Rather than helping to solve the housing shortage, Stalin's skyscrapers functioned as tokens of an abstract socialist future.

Or: Rather than helping to solve the housing shortage, Stalin's skyscrapers were merely a token gesture toward an abstract socialist future.


One synonym to monument that connotes worship, and that in my opinion reads well in your example sentence is:

Shrine: A place regarded as holy that is typically marked by a building or other construction.

"Rather than helping to solve the housing shortage, Stalin's skyscrapers functioned as shrines to an abstract socialist future."

Oxford American College Dictionary.

  • Thanks! Shrine is a good word to use in some of those cases (e.g. the Stalin era cultural centers like the one in Warsaw), but the emphasis is on the construction as a place of worship not as a showcase on its own. Thus far, “showcase” is the closest I am getting Sep 7, 2017 at 5:18

Totem: a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totem)

It's also used in the general sense as a sacred object of representation.

Icon: a painting of Jesus Christ or another holy figure, typically in a traditional style on wood, venerated and used as an aid to devotion (From ODO)

And my favorite when referring to Stalin and co.:

cult object: an object of religious devotion, veneration, or ritualistic and symbolic value within a system of worship. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cult%20object)

Because these dictators cultivated this whole personality cult.

  • 1
    Thank you! These are all good and usable examples that I’ve also considered. The only problem with them is that they don’t capture the synecdochic nature of the objects I am describing (Stalin’s houses were real houses, the Bucharest metro was a real metro; the problem with them was that their practical functioning was very limited and their real importance was symbolic: like a prototype that denies its a prototype and pretends to be a successful mass-produced object). I wonder if “showcase” captures it the best…or maybe there's even a better idiomatic expression Sep 7, 2017 at 5:20
  • @HowardRoark the problem with "showcase" is that it has positive connotations. As does the concept of a prototype. After all, you start with successful prototypes, then you test them, and only then you mass produce the object. So where's the criticism? Sounds like the communist regimes were right on track. Maybe 1 word won't do here? Maybe a short phrase is needed to connote criticism. "Dummy prototype"? "Limited mock-up"? Sep 7, 2017 at 6:23

Maybe you could say they are the

Precursor: a person, animal, or thing that goes before and indicates the approach of someone or something else. (From http://www.dictionary.com/browse/precursor)

Or maybe

Harbinger: anything that foreshadows a future event; omen; sign. (From http://www.dictionary.com/browse/harbinger)

For your example:

"Rather than helping to solve the housing shortage, Stalin's skyscrapers functioned as harbingers of an abstract socialist future."

  • I think this is more optimistic about the arrival of that future than is intended.
    – mattdm
    Sep 7, 2017 at 18:39
  • I've always associated harbinger with negativity a la "harbinger of doom"
    – Matt
    Sep 8, 2017 at 14:03
  • Yeah, but certain doom, or at least likely doom. Here, the concept seems to be that the skyscrapers are false promises.
    – mattdm
    Sep 8, 2017 at 14:32

For your sentence, I believe model would be a reasonable word, especially in senses 4 and 5 from Merriam-Webster:

  1. a usually miniature representation of something
  2. an example for imitation or emulation

The skyscrapers were a small-scale representation of the ideal socialist housing arrangements of the future (since there clearly were not enough of them to actually solve the housing situation), and they were intended as an example that others should be following.


I think you're halfway there with your mention of an "(empty) promise". I would use the phrase empty gesture to describe measures with limited functionality compared to their symbolic importance. From MacMillan Dictionary's definition of empty:

  1. empty words or promises are things that you say you will do but do not do
    a. used about things that people do that have no real effect
    an empty gesture

In your case, you could say

Rather than helping to solve the housing shortage, Stalin's skyscrapers functioned as an empty gesture towards an abstract socialist future.

A couple of similar usages:

[E]quipped with antiquated Mauser rifles and forced to work most of their days in the Company plantation, the Company police force was no more than an empty gesture towards the problem of security.
Pacific Islanders Under German Rule, Peter J. Hempenstall, 1978

Kennedy's housing order, in short, was an empty gesture toward the principle of open housing . . . .
The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s, Allen J. Matusow, 1984


Depending on circumstances, and because I believe this word does tend to be used in contexts with a negative connotation (particularly to a given person), I recommend:


an image or representation especially of a person; especially : a crude figure representing a hated person

If you do not wish to convene a less than positive message you might consider:


1a : a summary of a written work

1b : a brief presentation or statement of something

2 : a typical or ideal example : embodiment; the British monarchy itself is the epitome of tradition — Richard Joseph

3 : brief or miniature form —usually used with in


Reify (as in Reification)

to consider or represent (something abstract) as a material or concrete thing : to give definite content and form to (a concept or idea)

For the specific example you have given I would also consider: Assertion


Does 'edifice' work here?

Definition of edifice

1: building; especially : a large or massive structure

2: a large abstract structure holds together the social edifice — R. H. Tawney

  • It works literally in the sentence, but I don't see how it has the sense that's asked for.
    – mattdm
    Sep 8, 2017 at 18:42



  1. a sign of a future event; omen; forewarning.



This is not a good answer since you specifically asked for something not meant to memorialize, and the idea stacks too many metaphors (hollowness, death), but the Stalinist style of concrete skyscrapers immediately brought cenotaph to my mind.

  • This answer would be better if you quoted a relevant dictionary definition (in addition to linking to it). Sep 7, 2017 at 19:54

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