KYIV — Before Ukraine declared independence in 1991, statues of Vladimir Lenin were an inescapable part of the landscape. Some 5,500 monuments were dotted across the country; practically every town had one and most bigger cities had several hundred.
Although a large number of statues have been taken down in the years since, what to do with remaining busts of the Russian revolutionary and other communist leaders is still a contentious issue that divides the population along generational and political lines.
For many older Ukrainians and many pro-Russian citizens, the toppling of these statues — which accelerated after the pro-democracy EuroMaidan movement ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014 — amounts to an erasure of history. For younger, pro-European Ukrainians, the pulling down of monuments to figures they see as oppressors is an important part of setting a new course for the country.
Yuriy Didovets, a lawyer who lives in Kyiv, was part of the crowd that toppled a statue of Lenin in the city on December 8, 2013. Several weeks earlier, mass protests had broken out in response to the government’s decision to postpone signing an association agreement with the European Union. These were the early days of the EuroMaidan movement.
Didovets, who was part of the protest movement, took Lenin’s head as a souvenir. The piece of red quartzite rock now sits in his office. Another protester, Ihor Miroshnychenko, a member of the nationalist party Svoboda, who organized the toppling of the Lenin statue, took home a hand.
“For me, it was a symbolic moment,” said Miroshnychenko. “I understood that after the fall of Lenin, the Yanukovych regime would fall too. At that moment, Yanukovych lost control over the streets. Police were there, but they let us do it.”
The motivation behind the Leninopad — or “Lenin fall” — that followed, where thousands of statues across the country were removed from public spaces, is comparable to the anger that is propelling Western activists to call for statues of controversial public figures to be taken off their plinths.
“Often, society ignores the ambivalent biography of a historical figure, concentrating on positive sides of his heritage up to a certain moment,” said Andreas Umland, a senior expert of the Ukrainian Institute of Future.
At some point, that exercise in “selective memory” breaks down because “standards shift,” he said. “That doesn’t erase the fact that they contributed a lot to the development of society,” he stressed, but that social and political tides have turned.
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In Ukraine, statues of communist leaders had a clear political purpose: They were reminders of a shared Soviet history, which Russia continued to use to wield influence and preserve its dominance over its former satellite state well after independence.
When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and started to fuel violent pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, these symbols of Russian power became stark reminders of Ukraine’s ongoing struggle for sovereignty.
In 2015, the Ukrainian government adopted legislation that formally equated the Soviet regime with Germany’s wartime Nazi regime, and ordered all symbols of both ideologies to be removed from streets across the country. According to the Ukrainian National Remembrance Institute, some 2,400 communist monuments were taken down between 2015 and 2020.
The move didn’t go down well among some members of the older generation, which maintains the Soviet regime did good and carries nostalgia for its leaders.
“This is just brutal,” said Tamara Malyzheva, 74, a retiree from Kyiv. “Whether you support that ideology or not, Kyiv was a stable place to live during USSR, and we must remember those days, not surrender them to the Western Ukraine that always hated communists.”
When men first started to hammer at the Lenin statue in Kyiv in 2013, they were interrupted by an old man who approached the statue and hugged it, Sébastian Gobert, a French journalist who was there to cover the protests, recalled.
“He was crying, he begged the demonstrators to stop. It was obvious at that moment that Leninopad was not a consensual topic,” he said in an interview over email.
Statues became a question of identity and political allegiance as well, said Gobert. There are hardly any monuments to Lenin left in western Ukraine, but the ex-Soviet leader still stands proudly on his plinths in Crimea and in the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Despite resistance among some pockets of the population, the removal of communist markers has been a success, according to Bohdan Korolenko, a historian at the Ukrainian National Remembrance Institute, because some 95 percent of symbols of the totalitarian regime were removed from public display.
"The main task of decommunization is not to take down a statue or rename a street, it is to change the identity of Ukrainians" and prevent similar ideology from taking root again, he said. Ukrainians, he added, "need to understand communism was a suppressive regime. Unfortunately, many Ukrainians still have not learned that lesson.”
At some point government lost control over the process, Korolenko admitted. There were simply too many statues for the process to be completely regulated.
“Many people did not wait for an answer to come from the government to make up their own minds,” said Gobert. In 2017, the French journalist published the book “Looking for Lenin,” about his search, along with Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann, for Ukraine’s missing Soviet statues.
The two found that while some monuments had been destroyed, others had been transformed or repurposed. “People went their own way to replace Lenin with religious figures, with flowers, with fountains, with [representations of] Cossacks … or with nothing,” he said.
Just as there is no single interpretation of the past, there is no single way to deal with its physical relics, according to Gobert. “No one answer was found.”
Some statues ended up in private collections; others are still collecting dust in local authorities’ basements.
The most fortunate ones have found a new home as part of the exhibit USSRic Park, which opened in 2019 in a corner of a national park near the town of Putyvl, in northeastern Ukraine, where visitors can walk among some 100 marble and quartzite statues standing in the shade of the local forest's trees.
“We took the idea from Hungary and Lithuania,” said Serhiy Tupyk, the park’s director, referring to historical parks set up in the 1990s dedicated to relics of totalitarian regimes.
Before opening the park, Tupyk and his team spent four years collecting communist statues from across the country, including monuments to Joseph Stalin, Lenin, Soviet workers, Red Army commanders and many others. “We have the full pantheon of Soviet gods,” Tupyk joked.
To Tupyk, the destruction of monuments to a troubled past represents a loss — and a missed opportunity.
“It is our history,” he said. “In museums, those monuments can no longer agitate for their ideology.” Instead, he said, “Curators can present them in a full historical context.”
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