The Lenin statue in Kharkiv was the biggest in Ukraine. Perhaps that’s why it lasted longer than most, escaping what has been called the Leninfall — the mass teardown of monuments to the Soviet Union’s founder that Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution set off this year. It is now toppled, too, but it’s hard to see what that means anymore.
Lenin is difficult to get rid of, as anyone born in the former Soviet Union knows. In the 1980s, when the sculptor mother of a Moscow artist I know died, he found her apartment dominated by an enormous statue of Lenin. For Soviet sculptors, ubiquitous Lenin was bread and butter. This particular figure had been kept on hand in the event of an unexpected order. In the dead of night, the artist and his wife took Lenin to the Yauza River hoping to get rid of him mafia-style. But after the hollow statue plunged, it immediately bobbed back up, swaying gently in the moonlight as it made its dignified way downstream. The couple took flight: They could have been arrested for their act of sacrilege.
Then, in August 1991, I went to Lubyanka Square in Moscow to watch the statue of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, opposite the KGB building, be pulled down. As Dzerzhinsky was lowered, there was talk of also toppling Moscow’s biggest Lenin, and a crane was driven to October Square, where he towered over the Garden Ring. But indecision took over. The statue still stands.
Back then, most former Soviet countries got rid of their Lenins. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Tajikistan — the ex-Warsaw Pact nations — none of them wanted anything more to do with symbols of the Communist past. In 1991, Berlin, too, lost its 19-meter-high Lenin. It was broken into 129 parts and buried in the woods. This year, when the organizers of an ambitious Nazi and Communist monumental art exhibition requested that the statue’s massive head be dug up, city authorities said — disingenuously, some suspect — that it could no longer be located and, anyway, it would be too expensive to exhume.
Mongolia held out until 2012, when Lenin was removed from the central square of Ulan Bator.
Russia and Ukraine, however, held on to their Lenins. There was a sense that tearing them down wouldn’t change anything fundamental, and there was no point in offending the Communist leader’s aging fans.
Then, in Ukraine, the statues came to mean something again. Last year, as the country faced the dilemma of signing a broad trade deal with the European Union or strengthening relations with the Eurasian Customs Union, Lenin became a symbol of its Soviet past – a past the country now had a chance to escape. When President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on his promise to sign the EU pact and mass protests began in Kiev, the Lenin statue on Shevchenko Boulevard became a target for the protesters.
Last December, when I saw it brought down, Yanukovych still appeared strong enough to hang on to power, and no one had yet been killed. Right-wing activists took out their pent-up aggression on the statue, hacking at it with sledgehammers and handing pieces to a long line of souvenir-seekers. Anyone could climb the pedestal and shout whatever they wanted, but people mostly yelled, “Glory to Ukraine.”
I tried to recall some of the elation I had felt in 1991 as I watched Dzershinsky lose his balance, but I felt nothing. Lenin had lost his mojo. The empire that Russian President Vladimir Putin was — and still is — trying to rebuild inevitably has some Soviet trappings, but its ideology is based on Orthodox Christianity and a primitive nationalism rather than Lenin’s supranational, radical leftist ideals. Ukraine had failed to make its symbolic break with its Soviet past in 1991. Now, toppling the statue was just a bit of hollow, misplaced symbolism.
The Lenin in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, survived the overthrow of Yanukovych, unlike dozens of other such monuments in Ukraine. It was sculpted by Alexei Oleynik and Makar Vronsky, who made so many Lenins in the 1950s and ’60s, they failed to notice that the one cast for Dnepropetrovsk had one cap on his head and another clasped in his fist. The Kharkiv statue was special, however — part of one of the world’s most imposing constructivist ensembles, an 8.5-meter bronze on an 11.7-meter pedestal in the city’s biggest square (once named after Dzerzhinsky but now known as Freedom Square):
Kharkiv’s governor, Igor Baluta, apparently sanctioned Sunday’s teardown. The activists who carried it out promptly climbed on the pedestal with a yellow banner emblazoned with a Wolfsangel – the “wolf hook” emblem of certain neo-Nazi organizations, which has been adopted by the Social National Assembly, an extreme right-wing group that is powerful in Kharkiv.
Is that supposed to symbolize Ukraine’s hope of joining the EU and NATO and breaking forever with its Soviet heritage? Economic liberalization and an effective anti-corruption campaign would work better, even if all the irrelevant statues were left standing.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books.
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