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Ukraine Says “Good Bye Lenin”!

The protests initiated on November 21st 2013 in Kyiv, widely known as the EuroMaidan, were primarily of a political nature: they were a reaction to the Ukrainian government’s failure to sign the Association and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, since a decisive “European” turn in Ukraine’s political course had been the protesters’ expectation. Nevertheless, the popular upheaval very quickly spread to other regions and uncovered deeper motives, and it touched on unsolved questions that were pending since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991: Ukraine’s identity.

April 1, 2014 - Heloisa Rojas Gomez - Articles and Commentary

01.04.2014 Lenin kiev broken

Sculpture Lenin in Kiev after vandalism Photo: IgorTurzh (cc) commons.wikimedia.org

The country’s division between “East” and “West”, matching more or less the Dnepr line, is still one of the favourite topics of discussion concerning Ukraine, where the two cardinal points representing Russia and Western Europe are often understood primarily as geopolitical or economic realities. This topic is even more relevant if approached from a socio-historical perspective, what Ukrainian protesters all over the country proved, having projected part of the East-West dilemma in their personal “monuments war”.

Between December 8th 2013 and February 24th 2014 about 80 bronze Lenin statues were damaged, destroyed or taken down and displaced by nationalist activists of Svoboda and Pravy Sektor; sometimes they were defended by the local communist authorities in order to save the historical Soviet heritage before its ultimate demise. On the one hand, young revolutionaries assaulting the Bolshevik leader’s statue were crying out “Glory to Ukraine!” On the other, oftentimes elderly people were asking to not commit acts of vandalism against the symbol of their personal world… and have rarely been successful so far. The “monuments war” is thus a war of memory and identity, maybe even an ideological one, and is certainly decisive for present and future generations, establishing which history the Ukrainian people will keep and which one they will reject.

Kyiv was the first city to be freed – or deprived – of an imposing three-and-a-half-meter high statue of Vladimir Ilyich on an almost seven-meter high pedestal. The monument, reproducing a Lenin characteristically leaning forward and looking ahead, was made of rare quartzite from the Karelian region, just like the Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. Carved by the monument sculptor Dmitry Merkurov, Lenin’s statue was inaugurated in Kyiv on the Taras Shevchenko Boulevard in 1946, although it had been exposed already in 1939 at New York’s World Fair in the Soviet pavilion. It was a refined piece of art, or at least considered so until August 2009, when the second Tymoshenko government decided to exclude it from the official list of Ukraine’s monuments of national significance, together with all those monuments dedicated to or depicting historical figures related to the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-32 and political repressions. Since 2009, in fact, Lenin’s statues ceased to be under any form of governmental protection of National Heritage Sites. After its status got degraded, only four years passed until protesters in Kyiv’s EuroMaidan decided to take Merkurov’s Lenin down. On the December 8th, about 250 young people pulled the statue down and further wrecked it. Its pieces can be currently be bought on the internet.

Kyiv’s action initiated a mass series of monument destruction, literally a “monuments war” from the Chernigov to Odessa Regions in cities and villages accompanied by slogans such as: “Glory to Ukraine!” “Death to the hangman of Ukraine!” “Commies to the guillotine!” In some areas, these actions were celebrated with fireworks, as happened in the Vohlynia region, to mark the moment when Ukrainian cities finally got rid of totalitarian symbols, according to Svoboda members, opening the way to real Ukrainian independence. National flags were often placed on the empty pedestals and plans to erect monuments to the Maidan heroes are contemplated, as Pryluky (Cherkassy Region) authorities have reported. In the vast majority of cases, the local police stayed passive and let the protesters pull Lenin down freely, even when the situation escalated from enthusiastic to violent, as happened in Dnepropetrovsk and in Zaporozhe region. There, two people were shot by mistake during a display of “iconoclastic” euphoria.

The opposing front in this “monuments war” often consists of elderly people and members of the Communist Party who do not wish to see their ideological as well as intimate world broken in such a quick, definitive way. In 1917, it was the aristocratic Russian Empire that saw its own world torn into pieces, doomed to irreversible extinction. Once revolution stepped onto the Russian soul with its obsession to “clear up the past”, the people of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine experienced several times the trauma of identity questioning. The “monuments war” of today’s Ukrainian Spring is yet another critical moment of this kind, even if less brutal and maybe smaller in scope. Those who stood in defence of Lenin’s statues, with no chance to succeed, with poor resonance and advocacy, experienced a first moment of identity questioning in 1991, when the USSR officially “ceased to exist”. The economic crisis back then did, however, smooth the symbolic and identity issue, which eventually remained “frozen” in Ukraine exactly until the Maidan Revolution. That is why Soviet symbols still today represent not only an ideological reality but simply dear memories: childhood, family, youth and youthful light heartedness for many people. They represent a link with the past, a form of legitimisation of one’s former beliefs and dreams that are otherwise popularly condemned in the whole post-communist space discourse.

The Baltic republics and Central European states – particularly Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Hungary – solved their own identity issues during the 1990s, being societies less tied to the Soviet heritage and having already in the 1960s pioneered mass dissent towards the Soviet Union as a political but also socio-cultural hegemony. In fact, the Central European situation was clearer and easier to solve when compared to Ukraine’s; that is partly the reason why Central Europe’s “monuments war” was smoother. In those countries the main question focused on the replacement and not destruction of the Soviet sculptural heritage. This was, for example, the case of the memorial to Soviet soldiers in Katowice, Poland, which in 2007 was moved from the Freedom Square to the military cemetery in the suburbs of the city. Similarly, bronze Soviet sculptures in Budapest were moved just outside the Hungarian capital, to the Monuments’ Park built for this purpose in 1991.

The Baltic states are examples of a more tense identity re-affirmation process. When in April 2007, the bronze Soviet soldier-liberator in Tallinn was dismantled and moved from the Tõnismägi Hill in the city centre to the Defence Forces Cemetery of Tallinn, the Russian-speaking community started mass riots, leading to clashes with the police, various arrests and one death. One year later, the Lithuanian patriotic group Sąjūdis demanded to follow Tallinn’s example and move the memorial to Soviet Soldiers on the Green Bridge in Vilnius, to a “more appropriate site”. The way in which the Central European and Baltic states distanced the Soviet past from their historical heritage by manipulating their symbolic capital took place always on the basis of a consensus or compromise between the state authorities and the people. Radio Svoboda often reported cases of vandalism perpetrated by nationalistic groups on Soviet monuments in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany. Nevertheless, it was not a revolutionary impetus to act as history’s judge; there was virtually no internal identity conflict to be solved in Central European societies after the Velvet Revolutions.

Identity issues are thus central to understanding the contention between those who destroy Lenin’s monument in Ukraine and those who oppose it. Between those who interpret such actions as extreme nationalistic vandalism and those who see in it a sort of catharsis, there is a patriotic-national turn to free the country from its oppressive Soviet heritage. The former, although apparently losing their cause, are in fact numerous: the EuroMaidan does not represent a majority in Ukraine, if looking at the picture from a socio-cultural perspective – which does not mean that discontent towards Viktor Yanukovych’s government is a minority sentiment. Identity issues go beyond political stances and give a more accurate, although complex picture of the problem uncovered by the Maidan revolution, among others, also through the monuments war: a quest for control over the symbolic capital.

Russia, the main object of contention as symbol of the “reactionary” fraction of divided Ukraine, attentively follows the course of events also concerning the monuments war. Many members of the Duma representing the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the party Communists of Russia have officially declared that funds will be installed for the renovation and rehabilitation of all the Stalins and Lenins ousted without popular consensus. In favour of Lenin’s statues’ demise is naturally the Russian Orthodox Church, which sees in this process a firm and legitimate refusal of values and ideas not in line with the tradition and, paradoxically enough, post-Soviet society: embracing God and religious practice with enthusiasm after 60 years of ideological atheism. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church also stresses also the necessity of this process to be a unanimous popular movement, whereas radical revolutionary impetus leads to new conflicts and leaves the main identity question unsolved. Russian liberal politician, intellectual and publicist Valeriya Novodvorskaya expresses instead full support for Ukrainian protesters’ deliberate actions of dismantlement and destruction of Soviet sculptural heritage. She claims that taking off monuments dedicated to criminals, killers and tyrants is absolutely not vandalism but a cultural event. Such actions are moreover not to be criticised by Russia since they are not directed against Russian but Soviet past. Those who still keep monuments to Lenin and Stalin are, in Novodvorskaya’s also quite radical view, maniacs and fanatics or have personal interests in doing so. She stresses that Russians have not yet cleared their identity from these controversial figures of the past, and this is of greater concern. The Ukrainian war on monuments is thus, in this respect, a sign of “societal health”.

In the context of symbolic capital, monuments and the Soviet past, it would be useful to shed light on the Russian “monuments war”, or rather the silent dismissal of monuments that began in 2007. If, on the one hand, Russian authorities capture instantaneously any movement undermining Soviet heritage abroad, it seems to care less about it at home, forgetting to mention that in Khimki, a Moscow suburb, a monument to soldiers in the Second World War was destroyed, or that Soviet monuments in St Petersburg’s Red Hill and Field of Mars were removed. The same monument to heroes of the Second World War was dismantled in Stavropol whereas in Sochi, local authorities decided to replace the monument to the Red Army soldier with an Orthodox Church, named after St Theodor Ushakov. Protests from the side of Communists and people nostalgic for the USSR took place in Russia, too.

Trials to remove Soviet symbols from the public sphere are not new to Ukraine either; since the fall of the USSR they have taken place in the whole post-communist region. In an interview for Izvestia, Ukrainian political scientist Jury Gorodnenko reminded that such trials have been quite common during the last 20 years since Ukraine gained independence. It happened smoothly, with trials outnumbering actual monument dismantlement. It is radicals, under oligarchs and western pressure try to tease the Russian population, who made these actions more abrupt and popular in the last two months. According to him, the major part of the population itself is instead indifferent to Soviet monuments. Whether Gorodnenko’s analysis is correct or not, the images of young people pulling down Lenins with ropes, jumping on the statues’ fallen busts, hammering them and weaving Ukrainian flags while singing the national anthem give a lot for reflection. These images recall vague remembrances of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with young people similarly cracking together the unwanted “monument”, standing on it, singing and selling its pieces as souvenirs of a past era. But the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall certainly meant reunion. Thus the question now is: how far do Ukrainian monuments war and identity conflict mean reunion and not further division?

Heloisa Rojas Gomez holds a BA in Russian Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and currently participates in an MA programme in Central and Eastern European Studies as well as Russian Studies at the same university. She is also a member of the selection committee for the United World Colleges in Armenia.

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