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What the West can learn from Ukraine’s treatment of Soviet monuments

For many older Ukrainians and many pro-Russian citizens, the overthrow of these images – which accelerated after the pro-democratic EuroMaidan movement ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 – represents an exchange of history. For younger, pro-European Ukrainians, breaking down monuments to figures they see as oppressors is an important part of setting a new course for the country.

Yuriy Didovets, a lawyer living in Kiev, was part of the crowd who toppled a statue of Lenin in the city on December 8, 2013. Mass protests had broken out several weeks earlier in response to the government’s decision to postpone the signing of an association. agreement with the European Union. These were the early days of the EuroMaidan movement.

Didovets, part of the protest movement, took Lenin’s head as a souvenir. The piece of red quartzite stone is now in his office. Another protester, Ihor Miroshnychenko, a member of the Svoboda nationalist party, who organized the overthrow of the Lenin statue, took a hand home.

“It was a symbolic moment for me,” said Miroshnychenko. “I understood that after the fall of Lenin, the Yanukovych regime would also fall. At that time, Yanukovych lost control of the streets. The police were there, but they let us do it. ‘

The motivation behind the Leninopad – or “Lenin Trap” – which followed, removing thousands of statues from public space across the country, is similar to the anger prompting Western activists to take statues of controversial public figures off their bases.

“Often, society ignores the ambivalent biography of a historical figure and focuses to some extent on the positive sides of his heritage,” said Andreas Umland, a senior expert at the Ukrainian Institute of Future.

At some point, that exercise in “selective memory” fails because “standards change,” he said. “That does not alter the fact that they have contributed much to the development of society,” he emphasized, but that social and political tides have changed.

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In Ukraine there are images of communist leaders had a clear political purpose: they were memories of a shared Soviet history, which Russia continued to use to exert influence and maintain its dominance over its former satellite state long after independence.

When Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and sparked violent pro-Russian uprisings in Eastern Ukraine, these symbols of Russian power became strong reminders of Ukraine’s ongoing struggle for sovereignty.

In 2015, the Ukrainian government passed legislation formally equating the Soviet regime with the German wartime Nazi regime, ordering the removal of all symbols of both ideologies from streets across the country. According to the Ukrainian National Remembrance Institute, approximately 2,400 communist monuments were demolished between 2015 and 2020.

The move did not go well among some members of the older generation, who claim that the Soviet regime did well and cherish nostalgia for its leaders.

“This is just cruel,” said Tamara Malyzheva, 74, a pensioner from Kiev. “Whether you support that ideology or not, Kiev was a stable place to live during the USSR, and we must remember those days, not surrender to the Western Ukraine that hated communists all the time.”

When men first started hammering at the Lenin statue in Kiev in 2013, they were interrupted by an old man who approached and hugged the statue, recalled Sébastian Gobert, a French journalist who was there to defeat the protests.

“He was crying, begging the protesters to stop. That was clear at the time Leninopad was not a subject of consensus, “he said in an email interview.

Images also became a matter of identity and political fidelity, Gobert said. There are hardly any monuments to Lenin in western Ukraine, but the ex-Soviet leader is still proud of his pedestals in Crimea and the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Despite opposition among some sections of the population, the removal of communist markings has been a success, according to Bohdan Korolenko, a historian with the Ukrainian National Remembrance Institute, because about 95 percent of the symbols of the totalitarian regime were removed from public view.

“The main task of the liberation is not to bring down a statue or rename a street, but to change the identity of Ukrainians” and prevent a similar ideology from taking root again, he said. Ukrainians, he added, “the need to understand communism was an oppressive regime. Unfortunately, many Ukrainians have still not learned that lesson.”

At some point, the government lost control of the process, Korolenko admitted. There were simply too many images to fully control the process.

“Many people have not waited for a government response to come to a decision,” said Gobert. In 2017, the French journalist and Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann published the book ‘Looking for Lenin’ about his search for missing Soviet images of Ukraine.

The two found that while some monuments had been destroyed, others had been transformed or reused. “People went their own way to replace Lenin with religious figures, with flowers, with fountains, with [representations of] Cossacks… or nothing, ”he said.

Just as there is no interpretation of the past, there is no way to deal with his physical relics, Gobert said. “No answer was found.”

Some images ended up in private collections; others are still collecting dust in the basements of the local authorities.

The most fortunate have found a new home as part of the exhibition USSRic Park, which opened in 2019 in a corner of a national park near the town of Putyvl, northeastern Ukraine, where visitors can walk among some 100 marble and quartzite statues shaded by local forest trees.

“We adopted the idea from Hungary and Lithuania,” said the park’s director, Serhiy Tupyk, referring to historic parks created in the 1990s and dedicated to relics of totalitarian regimes.

Before Tupyk and his team opened the park, they spent four years collecting communist statues from around 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 quipped.

For Tupyk, the destruction of monuments from a troubled past means a loss – and a missed opportunity.

“It’s our history,” he said. “In museums, those monuments can no longer act for their ideology.” Instead, he said, “The receivers can present them in a full historical context.”