Giovanni Cadioli argues that the contradictory fate of Lenin’s monuments in Ukraine is yet another sign of the profound divisions within the protest-riven country.
Soviet monuments have long been object of dispute. The relocation of a Red Army monument from central Tallinn to a military cemetery in 2007 triggered riots and caused a serious diplomatic row between Estonia and Russia. Several other former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Republics have also seen the removal or destruction or of Soviet monuments.
However, the present campaign of destruction and vandalisation of Soviet monuments in protests-torn Ukraine is of unprecedented intensity and can perhaps be compared only to the massive removal of Communist monuments in 1989-1991 from the former Soviet bloc. The primary target in Ukraine right now is Lenin, whose monuments are still standing in the thousands across the former Soviet Union (Ukraine is not alone in retaining the monuments for so long).
On 6 January 2014, a monument to Lenin was destroyed in Berdychiv, Zhytomyr Oblast (another one in Berezivka, Odessa Oblast, was vandalised with black paint). Previously, on 4 January a Lenin monument in Andreyevo-Ivanovo, Odessa Oblast was found demolished, although the Militia reported that the monument actually fell due to the poor state of the pedestal it was standing on. On 30 December, a Lenin monument in Vatutino, Cherkasy Oblast, was pulled down, but soon reinstated as it suffered only minor damage in the fall. Only three days before, on 26 December, another Lenin monument was vandalised with purple paint in Dniprodzerzhynsk, Dniprodzerzhynsk Oblast. Two weeks before, on 10 December, a Lenin monument in Kotovsk, Odessa Oblast, was destroyed.
However, all these minor events were triggered by a far more well-publicised one: the destruction by protesters of the last Lenin monument standing in Kiev on 8 December (above). The monument was targeted and successfully defended by the police for days beforehand and suffered vandalism in 2009, but was restored.
Members of the ultra-right party Svoboda claimed responsibility for the destruction of the monument, but 69% of Kyiv citizens, many of them far from enthusiastic Yanukovych supporters, regarded the event negatively. Moreover, while in Kyiv somebody glued a poster of Lenin to the fallen monument’s pedestal, Mykhailo Dobkin, member of the ruling Party of the Regions and Kharkiv Oblast Governor, stated he would immediately start to raise funds to restore and reinstate the heavily damaged monument.
Even so, the war of the monuments is not something that was initiated last December. For example, in February 2013 Svoboda activists beheaded a state of Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya, his wife, in Zhovtneve, Poltava Oblast and demolished a monument to Lenin in Okhtyrka, Sumy Oblast. Ukrainian communists vowed to rebuild the latter at their own expense. In August a monument to Lenin was decapitated in Berdychiv, Zhytomyr Oblast. And all of this is going on since far before than 2013.
Perhaps the most notorious monument was to Stalin, built by the Communist Party of Ukraine on the ground of its headquarter in the city of Zaporozhye, Oblast of Zaporozhye. This was a rather extreme case, but, generally speaking, Ukraine is far from being the only country were new monuments of Soviet inspiration are built, as this goes on in Belarus and Russia since several years. Nevertheless, the Zaporozhye Stalin monument was erected in May 2010, and blown up – as the nationalists promised during its unveiling – on New Year’s Eve. It was rebuilt in November 2011, this time behind a glass casing.
Only in very few recent cases were the removal of Lenin monuments approved or carried out by the authorities, as in Novograd-Volinskiy, Zhytomyr Oblast, in August 2013. In other cases, such as the one of Sumy, Oblast of Sumy, authorities suggested the removal of monuments, in this case of two monuments to Lenin, but, facing fierce opposition, refrained from dismantling the monuments.
The war of the monuments, if framed within the larger picture, clearly appears as yet another sign of the profound divisions that sweep through Ukraine.
This is, literally, the wider picture. The results of the 2012 Parliamentary elections reveal that Ukraine is divided between a generally pro-western north-west and a generally pro-Russian south-east. Compared with one of the existing Lenin monuments in Ukraine as of March 2013, the symmetry is clear: near-perfect geographical homogeneity of the two areas. Lenin monuments were, and still do, stand mostly in the south-eastern part of Ukraine and in Crimea, home of the radically pro-Russian party Union, while several areas of the north-western part of the country had been clear for years of Soviet era statues and are now facing the extinction of this already rare species.
Moreover, if one checks the geographic location of the events described in this article, the results come out as a further confirmation of that near-perfect geographical homogeneity between the two areas we just proved. In nearly every case Lenin monuments were destroyed or removed in areas of Ukraine where pro-western forces held the majority, while in pro-Russian areas of the countries two monuments were only vandalised with paint and not fully destroyed or decapitated, as in pro-Western regions.
[The Presidential election map is best suited to our needs as it accounts only for Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, clearly showing therefore where pro-Western or pro-Russian forces obtained more than 50%. The parliamentary elections, while more recent and more detailed, is less suited to our needs].
History itself remains a highly divisive force in Ukraine. On one side of the country, Stepan Bandera and his Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which first collaborated with the Nazis and later fought them are celebrated, while on the other side, Soviet General Vatutin, killed by that same Insurgent Army, is regarded as a hero. On this latter side of the country, the Soviet victory flag is flown as a symbol of liberation and freedom, while on the other one that same flag is burnt as a reminder of occupation and repression. And all of this, once more, was definitely going on long before 2013.