The Guardian Goodbye Lenin

Goodbye, Lenin: how a weighty symbol of the Soviet past divided a Ukrainian city

Photo : Paul Gogo
Photo : Paul Gogo
Bitter arguments among local councillors and citizens over the fate of the communist hero’s statue highlighted a deep generational rift.
From Sloviansk, Paul Gogo

In Sloviansk, a city in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, council meetings have rarely been as turbulent as they were towards the end of last month. The reason was the decision by the mayor, Oleg Zontov, to move for a vote over the application of a law that had only just been passed by the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. This “law on the condemnation of communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes”, voted through by parliament on 9 April, prohibits all defence of Nazism and communism.

The sale of communist souvenirs, and even the singing of the Internationale, is now banned in Ukraine. Individual offenders risk up to five years in prison. Members of organisations risk up to 10. The legislators were seemingly not worried about the risk of deepening the cultural abyss between western Ukraine and the Russophone east of the country, a centre of Soviet industrialisation between 1930 and 1950, and a place where nostalgia is ever present.

In Sloviansk, the mayor belongs to the Poroshenko bloc and he decided to apply the new law in his own way, targeting the statue of Lenin that enjoys pride of place opposite city hall. The national law has not yet taken effect, but debates are already under way over changing communist-era names of Ukrainian cities. Dnipropetrovsk, for instance, (named after the celebrated revolutionary Grigory Petrovsky) could be quickly retitled.

At the Sloviansk council meeting of 29 April, a vote on the “dismantling of the monument to Lenin, situated in October Revolution Square” was added to the order of business. But “the meeting was suspended and the vote postponed,” explained Edouard Torskiy, a journalist with Delovoy Slavyansk, when “militant communists barged in on the meeting, threatening a return of separatist forces if the councillors targeted Soviet symbols”.

Last year this city was seized by pro-Russian separatists led by Igor Girkin, a former Russian army officer who also goes by the name of Strelkov (Shooter). For a time it became the epicentre of the fighting between pro-Russia rebels and pro-Kiev forces. Strelkov briefly became minister of defence for the self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk, taking numerous hostages, including journalists and observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The city changed hands again in June 2014 after fierce bombardment. But tensions are still high, in both the city and among its politicians, because the pro-Kiev mayor is in a minority on the council.

The elected officials are more or less the same as before. The majority belong to the Party of the Regions, the organisation headed by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country after the Maidan revolution, and the Communist party. The next local elections will take place in October.

Towards the end of last April, the giant Lenin statue had already been vandalised, covered in pink paint and adorned with a Ukrainian flag as a scarf. Around its base, placards explained “how to spot a separatist”, offering tips on recognising signs of separatism in one’s neighbours.

To begin with, local nationalists appeared to leave it to the councillors to decide the fate of the statue – though since the beginning of the war, and well before the “de-communisation” law was passed, more than 100 statues of Lenin have been demolished, many in the middle of the night.

On 27 May a new council meeting was scheduled and Zontov placed the statue on the order of business again. All of Sloviansk’s nationalist groups attended to express support for its removal, with nationalist parties Svoboda and Right Sector turning out en masse. The number of nationalist militants has boomed since the war began, even though the number of MPs from these two groups only went up to seven out of 450 at the general election last October. In Sloviansk the nationalists have long been frustrated at their lack of representation on the council.

At the meeting the nationalists’ constant interruptions led to a scuffle before the issue of the statue had even been broached. However, after temporarily halting proceedings, the mayor was able to start the debate. “I am responsible for the political life of our city,” he said. “There are many different points of view in our council. To find compromises, we have to talk with each other and take a decision today.”

Zontov proposed that, rather than being destroyed, the statue should be sold at auction or placed in a museum. As he spoke, nationalists in combat dress took position close to the council members. Then a man shouted from the public area: “I have in my hand a letter signed by 4,000 residents. People are against the destruction of the statue because it’s part of their history, part of their youth. You should listen to the opinions of your fellow citizens.”

The ensuing row deepened the divide between the younger generation, which looks towards Europe, and their often nostalgic elders, who lived under the USSR. The self-declared “patriots” shouted: “Shame on you! Glory to Ukraine. Glory to our heroes!” Then a young nationalist militant told the assembly: “It was Lenin who began the process of destruction of Ukraine. He brought the famine to Ukraine from 1922, then he launched a violent collectivisation. He created an ideology that killed millions of people.”

Another young man berated the councillors: “You are ‘provocateurs’. We are the descendants of people assassinated by that man. We are going to make that statue disappear. Now you are going to decide whether it’s destroyed or whether it’s removed. That is the choice we give you.”

The uproar resumed with loud shouts of “separatists” filling the hall, followed by cries of “Shame on you”. Zontov brought the meeting to an early close, but shouted above the clamour: “We have six months to resolve this question. Come to the next meeting.”

In the hall afterwards, militants flourished a placard calling for “Sloviansk without Lenin.” Tamara, an opposition member, left the assembly assailed by insults from the young nationalist militants, but didn’t seem too bothered. “Our mayor doesn’t do anything for this city. He only offers suggestions for destruction,” she said. “He has found 50 people to support his plan. We have collected 4,500 signatures against the destruction of the statue. Even if Lenin wasn’t a good human being, he was part of our history and you don’t wipe out history like that.”

But in the end the debate was settled by the minority. In the early hours of 3 June, militants from Right Sector tore the statue down.