As a child growing up in the city of Ufa in the Soviet Union, I was in awe of the giant statue of Lenin that stood not far from my grandmother’s home. Among the stories she tells there is one that involves me, aged four or five, accompanying her to the cemetery where my great-grandmother had recently been buried. When my grandmother cried, I mistook her tears over the loss of her mother for sadness about the obelisk by the grave: It seemed too small.
When she died, I assured her, I would commemorate her with a monument as big as Lenin’s.
On Sunday, during the protests in Kiev against President Viktor Yanukovich, the statue of Lenin was pulled down from its pedestal in front of Besarabsky market. It had been vandalized several days before and had since been guarded by the riot police. The nationalist party Svoboda took responsibility for the act. Yuri Syrotiuk, the party’s press secretary and a member of Parliament, called it, “the end of the Soviet occupation and the beginning of the final decolonization of Ukraine.”
In this interpretation, Lenin is the symbol of Ukraine being brutally integrated into the Soviet Union in the wake of World War I and then starved by the collectivization policies of his successor, Stalin. Lenin also stands for contemporary Russia, whose effort to pull Ukraine more firmly into its sphere of influence — by forcing Mr. Yanukovich not to sign a political and free trade agreement with the European Union — was the spark for the current protests.
But if you consider that Ukraine has been an independent country for more than two decades, the toppling of Lenin’s statue carries many more meanings still — including a warning about letting the euphoria of symbolic gestures stand in for substantive changes in governance and collective mind-sets.
In August 1991, during a failed coup by Soviet hard-liners in Russia, the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Communist Russia’s secret police, in front of Moscow’s K.G.B. headquarters was dismantled. That seemed to signal the end of the Soviet regime. “The Iron Felix” now rests among other deposed statues in a special park in Moscow. But the security apparatus created by Dzerzhinsky remains firmly in place, exemplified by President Vladimir Putin and his cronies.
Online, commentators from around the world have been quick to liken the fall of Lenin in Kiev on Sunday to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; now, like then, the protesters chipped at both symbolic structures and hauled away bits as souvenirs. But nearly a quarter-century after that event, the comparison seems anachronistically nostalgic. If the promise of a unified Europe rang true in 1989, it seems rather misguided today, given the current economic troubles and rise of right-wing nationalism.
A better parallel may be to the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad in April 2003. In footage shown around the world, an American soldier placed the star-spangled banner on Saddam’s iron face as it came down; the gesture was greeted as a harbinger of Iraq’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. On Sunday, protesters in Kiev placed flags of Ukraine and the European Union on Lenin’s empty pedestal.
But what exactly did America win in Iraq in 2003? The intervening years tell a far more complicated story. And what kind of symbolic victory has Europe, its flag replacing Lenin, won in Ukraine today? Ukraine’s awkward position between Russia’s neo-imperial influence and Europe’s pull promises more complications ahead. Would closer ties with the European Union — or even Union membership, which wasn’t promised in the agreement that Mr. Yanukovich failed to sign — bring a democratic and transparent style of governance and end corruption and oligarchy, as the protesters hope, or would it turn Ukraine into Europe’s service economy, as some critics have cautioned?
Destroying statues to shed a cumbersome historical legacy often simply opens the way for the creation of new symbols. A more effective way for a nation to emancipate itself from the past may be to subvert existing symbols that are already integrated into the fabric of urban life.
In July 1967, the artists Leonid Lamm and Igor Gelbakh threw bottles of red paint at the statue of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in one of Moscow’s central squares. Mayakovsky was an avant-garde poet, and the two artists felt that the Soviet state had wrongly appropriated his legacy, in part by erecting a monument to him in the style of Socialist Realism. For a few hours that summer morning, as municipal workers scrubbed away at the red paint, the public space of a Moscow square became a site for re-evaluating the state’s aesthetic and political practices.
The granite Lenin of Kiev was already on its way to representing the complexities of both the past and today: It was a reminder of the failure of the Soviet project and of the failure of the liberal economic policies that followed. Having survived two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, the statue was treated by many residents of Kiev as a potent visual pun. It stood in front of the Besarabsky covered food hall — a structure plastered with glitzy ads for European banks and merchandise — and was dubbed the “Lenin who shows the way to the market.”
Sasha Senderovich is an assistant professor of Germanic and Slavic languages and literatures, and Jewish studies, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.