Destroying monuments part two: smashing Lenins

There are more ways to reshape a city than demolishing, constructing and transforming buildings and infrastructure. Sometimes changes to smaller fragments of the city can have a powerful effect.

Recent events in Ukraine have highlighted monuments’ political potency, suggesting that they can be so deeply embedded in the identity of a place they become a natural focus and flashpoint when that identity is threatened with radical change. There has been coverage internationally of the destruction of statues of Lenin in Ukraine following the smashing of the monument in Independence Square in Kiev by pro-European and nationalist protesters. There are online maps showing the places where about 100 similar relics of the Soviet era have been attacked and pulled down.

Srecko Horvat, writing in the Guardian, points out that the destructions were foreshadowed by a virtual demolition in 2011, when a promotional video for Ukraine digitally erased the statue of Lenin in Liberty Square in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, leaving only an empty plinth.

Such erasures of history happen whenever there is far-reaching political change – and the collapse of communism in eastern Europe at the end of the 20th century brought the smashing or removal of monuments on a large scale. Horvat remembers the widespread destruction of remnants of the Tito era as Yugoslavia disintegrated. “In the period from 1990 to 2000 at least 3,000 monuments were torn down in Croatia alone,” he says.

Elsewhere, Soviet-era monuments were displaced from their sites and corralled into holding pens or theme parks – which in turn have become tourist sites. Budapest has Memento Park, designed as an educational resource-cum-propaganda tool (as Hungary’s president said: “The Statue Park utilizes politically neutral means of art to emphasize the dignity of democracy and the responsibility of historical thinking.” Lithuania has Stalin’s World (officially called Grutas Park); Russia itself has Fallen Monument Park in Moscow.

In Ukraine, too, many statues from Soviet times were taken down after it became an independent state in 1991; others were replaced with ones of the country’s national hero, the poet Taras Shevchenko. But plenty remained until the latest round of regime change.

In fact Kiev’s Lenin had been a focus of conflict at least as far back as 2009, when the then president Viktor Yushchenko had called for the country to “cleanse itself” of Communist symbols. The statue was vandalised and mutilated, leading to street brawls that spotlighted the divisions in society. But it wasn’t just pro-Russian Ukrainians who rushed to its defence –  Denis Vertov made an eloquent argument for preserving the monument for the sake of art history.

With the fall of Yanukovych, Lenins in Kiev and the west of the country fell like dominoes – at one point the Lenin in Kiev’s Independence Square was replaced by a golden toilet as a satirical comment, then by an artwork made up of golden mannequins. Meanwhile in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, they continued to preside – the old revolutionary now standing for the status quo, nostalgia, the past or the Russian motherland. In Kharkiv, for example – once the capital of Soviet Ukraine, where Russian speakers are in the majority – crowds defended the statue of Lenin against supporters of the new government who sprayed it with graffiti, in a standoff that lasted for more than a week.

But alongside the ideological reasons, perhaps there is also truth in the reason given by Andrei Borodavka, a Kharkiv journalist and anti-Euromaidan activist: “Lenin is the place where you meet girls for a date. Or where you go after your school graduation. Newly-weds visit Lenin too. He’s in our memories.”

Does a monument come into its own only when it is taken for granted, used as a landmark or meeting point and photographed by tourists as a picturesque historic sight? The suggestion is that Kharkiv’s Lenin (and others like it) is so much a part of Kharkiv that its removal would threaten the memories and identity of its residents – it has become detached from the story of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself as a historical figure and melded with the fabric of the city. It’s hard to take this at face value – the political aspects of the statue’s installation and preservation are surely embedded in its meaning just as firmly as those teenage dates and school graduation photos. But equally, the everyday functions of monuments should not be forgotten; when they are destroyed, part of a citizen’s personal past is ripped away alongside the reshaping of the city’s political and social history.

Part one of this piece looked at a monument recreated with its own destruction built into the design.



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