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The King Is Dead

“The king is dead, long live the king!” is a saying that can be applied only partially to the Leninfall both in the Center and in the Southeast of the country. Lenin, the king of the communist narrative, expired symbolically in the two successive waves of the Leninfall, his monuments toppled and his plaques removed, but his vacated central position in Ukrainian public space remains contested. One potential contender for the vacancy is Stepan Bandera, who emerged after independence as one of the country’s most celebrated historical figures. The most idolized figure by far is Taras Shevchenko, with 1,256 monuments and plaques. But Bandera seems to be the most celebrated political leader, with 40 monuments erected in his honor since 1990. As noted in the media, some of them reminded viewers of the Lenin monuments of the past.[1]

Is Ukraine indeed, as some argue, undergoing not only the decommunization but also the simultaneous “Banderization” of its historical memory and public spaces? Yes and no—here again, geography is the key. The Bandera cult and its reflection in the building of monuments is limited in geographic scope. As shown on Map 8 below, as of October 2016 all forty Bandera monuments were located in the West, most of them in three Galician oblasts. The Volhynia region, which was also part of the UPA theater of operations, had only two monuments in Rivne oblast, while Volhynia oblast had no monument at all.[2]

MAP 8map 8

Map 9 (below), and the data on which it is based, suggest that the situation will not change anytime soon. While there is an appetite for erecting more monuments to Bandera in Volhynia—a spike in that regard has been registered since the EuroMaidan in the “Bandera-free” Volhynia oblast—the drive is still limited to the West, while the Center and Southeast remain largely immune to the Bandera cult. Although support for the erection of monuments to Bandera (indicated by the blue columns on the map) increased throughout Ukraine between March 2013 and March 2015, it remains as low, or even lower, than support among opponents of the Leninfall for maintaining or rebuilding monuments to Lenin—the trend shown by the red columns on the map.

MAP 9map 9

The decline of public support for Lenin monuments and the rise of support for monuments to Bandera is an all-Ukrainian phenomenon, with a few exceptions such as the city of Kyiv in the Center and the Mykolaiv region in the Southeast, where rising support for Bandera monuments occurred simultaneously with rising support for Lenin monuments. While in Kyiv, in March 2015, more people wanted a monument to Bandera than to Lenin (38 percent vs. 18 percent), respondents in the Sumy, Poltava and Kirovohrad regions in the Center still favored monuments to Lenin over those to Bandera. The Southeast produced no oblast preferring Bandera to Lenin, even though support for maintaining Lenin monuments had declined significantly between March 2013 and March 2015. In Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts more respondents wanted a monument to Bandera in 2013 than in 2015, but the numbers were very low to begin with. In the case of Kharkiv, they dropped from 8 percent to 6 percent of respondents, and in Dnipropetrovsk oblast from 9 percent to 7 percent.

When it comes to public support for monuments to Bandera, the Center finds itself in the same memory space as the Southeast, and both differ significantly from the West in that regard. The lack of enthusiasm for Bandera in the East and, partially, in the Center was confirmed by Volodymyr Viatrovych, the director of the Institute of National Memory and one of the mаin sponsors, promoters and implementers of the decommunization laws. According to him, out of 51,493 streets renamed in Ukraine when the laws were implemented, only 34 received the name of Bandera. With the number of demolished Lenin monuments standing at 1,320, only 4 monuments to Bandera were erected before January 2017. While the decision to get rid of communist symbols was made by parliament in Kyiv, the question of what new names to give the now “decommunized” cities, towns, villages and streets rested with the local authorities in the Center and Southeast of Ukraine, and Bandera clearly was not among the favorites there.[3]

Neither the Center nor the Southeast is rushing to replace one toppled political leader with another. That reluctance was already apparent after the demolition of the first Lenin monument in downtown Kyiv in December 2013. Back then, Ukrainian national and nationalist banners, as well as those of the European Union, were placed on the now empty pedestal to fill the void in the symbolically important public space. Kyivans interviewed for the St. Gallen project in early February 2014, a few weeks before the start of the actual Leninfall, were opposed to replacing Lenin with a monument to another political leader.

“In my personal opinion, that space should simply be sanctified for a long time, and a little chapel should be erected there or, I don’t know, a memorial to the victims of the Holodomor or of communist terror,” said one respondent. “I would not place anything there for now…. I think there should be a public discussion about whom to place, some national hero or national genius, or an artist or writer,” commented another Kyivan. Yet another respondent supported the idea of temporary installations in place of a permanent monument: “I liked the idea of one of the artists of establishing it as a kind of permanent monument. Giving an artist a month, say, to put up some kind of installation or sculpture there. It stands for a month and is then replaced by something else.” A floral installation at the base of the old pedestal became a temporary solution to the Kyiv monument problem in May 2017.[4]

In September 2017, a petition was circulated about replacing the remnants of the monument with a fountain, while the top of the pedestal was decorated with the emblem of trident—the center piece of Ukraine’s court of arms, Ukraine’s national blue and yellow and nationalist red-and-black banners. Radical opponents of the new, post-Yanukovych government attached a plaque to the pedestal commemorating two participants of the EuroMaidan who were killed by the secret service and police loyal to the new government after the Revolution of Dignity. One of those commemorated was a radical leader with alleged criminal connections, the other a Buddhist guru from the Donbas. The Soviet-era inscription citing Lenin’s words about a free Ukraine being possible only in union with the Russian proletariat still remained on the pedestal.  With the Lenin statue gone, the pedestal had become an ideologically contested space. But the nature of the main debate had changed: it no longer concerned loyalty to Lenin or Russia but the future of Ukrainian nation.[5]

kyiv lenin demolished
The Center and parts of the Southeast found a different solution to the problem posed by the remaining pedestals. In the city of Chernihiv, the surviving pedestal of the Lenin monument was turned into a Ukrainian national shrine, with a poem by the early twentieth-century poet Lesia Ukrainka inscribed on it, and the trident, the central symbol of the Ukrainian coat of arms, painted in the blue-and-yellow colors of the Ukrainian national flag and augmented with the motto “Ukraine or death.” The pedestal became part of a public space dedicated to the heroes of the Heavenly Hundred—victims of the police shootings on the Kyiv Maidan in February 2014—and Ukrainian soldiers who died in the war in the Donbas, officially called an anti-terrorist operation (ATO). The square where the Lenin monument had stood was renamed the Square of the Heavenly Hundred. In Poltava and in the southern city of Kherson, pedestals of Lenin monuments were also turned into shrines to the Heavenly Hundred and soldiers of the ATO.

Thus, in many cities of the Center and parts of the Southeast, Lenin monuments are being replaced not with monuments to a single historical figure but with memorials to heroes of another rising cult—defenders of democracy in the Revolution of Dignity and defenders of Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity in the war with Russia. In urban centers of the East—parts of the Donbas recaptured by the Ukrainian army, where Lenin monuments were removed mainly by Ukrainian volunteer battalions fighting in the war—attempts to turn the remaining pedestals into shrines to the heroes of the Heavenly Hundred did not take root, and supporters of the pro-Russian rebels have taken the opportunity to cover the pedestals with anti-Ukrainian slogans and graffiti. In the West, where Lenin monuments were removed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the public spaces were reappropriated long ago, leaving little space in symbolically important city centers for memorials to the Heavenly Hundred.[6]

[1] “Prykarpattia uviishlo u knyhu rekordiv Ukraïny za kil'kistiu pam’iatnykiv Shevchenku,” Radio Liberty, December 30, 2014; “Pam’iatnyky Stepanovi Banderi”; “P’iat' pam’iatnykiv Stepanovi Banderi, shcho naibil'she nahaduit' skul'ptury Lenina,” Gazeta.ua, December 8, 2009.

[2] “Stalo izvestno skol'ko pamiatnikov Bandere v Ukraine,” Apostrof, October 15, 2016.

[3] “Banderyzatsii nemaie—Viatrovych krytykam dekomunizatsii,” Gazeta.ua, January 25, 2017; “Pro ‘banderyzatsiiu’ til'ky fakty,” Volodymyr Viatrovych, Facebook post, January 16, 2017.

[4] Interviews with Kyivans, February 2, 2014, University of St. Gallen University Project “Region, Nation, and Beyond: An Interdisciplinary and Transcultural Reconsideration of Ukraine.”

[5] Author’s observations from his visit to the monument site on September 16, 2017.

[6] Data on the use of pedestals was collected by Viktoriya Sereda.

© 2017 The President and Fellows of Harvard College