Lenin Falls

Sometime after 5:00 p.m. on December 8, 2013, when the main rally was over and winter darkness had fallen on the streets of Kyiv, a column of approximately 200 men, most of them wearing balaclavas, began to proceed from the Kyiv city administration building, the protesters’ headquarters on Kreshchatyk, to the intersection of that boulevard with another one named after Ukraine’s most famous poet, Taras Shevchenko. The column was headed for the monument at the foot of Shevchenko Boulevard across the street from the Besarabka (Bessarabian Market), the city’s main agricultural bazaar. The monument, which honored Vladimir Lenin, had been erected in December 1946, as the Soviet authorities were “cleansing” and reclaiming the symbolic space after the defeat of the Nazis, who had occupied the city from 1941 to 1943.

Ever since Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991, followed by the removal of a much larger statue of Lenin from the city’s main square, many in Kyiv had wondered whether the Lenin monument on Shevchenko Boulevard should go as well. Why should there be a monument to the founder of the Russian Communist Party and godfather of the brutal Soviet regime on the boulevard named after Shevchenko, whom many considered the spiritual father of the Ukrainian nation? The statue was also an eyesore to those less concerned with the Ukrainian nation than with belief in the market economy—a belief symbolized by the Bessarabian Market across the street from the monument. It stood as proof that even the Bolsheviks could not fully crush market forces. Among the Kyivans who wanted the monument to stay in place were members of the Communist Party of Ukraine, who were prepared to defend it with their bodies if need be. The civic authorities decided to play for time, citing the artistic value of the marble statue as an excuse to keep it where it was.[1]

A demolished statue of Lenin

As monuments to Lenin were removed by city councils in other parts of Ukraine, the Kyiv authorities took a pause on the monument that lasted more than twenty years. That seemed excessive to Ukrainian liberals and intolerable to Ukrainian nationalists. The latter decided to take the initiative into their own hands. The first attempt to demolish the monument was undertaken by members of the Ukrainian nationalist organization Tryzub (Trident) on June 30, 2009, the anniversary of the declaration of Ukrainian independence by nationalists in 1941 and the birthday of one of the icons of the Ukrainian nationalism Roman Shukhevych. The attackers managed to damage the monument before they were arrested and put behind bars. As justification of their action, they cited the decree on the Soviet regime’s responsibility for the Holodomor, the Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33, signed a few days earlier by President Viktor Yushchenko. When the pro-Western and anticommunist Yushchenko was replaced in early 2011 by the pro-Russian President Yanukovych, who was friendly to the communists, the perpetrators were prosecuted, but their sentences were suspended. The Lenin monument was restored soon after the attack. The pause taken by the civic authorities continued.[2]

The start of the EuroMaidan protests in November 2013 presented a new threat to the monument, and the government dispatched a special detachment of riot police to protect it from any eventuality. With a column moving toward the monument on the evening of December 8, the police knew what to expect. They had already fought off an attack on the monument the previous Sunday, December 1, later claiming it had been so violent that eight officers had had to seek medical attention. This time they decided to do nothing. The large column and the mass character of the protest earlier in the day may have been one reason. But it is equally possible that the authorities did not mind the impending demolition and were preparing to use that act of symbolic violence to justify the very real violence they intended to unleash in the coming days. One way or another, the column of men in balaclavas got a free hand to do what they had come to do—demolish the monument to Vladimir Lenin.[3]

Demolish they did. While the organizers of the action cheered on the crowd gathered around the monument with nationalist and anticommunist slogans, young men in balaclavas attached a tall ladder to the monument—together with the pedestal, it was more than 10 meters in height—put а loop around the neck of the communist chief and, with considerable effort, pulled the monument off the pedestal. Lenin fell headfirst, crushing a granite plate near the base of the monument. His neck did not survive the impact, and the head broke off, to the further excitement of the crowd. In front of the cameras the attackers, some armed with heavy hammers, descended on the demolished idol, trying to split off pieces of the marble body as revolutionary souvenirs. A representative of the largest Ukrainian nationalist party, Svoboda (Freedom), which claimed responsibility for the action, compared the fall of the monument to that of the Berlin Wall.[4]

Leaders of the mainstream political parties were less enthusiastic. Andrii Shevchenko, a prominent Ukrainian journalist, member of parliament, and future Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, made a statement on behalf of the leadership of the EuroMaidan coordinating committee, claiming that the demolition had not been sanctioned by that body. But Shevchenko also refused to condemn the toppling of the monument, stating that there was no place in downtown Kyiv for a monument to Lenin. A few weeks later Ukraine’s most celebrated composer, Valentyn Sylvestrov, expressed the opinion of many when he stated: “They brought down the monument—a dubious achievement of the revolution, but an achievement.” Many Kyivans, as well as people in other parts of Ukraine, did not welcome the manner of the removal or share the nationalist ideology of those who carried it out, but they did not doubt that it was high time for Lenin to go.[5]

A lenin statue head taken down by construction crew

The toppling of the Lenin monument in Kyiv on December 8, 2013 is considered the start of what became known as the Leninopad, or Leninfall—the mass demolition of Lenin monuments in Ukraine in late 2013 and the first half of 2014. Indeed, television coverage of the demolition of the most recognizable Lenin monument in the country triggered similar attacks in the Ukrainian provinces, but the process was slow to gather speed, and the impact of the Kyiv toppling became clear only in retrospect. Only three monuments were demolished or vandalized elsewhere in Ukraine between December 9 and 30, 2013. Nine more were attacked in January 2014, and an additional five in the first half of February 2014. Given that there were hundreds of monuments to Lenin all over Ukraine, the immediate impact of the fall of Kyiv’s Lenin was modest at best.[6]

But then, all of a sudden, anticommunist hell broke loose. On February 21 alone, more than 40 Lenin monuments and statues were either demolished or attacked by activists in small towns and villages of Ukraine. By the next day, more than a hundred monuments and statues were gone. Altogether the month of February 2014 witnessed the demolition of 320 statues and monuments to Vladimir Lenin. The term “Leninfall” was born. The chronology of the Leninfall, not unlike its beginnings in December 2013, was closely associated with the main stages of the Revolution of Dignity protests. The dramatic spike in attacks on Lenin monuments on February 21 came in the wake of the violent clashes and mass killing of protesters on the Maidan one day earlier. To the crescendo of violence on the Maidan, the pro-Maidan forces in the Ukrainian provinces responded with attacks on the symbols of the erstwhile communist regime, which came to be seen as a proxy for the corrupt administration of President Yanukovych.

While no other month matched February 2014 in number of demolished or vandalized monuments to Lenin and other prominent figures of the communist regime, the Leninfall continued for the rest of the year, further fueled by the Russian annexation of the Crimea in March 2014 and the beginning of open warfare in the Donbas in April and May 2014. Altogether in 2013–14 more than 550 monuments to Lenin were removed in Ukraine by local activists and by decisions of local councils.[7]

The Leninfall of 2013–14 had a less dramatic but in many ways even more consequential continuation in the following year. In April 2015 the Ukrainian parliament passed a set of four “Decommunization Laws.” In the following month, President Petro Poroshenko, elected to office in the middle of the Crimean and Donbas crises in May 2014, signed the legislation into law. One of the laws established a six-month deadline for the removal of all monuments to Lenin and leaders of the communist regime. It decreed the renaming of thousands of Ukrainian cities, towns, villages, and streets in order to remove all communist-related names. By early 2017, close to 1,300 additional Lenin monuments and statues were gone. The Leninfall had attained its ultimate objective. Out of approximately 5,500 Lenin monuments and statues in Ukraine in 1991, all but a few were gone by October 2017, the month marking the centenary of Lenin’s October Revolution of 1917. In Ukraine, the century of V. I. Lenin was over.[8]

[1] “Istoriia pamiatnyka Leninu v Kyievi,” Ukraïns'ka pravda, December 9, 2013.
[2] “Na Lenini lytsia nemaie! Ukraïns'ka presa u seredu,” BBC Ukrainian.COM, July 1, 2009: “Sud otlozhil na neopredelennoe vremia srok rassmotreniia dela o razrushenii pamiatnika Leninu v Kieve,” Korrespondent, April 9, 2013.
[3] “MVS povidomliaie pro 8 hospitalizovanykh militsioneriv pislia sutychky bilia pam’iatnyka Leninu,” Tyzhden.ua December 1, 2013.
[4] Oleksandr Aronets, “Povalennia pam’iatnyka Leninu v Kyievi,” YouTube“Svobodivtsi vzialy na sebe vidpovidalnist' za povalennia Lenina,” IPress, December 8, 2013; “Povalennia pam’iatnyka Leninu v Kyievi,” Wikipedia.
[5] “V Kieve vozveli barrikady i snesli pamiatnik Leninu,” BBC Russia Service, December 9, 2013; Mariia Semenchenko, “Valentyn Syl'vestrov: chytaite Shevchenka poky ne pizno,” Den', December 29, 2013.
[6] “Khronologia Leninopadu (2013–2014)”. Oleksandra Haidai, Kam’ianyi hist’: Lenin u tsentral’ni Ukraini (Kyiv, 2016), pp. 172-189.
[7] “Khronologia Leninopadu (2013–2014)”.
[8] Vitalii Chervonenko, “Rada ukhvalyla ‘dekomunizatsiinyi paket,’” BBC, April 9, 2015“Poroshenko signs laws on denouncing Communist, Nazi regimes,” Interfax-Ukraine, May 16, 2015“Khronologia Leninopadu (2013–2014)”“Khronologia Leninopadu (2015)”“Khronologia Leninopadu (2016)”“Khronologia Leninopadu (2017)”.