Fate reserved for the statues of Lenin, revealing the gap between Russia and Ukraine

By the time it was dismantled in 1991, the Soviet Union had thousands of statues representing its founder, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). The fifteen constituent republics of the Union, which have become so many independent states, have adopted very different policies with respect to these monuments, which speak volumes about their political and historical visions – or, at least, of their leaders. This is especially evident when examining the cases, which are contested here as on many other points, in Ukraine and Russia. Dominique Colas, professor emeritus of political science at Sciences Po, is one of the greatest French specialists on Leninism, the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet space. Here we offer an excerpt from his book “Putin, Ukraine and the statue of Lenin”, which appeared on January 20 in the Presses de Sciences Po.

On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a major invasion of Ukraine in a war that began in 2014 with Russia’s military support for separatists in Donbass and Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian Republic of Crimea from Russia. Three days earlier, to prepare for this attack, he delivered a threatening ideological speech before cameras around the world.

Among other arguments, he argued that Lenin was the “writer and architect” of Ukraine and that this country was a product of Bolshevism, therefore an artificial political creation. Instead of tearing down the statue of Lenin, which they did systematically and totally between 1991 and 2016, Ukrainians should respect it. According to him, some Ukrainians were ungrateful to the Bolshevik leadership and should stop demanding the “decommunization” of Ukraine, because, in his opinion, it was Leninist communism that created Ukraine.

Read more: Ukraine’s reaction to Vladimir Putin’s rewriting of history

Let’s first note a paradox: there is a contradiction between the position of Putin, who was deeply hostile to Lenin because of the role he took from him in the birth of Ukraine, and the presence of thousands of statues bearing his statue in Russia. disassembled. While he has been waging war against Ukraine for eight years, Putin must be consistent with himself, erasing from the soil of his country the man he has declared to be the evil discoverer of Ukraine. . Of course, in the Russian Federation, we no longer honor his statue as we did in Soviet times to commemorate the October Revolution, for the birth of a Bolshevik leader or even for 1uh can. However, Putin is far from attacking the monument dedicated to the Bolshevik leader and, more than thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union, the marble mausoleum where his embalmed body was still installed in Red Square in Moscow.

[…] Let’s begin by briefly mapping out Lenin busts in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, before going into detail later in this book. In the Russian Federation, the main successors of the Soviet Union, number in the thousands, starting with the monumental example that stands in the middle of Moscow on the majestic Lenin Avenue beside October Square (renamed Kaluga Square in 1992). , not far from the metro entrance of the same name.

In Tomsk (Siberia), Lenin appears to contemplate this big Z in the colors of the Saint George ribbon, symbol of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Photo taken on April 28, 2022.
Alexander A. Novikov/Shutterstock

In Belarus, a country bordering Ukraine and Russia, comparable to the latter in terms of political style, statues of Lenin abound and are not threatened. They testify to Belarus’s great continuity with its Soviet past and the legacy claimed by current President Alexander Lukashenko and his supporters. This attachment extends far beyond monuments, as Belarus has served as Russia’s rear base in the incursion into Ukraine since February 2022. In the main square of the capital, Minsk, stands a large statue of Lenin standing on a dais, in a posture directly inspired by what can be seen in this photo taken during a speech calling for an invasion of Poland in May 1920.

Independence Square, Minsk.
Ark Neyman/Shutterstock

What a contrast to Ukraine! As in the Baltic democracies or Poland, which dismantled statues of Lenin at the end of the communist regime before joining the European Union and NATO, there are no statues of Lenin in Ukraine, except in parts now occupied by Russian troops. While, again according to Putin’s rhetoric, the citizens of this country should be grateful to the communist dictator, they not only ended his ritual cult, but were also vindictive and brutal in vandalizing and tearing down his statue during the 1991 independence referendum.

The iconoclastic movement against communist symbols accelerated after the Maidan revolution in February 2014, which signaled a desire to establish a more democratic regime and move closer to the European Union. The monumental statue of Lenin, installed in the center of the capital, Kyiv (in this work we use transcriptions of place names sometimes Ukrainian, sometimes Russian according to context. In chapter 2, for example, which gives Lenin’s point of view, we prefer Russian names) is placed on December 8, 2013 and Kharkiv, in September 2014. A word was later coined in Ukrainian to denote this destruction: leninopad (“fall of Lenin”). The statues are often replaced with Ukrainian and European flags or with tributes to the dead (more than a hundred) of the Maidan revolution. The pedestal was turned into the altar of the motherland.

In the spring of 2015, a drastic law, passed by the Ukrainian parliament, banned the dangerous symbols of the two totalitarian ideologies Communism and Nazism, thus creating a deliberate false symmetry as there are no Nazi monuments in Ukraine (or in the Soviet Union for that matter). It took a year to tear down the communist works in question, to change the names of certain cities, to change the names of Lenin streets and to change all the other toponyms associated with Marxism and the former Soviet Union. In total, an estimated 5,500 Lenin statues were destroyed between 1991 and the last one in 2016 in Zaporizhia, a city near which housed a large nuclear power plant (which was there, at the start of the 2022 invasion). , will be occupied by the Russian army).

The relationship between the territories of the former Soviet Union, who preserved their statues of Lenin and those who destroyed them, is more complex than a simple mirror opposition. After the Maidan revolution, Ukraine experienced a separatist war on its territory. Actively supported by Russia, it took place in the east of the country, in Donbass and in Crimea, and led to the latter’s annexation by the Russian Federation in 2014. Since then, neither Crimea nor the separatist region of Donbass have experienced the massive destruction of Lenin statues. and voluntary. They still exist as evidenced by Sevastopol in Crimea.

If Russia and its staunch ally Belarus clearly differentiate themselves from Ukraine, the cases of Donbass and Crimea should be considered separately. It can be compared to Transnistria, a separatist region of pro-Russian Moldova, which shares a border with Ukraine to the east and also houses statues of Lenin. However, as we know, Moldova is a possible expansion field of the war led in Ukraine by Russia (in Moldova the demolition of a statue of Lenin began in 1991. There is still one, in Chisinau. Displayed in garden exhibitions, it is the subject of repeated altercations and vandalism) .

Attention should also be paid to two cities in southern Ukraine, Henichesk and Melitopol, where local authorities reinstalled Lenin statues in mid-April and early November 2022. They are among the areas occupied by the Russian army and allegedly attached to Russia after smuggling. -referendum to be held in September 2022. This resettlement is a testament to the striking inclusion of these areas in Russia.

Let’s add to this the case of Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine of almost 300,000 inhabitants: despite being occupied by Russia since March 2022, pro-Russian authorities wanted to put the statue of Lenin back on its pedestal (the taking down of the statue does not necessarily mean its destruction. On November 11 2022, in the city taken over by Ukraine, the pedestal is decorated with Ukrainian and European flags.


Until the independence of Ukraine, the monument to Lenin and his ritual commemoration compacted, in the everyday life of citizens, belonging to the socialist camp. After the end of Soviet rule, historical work and militant mobilization resulted in the great famine that Ukraine experienced in 1932-1933, which was called the Holodomor (“hunger extermination” in Ukrainian), officially recognized by the Ukrainian parliament (Rada) as a “genocide”. committed by Stalin and the Bolshevik Party.

As a result of predatory levy policies on Ukraine’s cereal crops, the Holodomor caused at least 3.5 million deaths. His admission, in November 2006, disrupted the meaning that until then many Ukrainians had attached to communism and its symbol, Lenin. The Holodomor memorial replaced communism statues and monuments, as in Kyiv. An element of urban decor that has become commonplace for Russians, communist statues for Ukrainians have now become a symbol of the terrible famine organized by communist Russia.

This text is taken from “Putin, Ukraine and the statue of Lenin”, which appeared on January 20 at the Presses de Sciences Po.
Sciences Po Press

A rigor: from the value assigned to the statues of Lenin, we will not draw a moral that will make truth a variable conditioned by time and place. The 1932-1933 famine and its millions of deaths are a reality. In this respect, the Holodomor is inseparable from the history and memory of the genocide of Jews in the Soviet Union perpetrated by the Nazis and contributed by Ukrainian nationalists and anti-Semites. The name Baby Yar, in Kyiv, a ravine where tens of thousands of Jews were massacred in 1941-1942, has as much history and memory as famine. The question of the various memories of Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians and others about their histories and their conflicts will require a sociology and reflection that we will not do here.

But the Holodomor encouraged Stalin to be made heir to Lenin who, as we will see, had envisioned Ukraine as a granary to be taken, and this vision explains the hostility of some Ukrainians toward the founders of Bolshevism and the Soviet Union. Was Lenin a symbol of Russian imperialism as many Ukrainians think or was he the Ukrainian “writer and architect” as Putin claims? Since the President of Russia did not hesitate to revise the past of Russia, the Soviet Union and the whole world, it is important now to assess the relevance of his strong historical statements about Ukraine, to find out whether Lenin decisively and positively contributed to the birth of Ukraine.

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