Ukraine commits statue-cide

  • 24 February 2014
Taras Shevchenko and Vladimir Lenin - statues in Kharkiv
Taras Shevchenko (left) and Vladimir Lenin, in Kharkiv

Ukraine is going through its third bout of statue-cide in a century, notes Stephen Mulvey.

First it was statues of the tsars that were toppled, and replaced with Soviet demi-gods. Kiev lost four tsars and a prime minister (Pyotr Stolypin). Then, at the dawn of Ukrainian independence in 1991, most of the major Lenin statues came down, including a monolithic monument to Great October (ie, the 1917 Revolution) in what is now the Maidan.

But the de-Leninisation job, done thoroughly in the west of the country, was carried out only patchily in central regions, and in the east hardly at all. Hence the scope for the latest bout of revolutionary demolition, in which dozens more Lenins have been pulled down. The two biggest remaining prizes are in the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk - but there memories of the Soviet era are warmer than elsewhere, and crowds have turned out to defend the great proletarian leader.

The Maidan's giant Lenin was replaced with a Slavic mother goddess, Berehynia

So what will replace the toppled Lenins? In Lviv, the biggest city in western Ukraine, two new idols have been raised - Ukraine's national poet, Taras Shevchenko, and the partisan leader who declared Ukrainian independence in World War Two, Stepan Bandera.

Bandera - elevated to the status of Hero of Ukraine by ex-president Viktor Yushchenko - is a hugely divisive figure. In the east, as in Russia, he is remembered chiefly for a temporary alliance with the Nazis, though he fought both Nazis and Soviets and was held in a Nazi concentration camp. Jews and Poles also accuse Bandera of condoning massacres.

Shevchenko would be the compromise candidate. In fact, a stone's throw from the endangered Lenin statue in Kharkiv there already stands a Shevchenko statue - plumper, and with a longer moustache - erected in 1939 (see top picture).

A poet, artist and folklorist hailed as the father of Ukrainian literature (and the literary Ukrainian language), Shevchenko was exiled by Tsar Nicholas I for his mildly progressive political ideas. He was admired by Soviet communists, but is lionised by nationalists. Those who formerly had wedding pictures taken by the Lenin statue in Lviv reportedly find Shevchenko a good substitute. It could be the same elsewhere in Ukraine.

There are still plenty of Ukrainian Lenins left though. Small jelly-mould statues, sometimes painted gold, adorn village squares in their hundreds. It may take a while for the new revolutionary spirit to filter through from town to country.

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