The Remarkable History Behind Ukraine's Toppled Lenin Statue

In the largest demonstrations since the country's Orange Revolution, protesters tore down the symbol of Soviet influence.

A man uses a sledgehammer to smash a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin during a rally organized by supporters of EU integration in Kiev, Ukraine, on December 8.

There are many ways to create iconic moments during protest movements, but perhaps none is as reliable—as fraught with symbolism—as toppling a statue.

On Sunday, as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev in the largest anti-government demonstrations since the country's 2004 Orange Revolution, protesters did just that—tearing down an 11-foot-high statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin with a steel wire, smashing the monument with sledgehammers, and then carrying off prized pieces of the sculpture.

The massive "Euromaidan" protests, which have been roiling Ukraine since President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an EU trade deal in late November in an apparent effort to move the country away from Europe and toward Russia, are led in part by the right-wing, nationalist Svoboda party, which gleefully reported its involvement in the toppling of the Lenin statue (predictably, members of the country's Communist Party are fuming about the incident).

You can watch Lenin flip backwards and land headfirst in the pavement below:

Lenin in New York, 1939
(Hilary Rossen)

The statue, it turns out, has a remarkable history—and not just as a locus of protest during the latest wave of demonstrations in Ukraine. The monument was first created by the Soviet sculptor Sergey Merkurov, a man famous for making a plaster "death mask" of Lenin on the night he passed away, for a Soviet exhibition at New York City's World's Fair in 1939 (see the postcard on left). And it was hastily imported to the Ukrainian capital in 1946 when, as one BBC account puts it, local authorities suddenly realized "that unlike all the other Soviet republic's capitals, Kiev had mysteriously remained Lenin-free."

What's most surprising is that the statue withstood the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and remained in Kiev's Bessarabska Square until today ("Ukrainians are not very hotblooded people," one man in the central city of Uman explained in 2004, when asked about the improbable staying power of Lenin statues in the country). You'd be forgiven if your first reaction to the news out of Ukraine was, 'Wait, Kiev still had a Lenin statue??'

In recent years, however, the monument had become a fierce battleground between nationalists, who detest Lenin and Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs, and communists. In June 2009, a month after the pro-Western Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called for the country to "cleanse itself" of communist symbols, nationalists chopped off the statue's nose and arm, sparking skirmishes and even an effort by Communist Party supporters to volunteer as guards and defend the sculpture around the clock. With the statue looking increasingly imperiled, one art historian made a plea to preserve the monument:

Lenin in Kiev from Randy Graham on Vimeo.

The fight over the Lenin sculpture in Kiev mirrors a larger battle in Ukraine over monuments to the country's communist past—one primarily waged between the traditionally nationalist west and pro-Russian east. In August, RIA Novosti noted that at least 12 Lenin statues had been defaced in Ukraine since 2009 as part of a "statue war" between communists and nationalists. In perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of this conflict, a promotional video for the Euro 2012 soccer championships in Kharkiv edited out a Lenin statue from a shot of the city's main square to avoid showing "images of a commercial and political nature" (see the square at 0:48 in the clip below).

In Kiev's Bessarabska Square, meanwhile, a statue that's been standing for nearly seven decades is now actually gone. There are fewer Lenins peering down on Ukraine tonight.