Life and death of Lenin’s statues in Russia and Ukraine

Dominique Colas

Dominique Colas has just published Poutine, l’Ukraine et les statues de Lénine in the Sciences Po Press. Translated from Vie et mort des statues de Lénine en Russie et en Ukraine by Ramona Frost for Futuristika.

Lenin’s death on January 21, 1924 – just 99 years ago – marked the beginning of an extraordinary process of glorification. Thousands of statues were erected in honor of the revolutionary leader, including on Ukrainian territory where, since independence in 1991, several were killed. These “Lenin Falls” (or Leninpad) that have continued to grow since the Maidan Revolution in 2013 reveal, beyond the war, the persistence between Kyiv and Moscow of an ancient conflictual memory of the Soviet heritage.

Lenin died on January 21, 1924. But the Bolshevik party of which he was the founder and constant inspiration found ways to immortalize its leader. By building a marble tomb shortly after his death to welcome his mummy on Red Square – a place symbolizing communist power – but also by forging “Leninism”, built by Stalin in particular in a series of conferences published in Pravda in April-May 1924.

His survival was ensured by undertaking in a proliferative way to represent him in photographs or films, by imitating his profile on coins or stamps, all accompanied by his images in paintings or statues. The latter, erected by the thousands in public places in the USSR, give rise to ritual ceremonies. They have been since 1991 and the dislocation of the Soviet empire an object of lively disputes that express deep conflicts over the interpretation of communism and the role of the founder of the first dictatorship claimed for Marxism.

Long before Russia’s war against Ukraine, which began in 2014 and increased their intensity on February 24, 2022, Russia and Ukraine clashed about Soviet heritage and its possible liquidation: Russia retains and even maintains Lenin’s statues, while in Ukraine they have been demolished down since 1991, with an acceleration in December 2013. Because in Ukraine, nationalists, out of hostility to Russian Bolshevism, pushed the Rada (the Chamber of Deputies) to pass four “de-communitization” laws in February 2015: in the spring of 2016, all the statues of Lenin were taken down, as well as the statues of communist cadres, while streets and cities were renamed.

Thus, to take examples from the news of the war in mid-January 2023, Dnipropetrovsk became, in 2016, Dnipro, by amputation of the name of a Bolshevik leader who practiced under Lenin and Stalin, Grigori Petrovski, while Soledar, who was called, from 1926 to 2011, Karl-Liebknecht, is endowed Two Ukrainian cities among many others that have changed their name, in a movement that began in 1991 and intensified, between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, with the Maidan insurrection. This was followed by the leninopad (“the fall of Lenin” in Ukrainian) which ended in 2016, for lack of statues. But the Ukrainian separatist or conquered regions were obviously not affected1.

To understand the reasons for the hostility of Ukrainian nationalists in Lenin, let’s draw the itinerary of a Soviet artist who carved many statues of the first Bolshevik dictator and the second, Stalin. Then, we will examine the differentiated areas where there are or are not statues of Lenin. And finally, we will recall that memory in Ukraine is marked by Holodomor (“extermination by hunger” in Ukrainian).

The sculptor we will be interested in is called Sergei Merkourov (1881-1952)2. He is a very honored artist in the USSR, who has won the Order of Lenin and, twice, the Stalin Prize. Above all, he received many orders, obviously official because no artist could produce works from October 1917 without them having been commissioned by a communist body.

A realization by Merkourov illustrates this point, but shows the obstacles that artists had to overcome in the USSR. Indeed, Merkourov’s career was temporarily hindered because of a statue, the installation of which was prohibited by the high authorities of the Communist Party. In 1924, while Lenin’s statues had been spreading since 1919, Merkourov sculpted a group entitled Death of the Chief, “leader” being Lenin’s nickname during his lifetime. There were eight men carrying on their shoulders, in his shroud, the elongated body of the Bolshevik leader, recognizable by his small triangular barb.

Thus, Lenin appeared in this work as a dead corpse, while the strategy of the communists was to immortalize him, especially in his mausoleum where he seemed alive, dressed in a three-piece costume. Showing Lenin as a corpse threatened with putrefaction was contrary to what the party’s policy demanded: an immortal “leader” who transcends death.

Unlike this statue that showed Lenin carried to earth, the dominant model of the sculptures of the Bolshevik leader, due to another artist, was inaugurated in 1926 in front of the Finnish station in St. Petersburg. He represents Lenin standing, dressed in his three-piece suit and an overcoat, as if he were imitating his own photos, his right arm raised with authority towards an objective that he encourages him to achieve. Thus, the sculptureDeath of a leader of Merkourov, with his cumbersome remains of Lenin, did not play its role as a representation of the supreme guide of the world revolution.

However, this attempt, failed in its goal, did not hinder Merkourov’s career. He made, among many others, the model of a statue of Lenin in the mid- 1930s that corresponded to the model described in the previous paragraph.

Long before Russia’s war against Ukraine, which began in 2014 and increased their intensity on February 24, 2022, Russia and Ukraine clashed about Soviet heritage and its possible liquidation: Russia retains and even maintains Lenin’s statues, while in Ukraine they have been dammed down since 1991

A cathedral built in the 19th century, known as Christ the Savior, and dynamited under Stalin, had left a large wasteland near the Kremlin. Moscow’s urban planners imagined building a huge government building there: the Soviet Palace. He had to be 300 meters high, and be styled at his top of a 100-meter-high Lenin sculpted by Merkourov: on the model, Lenin has the most common form of his statues, his right arm raised, where the index finger authoritatively designates a goal for the future.

In the end, the building was not built because of the war. After 1945, on its location, the authorities built a swimming pool. Following the fall of the USSR in 1991, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was rebuilt in the same way, at the request of the Orthodox Church and with the agreement of the State; Putin regularly devotes there.

The sculptor who was asked under Stalin to build a statue of Lenin at the top of a gigantic state building was necessarily dependent on power. And it helped to adorn, if we can say so, a typical realization of Stalin: the Moscow Canal that connects Moskva and the Volga over 128 kilometers. Two hundred thousand prisoners worked on the construction site of this canal, which was entrusted to a structure in the Gulag, the Dmitlag, created in 1932.

The operation was under the responsibility of Guenrikh G. Iagoda, Minister of the Interior (NKVD). But as with the Soviet Palace, a colossal tribute had to be added both to the founder of the USSR, Lenin, and to his successor, Stalin. Merkourov made two statues of the two dictators, near the entrance to the canal, on the banks of the Volga, in mirrors and similar in their massive style: they were inaugurated in 1937 in Dubna.

The statues are, of course, monumental: they are placed on stone pedestals capable of bearing their weight and are themselves carved in blocks of this material. They measure 22 meters and weigh 450 tons: the construction work, as we have understood, was that of the prisoners of the camp. The statue of Stalin, like all those of the totalitarian dictator, was demized in the early 1960s, but the statue of Lenin, in accordance with Vladimir Putin’s policy, is still in place.

Illustration: AI assisted - Futuristika

After this triumphant episode, Merkourov’s career continued, strengthened and took on an international appearance. Indeed, at the Universal Exhibition in New York in 1939-1940, statues of Lenin and Stalin were highlighted by the USSR. But they are not original statues: they are made of marble, smaller in size and copy the statues built by the concentrationaries of the Gulag on the Volga. Subsequently, the statue of Stalin will be installed in a park in Moscow. And the statue of Lenin will be erected in the center of Kyiv in 1946, where it will be inaugurated by Nikita Khrushchev for the tenth anniversary of the Constitution due to Stalin.

As soon as Ukraine was independent (voted by referendum in all regions of the country) in 1991, Lenin’s statues were attacked by Ukrainian nationalists. Some are brought down, especially in western Ukraine but not only in this area. And the statue of Lenin by Merkourov in Kyiv is threatened by nationalists: it was mutilated in 2009. With hammers, his right hand and lower part of his face are broken.

The attitude of the state and municipal authorities is fluctuating. But it is a major event in Ukraine’s political course that will lead to its destruction, while its monumental model remains on the banks of the Volga, in Russia, like all the statues of Lenin that are counted by the thousands in the country.

Once Lenin’s statue was knocked down in Kyiv, other statues were overthrown throughout Ukraine, a sign of both a desire to break with communism and to move away clearly from the Russian orbit.

The destruction of Lenin’s statue in Kyiv occurred on December 8, 2013, at the initial point of a revolutionary insurrection that marks another step towards democratic Ukraine. The “Orange Revolution” of 2004 had, by dismissing a pro-Russian presidential candidate for a time, brought Ukraine closer to democracy. But in the fall of 2013, current President Viktor Yanukovych, by refusing to sign the association agreement with the European Union, showed his proximity to Moscow, which led to considerable demonstrations, especially in Kyiv. The police first made a protective cord around the statue of Lenin by Merkourov, but did not persist.

The demonstrators, the most determined of whom belonged to a small far-right group at the forefront among an abundant crowd, protested against Yanukovych’s decision: they aimed at the symbolic statue and, on December 8, decided to demolish it by pulling it on cables. Once on land, it was hammered with masses, showing the will of the iconoclasts to end the representations of the first Bolshevik dictator. Thus, another statue of Sergei Merkourov was destroyed, after that of Stalin who adorned the banks of the Volga and who was the twin of that of Lenin, and it can be added that his statue of Lenin in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, which became an independent state, was also demolished in 1991 by the same artist.

Viktor Yanukovych faced an insurrection that began at the end of 2013 and culminated in February of this year: it killed about 100 people, including about twenty police officers. This insurrection was named after the place where the main clashes were: Maidan (but also Euromaidan). In the end, a vote by the Ukrainian Rada deposed Yanukovych who fled to Russia.

Once Lenin’s statue was knocked down in Kyiv, other statues were overthrown throughout Ukraine, a sign of both a desire to break with communism and to move away clearly from the Russian orbit. But Russia is undertaking a counter-offensive. Pro-Russian separatists are active in Donbass and Crimea, supported by the Russian army. This resulted in the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 (through a referendum that violated international law and earned Russia sanctions). In the eastern part of the country, pro-Russian activists supported by Russia transformed this secession into a hybrid war, until Putin decided on a massive invasion of Ukraine, targeting Kyiv and Kharkiv on February 24, 2022.

The Russian military aggression of 2014 results in the Duma in the drafting of a series of laws and proposals for laws concerning memory. The objective is to build a new story: the Russian authorities want to control the signifiers of the Second World War and its sequencing, by naming the conflict “Great Patriotic War” and setting its temporal limits: ” 1941-1945″, which makes it possible to hide the Hitler-Staline pact of 1939.

As in response, the Ukrainian Rada passed four so-called “de-communitization laws”. One of them is entitled: “On the condemnation of totalitarian communist and National Socialist (Nazi) regimes in Ukraine and the prohibition of their propaganda”. These laws will lead to changes in street names, in the name of certain cities and especially the dethreeding of the many statues of communist leaders. For example, that of the Bolshevik Petrovski, which we mentioned above, located in the center of Dnipropetrosk (now Dnipro), is overthrown. But the most widespread statues, those of Lenin, are also massively demeaned, or globally 5,500 monuments destroyed: we will talk about the leninopad.

But the “Lenin Falls” policy has three territorial limits in Ukraine expressing Russian influence. Thus, Russia having put its hands on Crimea, we can see a large statue of Lenin in Sevastopol. The regions of Donbass, at war since 2014 and de facto annexed by Russia, are another area where statues of Lenin can be encountered, for example in Donetsk. Finally, the third engine that leads to Lenin’s statues standing in Ukraine: the restoration of these sculptures in space conquered by the Russian army since February 2022, as well as in Henitchesk, a coastal city of the Sea of Azov where a statue built down in 2014 is reinstalled in the central square.

Overall, the establishment of the statues of the Bolshevik leader obeys the same logic in conquered Ukraine as in Russia: to satisfy the fraction of the public who retains nostalgia for the USSR and communism or who adheres to Putin’s judgment on the end of the USSR as a “humanitarian disaster” of the 20th century. Lenin’s statues in Russia and in the part of Ukraine conquered by the Russian army are the visible mark of communist memory and membership of Russia.

On the contrary, the leninopad shows the Ukrainian will to cut with Russia because of its domination, which could be called colonial. This, if we only go back to 1917, is marked in particular by the famine of 1921-1922 managed by Lenin, which gave priority to the needs of the two capitals (Saint Petersburg and Moscow) by forcing transfers of wheat from Ukraine for the benefit of industrial and Bolshevik centers. In 1931-1933, Stalin, through the collectivization of land and wheat exports, plunged Ukraine into a terrible shortage that caused at least 3.5 million deaths. This famine is called Holodomor.

This famine was obscured during the Soviet era, and that of 1921-1922 was not attributed to the responsibility of the Bolshevik power, so that overall Lenin and Stalin are glorified, statufied and considered deities. And are also honored by party executives who had direct authority during the Holodomor, like Petrovski. These famines that punctuate the power of the state party have been clearly documented by Ukrainian and international historians since 1991. In 2006, the Ukrainian Rada called the Holodomor a “genocide”.

But, of course, the Russian authorities are suddenly disagreeing. Thus, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks of a “tragedy” and we find the same euphemism in Putin. Moreover, it reverses the imputation of “genocide” by charging Ukraine with this crime. In 2021, he used this accusation to stigmatize this country for its policy towards the Russians, defined as an ethno-national entity: he made Ukrainian politicians “Russophobic” and “neo-Nazis”, which is consistent with his accusation of “genocide”.

Putin makes and imposes a fantasized account of the history of Russia that would date back more than a thousand years and would have originated in the conversion of Saint Vladimir I, baptized in 988, which would have brought future Russia, Belarus and Ukraine into Christianity14. And at the same time, the Russian President considers that these three nations are one and the same “people, a whole15”, which allows him to refuse the existence of Ukraine as a sovereign and independent entity.

According to Putin, Ukraine is a mirage that must be dissipated by war. So he is critical of Lenin, who would have artificially manufactured the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine within the USSR. For this reason, the Russian President invites Ukrainians to honor the Bolshevik leader instead of demolishing the statues of Lenin. At the same time, we can see that Putin, for nearly 25 years in power, has never undertaken to deprive himself of monuments in Lenin, and in the first place his mausoleum. Indeed, he has to deal with a part of the Russian public who is still attached to the memory of the USSR and the myth of Soviet communism, condensed in the figure of Vladimir Lenin.

Ukrainian nationalists have a completely different attitude: they consider Lenin and Stalin as duplicates as Russian communist dictators and make them responsible for the colonial situation suffered by Ukraine and millions of deaths from the Holodomor. While some Russians perceive Lenin’s statues as beneficial and living symbols, for most Ukrainians they are linked to the negative and death, which the war that began in 2014 and its dramatic extension since February 2022 can only accentuate. ✪


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