Ukrainians keep pulling down Soviet statues. Now Russia is getting angry.


Ukrainian protesters smashed a statue of Lenin with a sledgehammer in central Kiev in December. (AP file photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Looking back, the moment when Euromaidan protesters toppled Kiev's most prominent statue of Lenin on Dec. 8 now seems like a key point in Ukraine's political crisis. It was when the world began to realize that this wasn't just about domestic politics and a potential European Union membership: The Euromaidan protests fit into a broader Ukraine narrative of Russian influence and post-Soviet history.

The image of Lenin's toppling was apparently so strong that it started a trend. It's been estimated that dozens of statues of Lenin and other Soviet-era leaders have been pulled down across Ukraine in recent weeks: One crowd-sourced map puts the estimate at over 100. This video below shows some of the jubilant scenes when the statues have fallen:

Russia, of course, isn't too happy about this.

In a statement Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry's Information and Press Department said: "Russia is outraged at the ongoing monument demolition campaign in Ukraine. Yesterday, another barbaric anti-Russia action took place in the Lvov region where the monument to the Russian military commander Mikhail Kutuzov was removed. We demand that new Ukraine authorities put an end to this mayhem."

The symbolism of the statues may insult pro-Western Ukrainians, but it cuts both ways. Back in December when the first statue fell, political scientists Kataryna Wolczuk from the University of Birmingham, U.K., and Roman Wolczuk from the University of Wolverhampton, U.K., wrote on the Monkey Cage blog that while some Ukrainians resented the statues, others had felt pride in Lenin and Ukraine's Soviet history:

Lenin’s presence in central Kiev represented seemingly unbreakable ties with Russia. Perplexingly, in the capital he also seemed to act as a symbol of the ruling party – President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. But in Russophone Eastern and Southern Ukraine, Lenin is still respected by many, despite Communism’s obsolescence even there. So, as he fell, the reactions ranged from ecstasy to outrage.

That outrage has turned to fear now that Yanukovych is officially out of power and Ukraine's pro-Russia sector is on the back foot. That fear is easy to understand. The "barbaric anti-Russia action(s)" referred to by Russia's Foreign Ministry aren't just about some statues falling over. They're also a reference to far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups, such as Svoboda or Pravy Sektor, both of which push a strong anti-Russian line. And, so, that fear is beginning to get serious in Crimea, where some 60 percent of the population is ethnically Russian. (Moscow officials have reportedly vowed to protect the peninsula's population and their own naval base there if Ukraine descends further into chaos.)

Memories of World War II compound the split. In Russia (and much of Ukraine), Soviet history is best remembered for a hard-won victory over fascist Germany. As The Washington Post's Will Englund recently observed, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be exploiting the memory of World War II to give his government legitimacy, and invocations of history are common in reference to Ukraine: When talking about Euromaidan, the Russian Foreign Ministry recently compared the Kiev protests to the Nazi "Brown Revolution" in 1933. It's not that hard a link to make: The Pravy Sektor have been using the banner of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during Euromaidan protests, an offensive image for many pro-Russian Ukrainians who remember the group's period of collaboration with the Nazis during the war.

Statue demolition has spread so quickly that in some parts of the country teams are being set up to protect the monuments. In the picture below you can see one such group, Ukrainian Communists, reportedly guarding a statue in the eastern industrial city of Donetsk.


An activist of the Ukrainian Communist Party stands at the Lenin monument in the center of  Donetsk on Monday reportedly to prevent its destruction. (By Alexander Khudotepluy/AFP/Getty Images

If the effect of history in the conflict still isn't clear to you, look over the shoulder to the right of the man in the foreground: A flag bearing a hammer and sickle is blowing in the wind.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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Adam Taylor | February 24