MOSCOW – Anti-Russian protesters in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, pulled down a massive statue of Vladimir Lenin late Sunday, a sign of hardening anger toward the Kremlin in an eastern Ukrainian area where sympathies are split between Kiev and Moscow.
The pro-European protests that swept Ukraine in the winter were accompanied by a wave of Lenin statues being pulled down, eliminating symbolic vestiges of the Soviet Union that had endured after its 1991 breakup. But few such statues were toppled in eastern Ukraine, which has long been a bastion of pro-Russian sentiment and where separatists have embarked on an insurgency that has cost thousands of lives.
The demolition of the statue in Kharkiv is just the latest signal of hardening Ukrainian attitudes toward Moscow. Russia’s March seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, followed by a bloody pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, has damaged centuries-old affinities between Ukrainians and Russians.
“Lenin? Let him fall down. As long as nobody suffers under his weight. As long as this bloody Communist idol does not take more victims with it when it goes,” wrote Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who made his political career in Kharkiv, on his Facebook page on Monday. “I ordered the police to protect the people and not the idol.”
Separatist rebels never seized government buildings in Kharkiv. But analysts saw it as among the most vulnerable cities in the east if the rebellion were to spread. Pro-Russian and pro-Kiev protesters have held dueling demonstrations there for months. Previous attempts by pro-Kiev protesters to pull down the statue had been repelled by pro-Russian activists.
That changed Sunday, when thousands of angry protesters gathered at Kharkiv’s vast Freedom Square with the intention of ridding their city of Lenin once and for all. After darkness fell, protesters chanting “glory to Ukraine” sawed through one of Lenin’s bronze legs. Then they used cables to pull him off his pedestal.
The statue was 28 feet tall, and it stood on a pedestal of red granite similar to that of Lenin’s tomb on Red Square in Moscow. Unveiled in 1963, it stood 66 feet tall on the pedestal and was said to be Ukraine’s tallest monument to the revolutionary founder of the Soviet Union.
Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes, who has straddled the pro-Kiev and pro-Russian camps, vowed Monday to rebuild the monument, saying that it had been “barbarically destroyed.”
“We will restore the statue on Freedom Square by all means,” he wrote on the city’s website.
A shaky Sept. 5 cease-fire has quieted the conflict in eastern Ukraine, after President Petro Poroshenko promised extensive autonomy for regions that were seized by pro-Russian rebels. On those territories, the forces look likely to be frozen in place in a manner similar to other semi-autonomous pro-Russian enclaves in Moldova and Georgia. Much of the rest of Ukraine is significantly more nationalist and more anti-Russian than it was before this year, as Ukrainians react with anger to perceptions that the Kremlin has backed and encouraged the fighting.