Serhy Yekelchyk teaches history and Slavic studies at the University of Victoria in Canada. He is the author of “Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation.”
The revolution in the Ukrainian capital began with about 100 students setting up tents in Kiev’s central square and declaring a hunger strike. They insisted that the prime minister resign and that the government stop negotiating a new treaty with Moscow. If this sounds familiar, something must be wrong, because these events happened in October 1990, well before revolts were live-streamed.
At the time, Kiev’s central plaza was still known as October Revolution Square, named after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. At its eastern end stood a huge monument to Vladimir Lenin that dominated the square’s ornate, Stalinesque architecture. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union then, but its people were demanding change. Popular pressure seemed to be working, too. The premier resigned, the Lenin monument was dismantled, and the Soviet Union disintegrated the following year.
And yet, twice more in the next 25 years, crowds of protesters would clash with police on the same streets and occupy the same plaza, now known as Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in honor of the new Ukrainian state that emerged in 1991. It has been rebuilt, too, with a dark-glass hemisphere in the spot where Lenin once stood. It is the entrance to an upscale underground shopping center called Globe.
Indeed, global capitalism arrived in Ukraine long ago, filling parking spots in the city center with Mercedes-Benzes, Rolls-Royces and Maybachs. Why, then, did destroying Lenin monuments become the protesters’ most-televised symbolic act? Kiev’s other Lenin statue, half a mile south, was the first to fall, on Dec. 8, 2013. Dozens of Lenin statues in other cities were toppled or professionally dismantled over the next three months. The country is changing, but what exactly is it putting behind?
It is not communism, in fact, that Ukrainians have revolted against now, but their long history of Russian rule. This time it started with President Viktor Yanukovych’s U-turn from signing a trade agreement with the European Union to entering an economic union with Russia.
Last time, in the winter of 2004, the Orange Revolution began in the same square, where the people protested a rigged presidential election that had stolen an obvious victory from Viktor Yushchenko. However, both Europe and Yushchenko served as symbols of something much wider — true democracy, the rule of law, reining in corruption.
Ukrainians quickly grew disappointed with the inefficient Yushchenko, and they may well find themselves disillusioned with the European Union in the long run. But at the height of revolutionary upheaval, both were powerful rallying cries of popular protest. The people embraced them as the opposite of what they despised: political manipulation, a compromised judiciary and rampant corruption. Although communism has been dead for nearly 25 years, all these things sound imminently familiar — in a word, Soviet. Hence the falling Lenins.
These problems also seem familiar to Ukrainians because they are associated with the political regime and the economic system of its powerful neighbor and former imperial master, Russia. Yanukovych will be remembered as Vladimir Putin’s failed pupil. For all the similarities between the two regimes, Ukraine’s president never managed to rein in the oligarchs or suppress opposition parties. When the crucial moment came, he was also powerless to crush the rebellion, notwithstanding the encouraging whispers from the Kremlin.
Toppling Lenin statues was a liberating act because they also stood as symbols of authoritarianism, the old Soviet one and the new Russian one. They represented the hated past that still existed right next door and threatened to creep into Ukraine.
It is telling that attempts to destroy Lenin monuments were met with resistance in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, where the population still identifies with Russian culture. In defending their Lenins, Russian-speaking Ukrainians are standing up for Putin’s Russia. However, the Putin regime itself identifies much more with the last czar, Nicholas II, and his strongman prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin. Putin has been photographed laying flowers on the grave of Gen. Anton Denikin, Lenin’s opponent in the Russian civil war. Putin’s ideal is Great Russia rather than Soviet Russia, which explains why Russian history textbooks valorize both Stolypin and Joseph Stalin. At the same time, there is little respect for Lenin in Putin’s Russia.
It’s not that the Ukrainian protesters and their opponents are confused about what they are fighting for. The “war of Lenin monuments” is not about the Bolshevik leader at all; it’s about Ukraine’s long history as part of the Russian empire. That’s why the vague trade agreement with the E.U. resonated so well as a revolutionary slogan. It meant finally leaving the Russian political and cultural orbit. Twenty-three years after the Soviet Union’s official dissolution, Ukrainians are finally burying that last incarnation of the empire. This is why they are taking down its idols, the most prominent ones, the ones that are still standing in so many cities. When they came across a monument to czarist-era Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who defeated Napoleon in 1812, they took it down as well.
Russia understands what’s going on. Putin pressured Yanukovych into his last-minute reversal and was hoping that Ukraine would join the Eurasian Union, the Kremlin’s lame answer to the E.U. Putin’s attempt to rebuild at least some of the Soviet empire under the guise of a modern economic community is doomed without Ukraine’s participation.
This is in part because of the country’s strategic location between Russia and Europe, but also because of its importance to the Russian national identity. Although Russians are fond of referring to Ukrainians by the Soviet moniker of a “fraternal people,” most of them do not acknowledge the country as a separate nation; they see it as a breakaway region that is really Russian.
The Ukrainian revolution of 2014 threatens the ideology of Putin’s regime. It questions Russia’s identity. It challenges Russia’s plan to restore its influence in the region. It also shows that a Putinite regime can be destroyed by a popular revolution. No wonder Russia has recalled its ambassador from Ukraine and refuses to recognize the country’s new government.
It took Ukraine more than 20 years to lay the colonial past to rest. Can we say that, with the toppling of Lenin statues and the toppling of Yanukovych, it has broken free of Russian influence? Not quite.
The day will come when no one will care to destroy or defend the remaining monuments of the Soviet past; when they will become just historical artifacts, perhaps gathered in special theme parks, rather than potent symbols. For the moment, though, the new Ukrainian government is preoccupied with the crises of the day, such as the threat of a default or separatist sentiments in Russian-speaking regions.
The revolutionaries can, and probably will, win these battles. But only constructing a functioning democracy and defeating corruption will help them to win the war.