A crew from the city administration pulls down a Soviet memorial in central Kiev, Ukraine on August 6, 2015. (John Wendle/For The Washington Post)

When Ukraine broke from the Soviet Union in 1991, it never bothered to clear away the hammers and sickles that marked it as a workers’ paradise. Now it is making a belated effort to declare independence from the communist past — and workers are racing through the country to take down old Soviet symbols.

Lenin statues are toppling. Red stars are being chipped off the mosaics on the Kiev metro. Streets named after Soviet heroes are being rechristened. A nationwide push is underway to clean up communism ahead of Ukraine’s independence day on Aug. 24.

But the speedy work, mandated by a new law, has drawn scorn from critics in a divided nation where one person’s enemy of the state is another’s hero. Soviet history left so many traces that nearly every street corner can spark an ideological debate. Both advocates and critics of the efforts say that what’s at stake is Ukrainian identity.

The latest vestige to disappear from Ukraine’s capital of Kiev was a black granite plaque dedicated to Oleksandr Anishenko, a Soviet World War II fighter whose exploits were so daring that a small street in central Kiev was renamed after him, until last week.

A work crew pulled down the tablet with eight swift blows on either side. The street is getting its old name back — that of a 19th-century monk from a nearby church — and the memorial is heading to a warehouse to gather dust alongside hammers and sickles and other symbols and heroes of communism.


Even the crew seemed to have mixed feelings about their task.

“Our grandparents were fighting, and we are destroying,” said Pyotr Karpenko, 58, a worker in the Kiev city government whose hammer and chisel did the deed and who said he had walked by the plaque every day on the way to work for decades. “If it’s needed, then we need to take it down. Their time has come. It was a memory. It was the past.”

But supporters of the effort known as de-communization say that without a full cleaning, Ukraine will never be able to move beyond its Soviet past.

“Those monuments and those symbols carry emotions of the previous era. It’s impossible to move on while they’re standing,” said Volodymyr Vyatrovych, the historian who is head of the Ukrainian National Memory Institute and who introduced in parliament the laws that require communist symbols and statues to be taken down and cities and streets to be renamed if they have communist associations.

“It was kind of schizophrenic how we were doing it before,” he said. “At schools they were being educated about the evils of Lenin, but they were going to school on Lenin Street, walking past Lenin statues.”

The full package of laws also throws open archives from the Soviet security services, switches Ukraine to the Western terminology of “World War II,” not the “Great Patriotic War” as it is known in Russia, and acknowledges that the war started in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, not in 1941 when the Soviet Union entered the war.

It extends full legal recognition to Ukrainians who fought against the Soviet Army on the other side and requires that their stories be written into school curriculums. That is sure to strike a nerve with Russia and with Russian sympathizers in Ukraine, who look at the thorny history of Ukraine’s nationalist liberation movement and focus on the ties and sympathies that some of the leaders had to Nazism. Even some pro-Ukrainian activists have questioned whether legislating historical attitudes is the right way to bring about change in Ukraine, noting that Lenin used similar tactics toward tsarist-era symbols, statues and street names when he came to power after the 1917 revolution.

Others say that it makes little sense to focus on issues of history and symbolism when Ukraine’s economy is feeble and it continues to fight a burning war in its east that has claimed more than 6,000 lives, according to U.N. estimates.

Ukraine and Russia have long felt different from other ex-communist nations, which were far quicker to clear away their Soviet symbols. Red stars still glow from atop the spires of Moscow’s Kremlin, for example, and hammers and sickles are still so ubiquitous that it is difficult to walk a block without seeing one on a facade.

In the Baltics, by contrast, the symbols and statues came down immediately after independence from the Soviet Union. In other Eastern Bloc nations such as Poland and Hungary, it is also rare to see signs that overtly glorify communism.

Critics of the efforts say that the new laws amount not only to rewriting Ukraine’s history, but its very identity. Many Ukrainians are Russian speakers, and even in the capital city of Kiev, Russian is the predominant language on the street. Parts of the territory of modern Ukraine have ties to Russia going back centuries. The nation has long oscillated between Russia and the West — and some say that it is unfair to write one side out of the history books.

“I am a Ukrainian citizen. I’m proud of my country. But what’s happening right now, I don’t agree with,” said Nikolai Tsarev, 91, a Ukrainian veteran of the Red Army who served in World War II and whose chest was covered with Soviet-era medals one recent morning.

“We were fighting under a red flag that right now is being forbidden,” he said.

Many statues of Lenin have already come down since the beginning of the November 2013 protests against Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych. The phenomenon even has a word — Leninopad, or Leninfall, a play on the Ukrainian word for snowfall.

The night Lenin came down from a central Kiev intersection, Ukrainian activist Nazarii Boiarskyi scrambled there to pick up the pieces. It was Dec. 8, 2013, and protests against Yanukovych were in full force. The red granite monument, which had been a target for Ukrainian nationalists for years, crumbled when activists pulled it down as police looked on.

Boiarskyi filled his pockets with five stones, each a little smaller than his fist. One he gave to a historian in western Ukraine. Another he gave to a Belarusan activist who said he wanted it as a symbol of resistance to authoritarianism. The rest sit on a little shelf underneath the window in Boiarskyi’s bedroom.

“For me it was weird” to have the statue still standing over the central Kiev intersection, Boiarskyi said. “I like the square a lot better without it.”

Read more:

Former president of Georgia seeks to free Ukraine from Moscow’s orbit

Gay rights in Eastern Europe: A new battleground for Russia and the West

Spurned by the West, Georgians look to Russia despite past quarrels