The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine tore down its Lenin statues. The hard part is filling the spaces left behind.

A woman sweeps leaves from the ground near a statue of the Virgin Mary and four angels that stands in the place where a monument of Vladi­mir Lenin used to be located in Hryhorivka, Ukraine. (Oksana Parafeniuk/For The Washington Post)

Four angels and the Virgin Mary mark the spot where the Communist used to stand. 

“We used to get drunk next to the Lenin,” a 45-year-old mechanic named Volodymyr said as he passed by. 

“Now it’s a sin to drink there, I guess,” his friend Yulia said.

Five years after the start of Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution, the once-ubiquitous figure of Vladimir Lenin has been eradicated by law. So have other symbols of the Soviet era — gone from the country’s squares, streets and buildings. 

But Ukrainians are still searching for meaning — and identity — in the spaces left behind. 

Depending on where you look, those spaces are now an empty pedestal. Or replaced by a wooden cross. Or a new plaque on a rock. Or fresh tiles. Or just a circle of bare earth. 

As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the likeness of Bolshevik leader Lenin remained the focal point of hundreds of towns and villages for years in Ukraine after Communism’s demise.

Then came the protests, starting in November 2013, that toppled Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly government — touching off Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine and a race by the new authorities in Kiev to erase all vestiges of Soviet rule.

The ensuing “decommunization” laws spelled out scores of historical figures, mottos and symbols to be deleted from public spaces. But they didn’t say how toppled statues should be replaced. 

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Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, which helped write and implement those laws, says all known Lenin statues on Ukrainian government-controlled territory have now been dismantled — more than 1,300 since the decommunization laws were passed in 2015. One exception: monuments near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

What remains, he acknowledges, are hundreds of empty spaces and pedestals, often in towns’ central squares. In the institute’s internal jargon, the vacancies are known as “stumps.”

“The fact is, the question of how to fill these spaces will remain the subject of discussion among Ukrainians for some time,” Viatrovych said. “Our views of our history are still being formed.”

Ukraine’s search for new symbols to replace its Lenins reflects the country’s larger struggle to reorient itself toward the West amid economic turbulence and the continuing war with Russian-backed separatists in the east. 

Ukraine’s rapid push also draws parallels to other pressing debates around the world on how to deal with history and memory — such as whether to preserve statues of Confederate figures in the United States or reinterpreting Columbus Day to acknowledge the decimation of Native Americans by European settlement.

Government proponents say Ukraine needs to free itself from Russia’s sway by embracing and developing a national narrative and national heroes. Critics say that the government is ceding too much power to far-right nationalist groups and enforcing an official ideology just as the Soviets did. 

“It’s not a condemnation of propaganda, but it’s the exchange of one propaganda for another,” said Ievgeniia Moliar, a Kiev activist and art historian critical of the government’s hard-line approach to decommunization. She sees an unflattering parallel in Ukraine’s new monuments rising on the very spots — sometimes on the very same pedestals — where Lenin used to stand.

Ukraine — like much of central and Eastern Europe — was already bringing down many of its Lenin and Soviet statues in the 1990s. But the push to remove the rest after the 2014 revolution was remarkable in its legally mandated scale and speed.

Moliar, who has tracked Lenin replacements across the nation, says the most common genres are the religious and the patriotic. 

In the central Ukrainian city of Bila Tserkva, frozen-dumplings magnate Liudmyla Drygalo thought of both. She and fellow activists created a makeshift memorial to Ukrainians who died in the 2014 protests and the war in the east and erected a wooden cross to stand in Lenin’s place. 

The square was always a central gathering place, Drygalo said. By exchanging Lenin for a cross, she said, “We kept this tradition and simply swapped out the symbol for one that would be close to everyone’s heart.”

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Locals say they still refer to the spot as “where Lenin used to be.” The city issued a call for proposals last month to rebuild the square entirely.

Another popular Lenin replacement has been Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet. The 19th-century figure “repeatedly” passed through on his way to nearby Kiev, says a plaque on a rock installed in place of a bust of Lenin in the village of Ksaverivka. 

“I never heard of him stopping here,” said Tatyana, the head of the community center in whose parking lot the Lenin used to stand sentry. “He just passed through.”

The community center run by Tatyana — she refused to give her last name because she feared retribution from authorities — used to be called the House of Culture of the Friendship Collective Farm. The letters spelling out “collective farm” were pried off the facade last year, but the word is still legible because of the different-colored paint underneath.

Moliar argues that attempts to remove Communist terms and symbols often end up drawing more attention to them. In Kiev, a tall black pedestal that says “Lenin” still overlooks one of the city’s central squares. The figure on top was toppled amid the 2013 protests, but the stone pedestal proved more difficult to move. Viatrovych says it should end up in a museum. 

As they replace their Lenins, some villages are considering the fragility of Ukrainian politics and hedging their bets. 

In Kodaky, south of Kiev, one villager wanted to erect a monument to the people killed in the 2014 protests in Kiev, referred to as the Heavenly Hundred. 

The village authorities instead put up a more neutral monument “to the heroes of independent Ukraine” in the park next to Lenin’s former spot. 

“You never know which way history will go in the future,” village council secretary Oksana Sivovna, 46, explained. “You never know when it’ll be time to topple the Heavenly Hundred.” 

Kodaky’s Lenin statue sold to collectors for roughly $5,000, money that officials say went toward new windows for the school. All that marks the spot is a 7-by-7 grid of gray paving stones that are less weathered than the rest.

“Getting rid of pedestals doesn’t change anything,” said Veronika Protsenko, a 28-year-old villager who works in marketing, as she passed by. “If they had knocked him down and pay went up and pensions went up, then it would have meant something.” 

Kaharlyk, a town of 14,000 an hour’s drive south of Kiev, got a more creative Lenin replacement: a giant egg, painted with a flower design and a window, that an area businessman installed for Easter in 2014.

City officials complained the businessman was unwilling to pay for maintenance of the egg. It was finally removed earlier this fall, leaving behind a circular patch of dirt on top of a grass mound. 

It faces a giant “Ukraine above all else!” placard that covers up a hammer-and-sickle mosaic on the Soviet-era House of Culture. 

Soon, Mayor Oleksandr Panyuta pledged, the House of Culture will be renovated and the mosaic boarded over. A fountain will be built where Lenin used to stand. 

But it’ll take decades longer, Deputy Mayor Oleh Purii said, for the Soviet legacy to be banished for good. 

“How long did Moses lead the Israeli people?” he said. “In 40 years, when all those who were born in the U.S.S.R. have died out, then it will end.”

Oksana Parafeniuk contributed to this report.

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