Whatever the outcome of the ongoing “Euro Revolution” in Ukraine, future historians will view the destruction of the Lenin statue in downtown Kyiv as a milestone in the country’s move away from its Soviet past and Regionnaire present.
Vladimir Illich Lenin was a brilliant polemicist and strategist who arguably made the Bolshevik Revolution. But he was also a tyrant who countenanced, encouraged, and committed what we would today call massive crimes against humanity. Regardless of whether or not Leninism directly led to Stalinism, Lenin and Leninism made Stalin and Stalinism possible and, indeed, likely. No country claiming to be civilized would honor mass murderers in one of the most visible and central parts of its capital city. Until the evening of December 9th, Ukraine did.
The young Ukrainians who tore down Lenin were acting in the spirit of anti-regime protesters the world over. Hungarians felled a huge Stalin statue during the Revolution of 1956. Russians toppled a monument to Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the bloodthirsty founder of the Bolshevik secret police, in 1991. And Iraqis destroyed a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Like the Iconoclasts in the Byzantine Empire, rebels and revolutionaries understand that symbols can sustain oppressive regimes as much as violence.
Lenin’s felling may mark a caesura in Ukrainians’ self-understanding. Having been victimized by two world wars, a genocidal famine, and decades of totalitarianism and imperialism, many Ukrainians developed a range of survival mechanisms that rested on self-abasement and self-denial. The marble Lenin guarding the intersection of Shevchenko Boulevard and Kyiv’s Broadway, the Khreshchatyk, was a permanent reminder of their servile status. With Lenin smashed to pieces, all Ukrainians are now free to reinvent themselves as empowered human beings capable of deciding their own fates.
The contrast between how many Ukrainians already view themselves and how the regime still views them was best captured by the mayor of Viktor Yanukovych’s home town, who a small group of regime supporters that “Big Daddy [Yanukovych] will never betray his children.” As the “father of the revolution,” Lenin was of course the ultimate Big Daddy. His departure paves the way for the current Big Daddy’s departure.
The Ukrainians taking part in the Euro Revolution already consider themselves to be rational adults with no need of any Big Daddy’s solicitude. In marching, protesting, and demanding their rights as human beings, they are explicitly demonstrating that they have broken with the subaltern psychology that helped keep Communist and post-Communist tyrants in power.
It is especially fitting that Lenin’s fall should have taken place just two weeks after Ukrainians commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor, the famine-genocide that took the lives of millions in 1932–1933. If anything broke the people’s spirit and reduced Ukrainians to serfs, it was the Holodomor. A mass murder is bad enough. But no less debilitating for the survivors was that they were not only compelled to deny that the famine had ever taken place. For several generations they were also forced to glorify its perpetrators. It’s as if Jews had to deny the Holocaust and praise Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels. Whatever the psychological consequences of living in such a twisted world, they cannot have been good.
Although it was Stalin, and not Lenin, who engineered the Holodomor, Lenin’s felling on December 9th opens the door to a full-scale national psychological convalescence. Most Ukrainians now recognize the Holodomor as genocide; in so doing they are finally coming to grips with the trauma it produced. Now that Lenin is gone from downtown Kyiv, Ukrainians are in the position to state that no Big Daddy, whether on the left or on the right, will ever again determine their fates.