Looking for Lenin: Removal, absence and forgetting.

Monuments are either aesthetic objects presenting historical and artistic values or political tools in the hand of those in power (Bellentani & Panico, 2016). Either way, at the time of their construction, monuments are meant to tell a story about a specific time and place, standing as beacons of something considered worthy of remembrance. This time-and-space-specific ‘worthiness’ justifies the funds and physical space destined to the monument at the time of its creation. The materiality of monuments is meant to withstand the effects of time in order to outlive its original context and persist well into a future that will everlastingly inherit it by no choice of its own. Once placed, however, and as they ‘move through time’, monuments are passed from hand to hand becoming social properties, hence allowing the public to reinterpret them in ways that are different or even contrary to the intentions of their original conceivers. As Piotr Szpunar says in his article Monuments, mundanity and memory: Altering ‘place’ and ‘space’ at the National War Memorial (Canada)(2010), though monuments may have the durability of stone, they are always built on quicksand (Huyssen, 1994: 250) for they are perpetually contested, becoming sites of protests (Sturken, 1997) and places where counter-memories can be formed (Young, 1993). This disassociation between past and present or present and future often leads to the reassessment (spontaneous or carefully calculated) of a monument’s existence, which can even result in its removal.

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This Lenin statue used to stand at the center of the former Lenin Museum, now a convention center. It now sits in a box in the basement. Kyiv, Ukrainian House. Jan 12 2016.

In 2017 the Ukrainian government announced the removal of 1320 statues of communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in its ongoing bid to rid the country of Soviet-era symbols. The director of the Institute of National Remembrance, Mr Volodymyr Viatrovych was quoted confirming: “every Lenin statue has been removed along with 1069 other Soviet monuments.”[1]  The removal came as a result of the 10thEurope-Ukraine Forum held in January 2017, during which the participants discussed the processes of decommunization in Poland and Ukraine, exhibited in the removal of monuments, changes in the names of towns and streets, as well as the condemnation and debarment of people associated with the communist system from holding public functions. During the same conference, Mr Viatrovych emphasized how important it was to change the social awareness “so that people understand that communism is evil.”[2]

Mr. Viatrovych’s words are interesting given his position as director of the Institute of National Remembrance, a government entity “for the restoration and preservation of national memory of the Ukrainian people”[3]which incidentally recently published a school textbook titled Lest We Forget: Memory of Totalitarianism in Europe, a joint venture with the European Platform for Memory and Conscience. As a whole, this is interesting given the simultaneous use of the concepts ‘memory preservation’ and ‘lest we forget’ in combination with the act of monument removal. The removal of 1320 monuments may well have a repercussion on communicative memory, and Ukrainians may indeed be talking about the removal of Lenin Statues over the next 80 years, however, it is highly unlikely that the monuments’ mere absence will be of any use to cultural memory, beyond a span of 80 years. The often-used term ‘lest we forget’ is therefore only applicable to communicative memory. Had the Ukrainian government instead commissioned artists to intervene the monuments, or simply toppled them and left them on the ground, they would have affected not only communicative memory but also cultural memory. The intervention of Lenin’s statues could have revitalized 1320 lieux de mémoire. Their removal, however, only seems to work against the very purpose of consolidating a long-term memory in order to ‘never forget’. Given the Ukranian actions of monument removal, a better-suited phrase would be ‘lest we forget… for now’.

The Freedom Boulevard monument

The absence left by monument removal can be fully experienced opposite the Lviv National Theatre of Opera and Ballet, in a promenade currently known as Prospekt Svobody (in English Freedom Boulevard) once known as Lenin Boulevard. The boulevard itself was renamed in 1991, a year after that a fifty-foot high statue of Vladimir Lenin was removed and later replaced by a fountain. No plaque or contextualization regarding the monument or its removal can be found on the site itself or in the surrounding area.

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The statue stood in place from 1952 to 1990 and was designed by Sergey Merkurov, considered one of the USSR’s greatest sculptors and often commissioned for Lenin’s large-scale statues. On September 14th1990 over 50,000 Lvivians surrounded the space to watch as the statue was toppled and removed. It was a key event in communicative memory, which occurred over a year before the Soviet Union disintegrated becoming the first Lenin statue to fall in the country and the second to fall in the entire Soviet Union. One year after its removal, in 1991, 5,500 Lenin statues remained standing in Ukraine alone as well as many thousands more across the former Soviet Union. Leninoplad, as a movement (in English, Leninfall) unofficially began on 6 October 2009, when the    –then– First Lady, Kateryna Yushchenko, called on Ukrainians to remove all monuments and reminders of the Communist past. According to Yushchenko, the Communist regime had been consistently active in destroying the Ukrainian church, and should, therefore, be actively removed. The monument removal movement escalated and gained widespread attention when on the night of December 8th2013 in the midst of the Maidan revolution, anti-government protestors successfully toppled a gigantic statue of Vladimir Lenin standing in the middle of Kyiv. That particular statue’s fall was a symbolic act that echoed in hundreds of cities and villages all across the country. In May 2015 President Petro Poroshenko officialized the anti-Soviet initiative by making it a law.

The fate of a fallen monument

Today, there is not a single monument to Lenin left standing in Ukraine (excluding the occupied territories). According to multiple Ukrainian news sources, on October 24th 2017, the last standing statue of the Bolshevik leader was removed from the town of Novohorod-Siverskiy. The removal of the last standing monument of its kind in the country marks a definite before and after in contemporary Ukraine, particularly given the country’s ongoing conflict with Russia. Government authorities removed some of the Lenin statues quietly, and in other cases groups of rebels took matters into their own hands, just as often engaging in violent but smaller scale clashes with pro-Russian or Soviet nostalgic locals. The fate of the Lenin statues is a remarkable aspect of contemporary Ukraine. The removed statues are mostly unaccounted for, and as is the case of Freedom Boulevard, plaques explaining the removal or bearing witness to what once stood in that place, are nowhere to be found.

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“We speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left.” In his article Between memory and history, Pierre Nora addresses the issue of memory versus history and the current interest around memory as a response to the threat of its extinction. “Our interest in lieux de mémoire, where memory crystallizes and secretes itself has occurred at a particular historical moment, a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound with the sense that memory has been torn, but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists. There are lieux de mémoire, sites of memory because there are no longer milieu de mémoire, real environments of memory.” (Nora, 1989)

One could argue that all monuments are potential lieux de mémoire. Their removal is, therefore, an immediate blow against memory itself, ultimately hindering the future’s ability to learn from its past by fault of the present.

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