On the night of December 8, 2013, a huge crowd gathered on a tree-lined boulevard in downtown Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The crowd was there to watch as a statue in the boulevard was pulled down by a crane. The toppled statue was of Vladimir Lenin — the communist leader who started the revolution that created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Ukraine was once a part of the Soviet Union.
A documentary film called “All Things Ablaze” captured this moment. The camera lingers on one man in a shiny track suit who spits on his hand, crosses himself three times, then starts whacking away with a sledgehammer with all his might. For the protestors, this Lenin statue represents old Ukraine — one that is associated with the Soviet Union and with Russia.
The same protests that brought down that Lenin statue eventually brought about a new government in Ukraine, which sought to eliminate all physical reminders of communism and Russia. But it hasn’t been easy, logistically or politically, because removing these things erases history that is still important to some Ukrainians. Furthermore, communist symbols are very pervasive in the built environment — they can be found on buildings, bridges and other infrastructure.
Ukraine is a country about the size of Texas that is bordered by Russia to the east, and the rest of Europe to the west — in fact, the word “Ukraine” means “borderlands,” which is why some people still (erroneously and to the frustration of Ukrainians) call it “the Ukraine.”
In the 1920s much of the territory of what is now Ukraine became a part of the Soviet Union. Then, in the 1930s, millions of Ukrainians died in a famine that Stalin engineered by forcibly taking food from peasants. Ukrainians call this famine the Holodomor and many scholars believe Stalin orchestrated it specifically to cripple the movement for Ukrainian independence.
A decade later, during World War II, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, especially people in the east, fought and died with the Soviet Red Army. But a smaller number in the west wanted an independent Ukraine and allied themselves with Germany, fighting alongside the Nazis.
When it was all over, even more Ukrainian territory was part of the USSR. Soviet authorities wanted the people of Ukraine to unite around the narrative that they had defeated the Nazis and that communism would help the country rebuild. As part of a campaign to unite Ukraine under the banner of communism, the Soviets put statues of USSR’s founding father, Vladimir Lenin, everywhere — more than 5,500 of them.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became an independent country, as did Russia. Russia has since become less communist and more capitalist, but the leadership of the country, especially current president Vladimir Putin never stopped being proud of the Soviet legacy. Ukraine, meanwhile, has struggled with its identity as a nation since gaining its independence.
It has been hard for Ukraine to completely cut ties with Russia. For one, Ukrainians rely on their neighbor to the east for coal and gas, but the people of Ukraine also have strong cultural connections to Russia. For years, the country seemed to vacillate — some presidents of Ukraine leaned west toward Europe, some oriented east toward Russia.
As for the statues of Lenin and other symbols of communism in the built environment: in western Ukraine, where people felt less loyalty to the Soviet era, these symbols came down quickly after independence. However, in eastern Ukraine the statues mostly stayed put. The will to remove them just wasn’t there.
Then in 2013, when the pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych tried to back out of a deal to bring Ukraine closer to joining the European Union, protests broke out, and the people began pulling down Lenin statues on their own. The tide had turned. Ukrainians were in the streets saying they didn’t want to be tied to Russia anymore. So many statues were pulled down that there was even a name for the phenomenon: “Leninopad” (which translates as “Leninfall” or “the falling of the lenins”).
In February of 2014, following days of bloody protests, Viktor Yanukovych was forced out of the presidency and fled to Russia. The protesters in Ukraine established a new government.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, was displeased to see Ukraine turning away from Russia and toward the European Union and NATO. And in March of 2014, he expressed his feelings by taking control of a part of Ukraine called Crimea. Soon after, battles broke out in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military which continue today. At least 10,000 people have died.
Partly because of these encroachments by Russia, Ukraine’s new government, led by Petro Poroshenko, decided to make the removal of Lenin statues into state policy. Ukraine’s parliament passed a package of bills called “decommunization laws.” Local authorities had a year to get rid of their Lenin statues. If their town or streets had communist names, those had to be changed, too.
Some places in Ukraine have taken a creative approach in complying with the decommunization laws. A factory in Odessa, for example, hired a sculptor to refashion a figure of Lenin as Darth Vader.
Overseeing the removal of all of these monuments and symbols, and the changing of place names, is a government organization: The Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance.
According to the Institute of National Remembrance, the process of decommunization isn’t just about removal — it’s also meant to help Ukrainians learn their own history. Which is why, in many cases, they have suggested that towns revert to the names they had before the Soviets changed them. But whether they choose to revert to old names or pick new ones, Ukrainians do not have the option of keeping the Soviet names.
A major criticism of the decommunization laws is that they constitute an authoritarian approach to separating Ukraine from its authoritarian past. Not only do these laws dictate changes in town names, they make it illegal to join the Communist Party, display Soviet propaganda, or deny the “criminal nature” of the Soviet regime (which is not well defined in the law). It’s unclear if even wearing a communist t-shirt could be considered a punishable offense.
Since the process of removing communist symbols began in 2014, more than 50,000 places and objects have been renamed, including cities, towns, villages, streets, squares and parks. And more than 2,000 monuments and memorials have been taken down or modified.
In general, these changes have been the hardest on the nation’s older population — the people who lived under Soviet rule who didn’t necessarily understand how bad it was for other Ukrainians. Because the Soviet Union didn’t have a free press, or freedom in academia, the extent of the repression was hidden from the general public. Some Ukrainians are just now finding out that millions of people died because of Stalin, and that millions more were put into gulags.
Meanwhile, Russia still exerts a lot of political influence in Ukraine and there are pro-Russia forces within the country that could cause trouble for a long time. For many Ukrainians the removal communist symbols from the built environment is an important step as Ukraine continues to develop as an independent nation.