The targeting of colonial-era monuments in some Western nations has prompted activists in Russia and Ukraine to reflect on how their own countries have dealt with Soviet-era statues and, in some cases, to ask whether it was good enough.
Protesters have ripped down and vandalised statues in the United States, the UK, Belgium, Italy, France, and in many other countries worldwide in recent weeks in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement against racism and police brutality.
Statues to Soviet leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin became controversial for many people after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, because of large-scale human rights abuses committed during the Communist rule era.
Image credit Reuters, Maxim Shemetov
Russia decided to keep many Soviet-era statues in place while relocating the most contentious to a riverside park in Moscow.
Among those relocated, there is a statue of Stalin, who sent millions of people to the Gulag, and one of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police.
Standing in the park next to neat wooden walkways, the statues were collected from across Moscow after 1991, a period when many streets were renamed, and symbols of the communist regime were dismantled.
“I think the toppling of the Dzerzhinsky monument was one of the most significant things that happened to our country recently,” said Alexandra Polivanova, a researcher at the Memorial human rights centre.
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But with the tomb of the Soviet state founder Lenin still retaining pride of place on Moscow’s Red Square and with thousands of Lenin statues still standing across Russia, she believes the process did not go far enough.
“The events of 1991 turned out to be incomplete,” Polivanova claimed. “Unfortunately, crimes have not been properly denounced either at the state level or at the level of society. Decommunisation has not happened yet.”
Ukraine has torn down many more Soviet statues than Russia, especially since 2014 when mass street protests in Kiev removed President Viktor Yanukovich from power.
The remaining Soviet monuments were then targeted for their association with Yanukovich, who had tried to rebuild closer ties with Moscow, recalled Volodymyr Viatrovych, Chairman of Ukraine’s Institute of National Remembrance.
A man holds a sledgehammer as he smashes a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin, which was toppled by protesters during a rally organized by supporters of EU integration in Kiev. Image credit Reuters, Maxim Zmeyev
“People started to discuss the communist past, the crimes of the communist regime and why they should never be repeated,” he declared. “Especially during the winter of 2014, hundreds of Lenin monuments were ripped down as they were symbols of everything that was Soviet-related.”
A law was later passed, banning communist symbols in Ukraine.