What Leninfall tells us about Ukraine

Ukraine is sadly hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons right now. As its people fight against Russian aggression, now seems like the right time to explore the historical context of the Ukraine-Russia relationship.

Leninfall offers an insight into that complex relationship which is why I’ve made it the focus of my exhibition, currently on show in the Library.

What is Leninfall?

Following the 2013 protests against the pro-Russian government in Ukraine, there was a massive toppling of statues of Lenin across the country, with no uniform handling or registration of Leninfall occurring.

In 2016 Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann went on a quest to document the fate of these fallen monuments and my exhibition showcases the images he captured.

The origins of the Lenin statues

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was created.

The USSR seized control of artistic expression, dedicating it to supporting its power and imperialism through an intense propaganda machine with the image of Lenin - considered the father of the Russian Revolution - ubiquitously reproduced across banners, posters, paintings and statues.

Erecting monuments was a way to prove loyalty to the Soviet government in Moscow. Ukraine, with its 5,500 statues became the Soviet territory with the greatest density of Lenin statuary.

A new Ukraine

The political and symbolic aspects of the statues of Lenin was revived during the EuroMaiden (European Maiden) protests of 2013 after President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign an agreement meant to tighten ties with the European Union.

On 8 December protestors, linked with the far-right Svoboda (‘Freedom’) Party pulled down one of the most prestigious statues of Lenin, in Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, Kyiv. If many Ukrainians did not welcome their ideology, they did agree that it was time for Lenin to go.

Thus began Leninfall, fuelled in 2014 by the annexation of Crimea by Russia and formalised in 2015 when Decommunisation Laws enacted a decree for the removal of all monuments to Communist leaders. Today, not a single Lenin statue remains standing in Ukraine.

The fate of the monuments

This landscape reveals one of the motivations for the Leninfall: the will to affirm a national identity against Russian imperialism. For example, one of Ackermann’s photographs shows a Ukrainian flag painted on the plinth of a headless Lenin in Shabo.

Some monuments were abandoned where they fell, while in other cities people and local authorities have tried to sell them. On the other hand, some of the fallen monuments have been ‘rescued’, ending up in museum vaults.

Artistic interventions

Artists have also made their own interventions. In Chernihiv, Leonid Kanter dispersed the pieces he owns in open spaces letting children and visiting artists modify them, while Oleksandr Milov transformed a sculpture of Lenin into Darth Vader in the courtyard of a factory in Odessa. This subversion matches with the progressive image this city wants to project.

What Leninfall tells us

A common point emerges from these various situations: an eerie feeling of absurdity and incongruousness, that raises more questions than answers.

Whether left where they have been toppled, stored away by the authorities in museums or picked up by locals, these fallen monuments seem to ask: what comes next after an emancipation from a Soviet past? How will these events impact on the construction of a Ukrainian idea of nationality?

According to the current events, it is likely that this will of autonomy towards Russia will continue to be a major element of Ukrainian identity.