Toppling Lenin, Tracing Legacy

Earlier this week, Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity solidified a bit further. Protesters in Kharkiv toppled the town’s bronze-cast centerpiece, a 28-foot tall statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Viewers tapped into the coverage via UStream – just as they’ve done since EuroMaidan’s nascent moments – and, with protesters' combination of torque and tug, watched Kharkiv’s residents drag and dismantle what was likely Ukraine’s largest remaining Bolshevik.

Instead of deleting another dot in the diminished display of lingering Lenins, I thought it worth trying to splice the coverage of the statue’s collapse. Alongside the entire spectrum of the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin presents a mix-and-mash legacy within the post-Soviet space, part national hero, part traitorous goat. Between the Kyiv toppling and the subsequent responses, Lenin has once more come to visualize the (declining) geopolitical import of the Kremlin.[1]

First, from the Russian media’s line of sight, Lenin’s destruction fit firmly within the reign of destruction wrought by the neo-fascists running, and running through, post-revolution Ukraine. Per RT:

One of the biggest monuments to the Bolshevik Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin has been toppled in Ukraine’s second largest city of Kharkov by “activists” who had gathered in their hundreds to watch it being sawn down waiting to get pieces as souvenirs.

As the symbol of communist past was being demolished in the center of Kharkov by the country's ultra-nationalists, the event was broadcast via live internet stream by a number of channels. …

As the monument of Lenin came down, many people cheered, as the former communist leader is seen by many in Ukraine as an undesired link with Moscow. Others voiced anger over the decision to destroy a monument that many see as insult to the country’s past, but that was mostly online, hesitating to intervene after police on Saturday detained several dozen participants of the anti-war march labelled by authorities as separatist.

Scare-quotes, tales of “ultra-nationalists” – worse than pure nationalists, I suppose? – and instilled fear of police crackdown laced the coverage. Spliced with concepts of newfound Nazism and history lost, the mawkish angle was predictable, but nonetheless unfortunate.

Over at RIA Novosti, meanwhile, an interesting split in coverage of the country’s largest Lenin took place. RIA Novosti’s English-language arm entirely ignored the monument’s destruction, but its Russian offering saw a litany of angles, reactions, and opportunities to further enforce the notion of a nation run amok. Dozens of articles ran through the day’s events. So long as your Russian stood sufficient, you could manage an image of fascistoid mobs, bloodlust leading them to the Vladimir Ilyich. If you only spoke English, well – seems you may be out of luck.

On the Western media side, a slightly different snapshot emerged. “Anti-Russian protesters” emerged – though the Guardian stuck with the “nationalists" tack – while “ultra-nationalists” were relegated as merely another contingent present, as “a group of men” ended up sawing off Lenin’s legs. “Activists” stood as the ones who’d jack-hammered “Glory to Ukraine” into Lenin’s base – and presumably the wolfsangel alongside. (The fact that the wolfsangel’s existence got so little coverage on either side be the most surprising bit.)

So, once more, a split emerges. High-screech coverage of Nazis run amok, planted against the desires of a nation to move beyond a colonial legacy. History foregone, versus history made. The only common ground may have centered on Lenin’s mixed legacy: a “communist head” versus an “international leader,” with plenty of gray between Confusion about Lenin’s legacy on both ends, but with only on group willing to tear the man – the tyrant – down.

[1]Neither here nor there, but if you have a chance to visit Bishkek’s History Museum – née Lenin Museum – take it. The fantastical, two-story, nuclear mural on the ceiling alone is worth the price of admission.