The news: On Sunday night, protesters in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev toppled a monumental statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, as the Euromaidan demonstrations against President Viktor Yanukovych continue. The Soviet-era statue’s fall, and its subsequent pummeling with sledgehammers, may be the preamble to escalating clashes between riot police and protesters, as the former attempt to vacate Kiev’s protest camps and occupied city hall, and the latter demand that Yanukovych step down by the end of the day Tuesday.
The background: Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian protesters have flooded the streets of Kiev since late November, when Yanukovych announced that Ukraine would step away from an anticipated Association Agreement with the EU. The agreement would have brought the Eastern European country’s economy more in line with those of its Western European counterparts, and led to greater trade and closer relations between Ukraine and the EU.
Yanukovych’s backpedalling is largely seen as the result of Russian influence on Ukraine, especially as Yanukovych stole away from the unrest to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort and Olympic host town of Sochi over the weekend. Ukraine has long been divided between its historic and cultural ties with Russia — and its dependence on Russian fossil fuels — and a desire to participate in European politics independent of Moscow’s control.
The destroyed Soviet icon is an apt symbol for Kiev’s love-hate relationship with Moscow. Unlike other then-Communist capitals, Kiev managed to avoid having a statue of Lenin until 1946, when a monument originally created for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City was erected in Bessarabska Square. The statue had become a target for Ukrainian nationalists in recent years — its nose and arm were chopped off in 2009 — and its square a nexus for altercations between communists and nationalists. Many of the men who toppled the statue on Sunday night were wearing nationalist Svoboda Party symbols, and the party has taken responsibility for the act.
If Yanukovych wishes to remain in power, and avoid the escalation of protests into a latter-day color revolution, he will need to make significant and concrete concessions to the protesters, and do so post haste. Meanwhile, it will be up to the protesters to ensure that the statue’s symbolic fall has real-world repercussions, and that, unlike other fallen monuments, Lenin’s destruction wasn’t merely a visually compelling but meaningless photo-op.