Saving Lenin Soviet-Era Statue a Symbol of Divided Ukraine

Far away from the protests in major urban centers, the conflict in Ukraine is now reaching all corners of the land. The dispute over a local Lenin statue underscores the country's deep divide.

The revolution reached the Ukrainian city of Illichivsk in the form of a rumor. Three buses, it was said, were on their way to the city from the western part of the country, bearing men carrying weapons who were coming to destroy the city's golden Lenin statue.

The statue in question stands around seven meters (23 feet) high atop a plinth of black granite. It's made of cast bronze and painted a reddish gold. Against a background of Soviet-era apartment blocks, Lenin is a seven-meter dwarf, striding long-legged through the world. The statue's facial expression, though, seems to suggest he knows where things are headed.

Kristina Fabrika has passed by this statue all through her 21 years. Her mother carried her past it on walks when she was a baby. Fabrika played tag here as a young girl. And she still stops by when she goes into town for the evening.

But on this particular evening in early March, while men in uniform occupy the Crimean parliament building and fly a Russian flag, Fabrika is pacing up and down in front of the Lenin statue in leather pants, a leather jacket and black knee-high combat boots. "This is our city," she says.

A City Removed from Bloodshed

Illichivsk is a small city in the far south of Ukraine. The mayor says Illichivsk, population 60,000, was named after the prophet Elijah. People on the street say the name comes from Lenin's middle name, Ilyich. In any case, the statue in honor of the man stands on a road likewise named Lenin Street, at one end of a boulevard lined with plane trees. Between the city's apartment blocks, the golden Lenin shines like a small sun.

Illichivsk is far removed from the bloodshed of the Maidan protest movement. The majority of people in the country aren't out throwing Molotov cocktails. Most are people like Fabrika, normal people, and these are the ones who matter now. They must find a sense of civic solidarity that can unite the south, north, east and west of this country. They must raise up a nation out of the ruins.

News of the threat to Illichivsk's Lenin statue reached Fabrika at the school where she teaches adults to create websites. Her mother called and said, "Do you know what's happening in town?" Fabrika drove to the statue as soon as the lesson was over.

Fabrika describes herself as apolitical, yet these days she talks about politics day and night. She understands that history is happening in her country, and she wants to be a part of it.

When she reached the Lenin statue that day, Fabrika found that hundreds of people, some carrying clubs, had already gathered there. Like her, they had come to protect their Lenin.

They filled an oil barrel with firewood and set up tents to shield themselves from the freezing rain. Most people went home again when the enemy failed to materialize, but a few toughed it out and continued to stand guard.

Business as Usual

Until this rumor started, the protest movement was something far removed from life here. Lviv was celebrating freedom, Kiev was burning, the Russians were descending on Crimea, but in Illichivsk, located on a quiet stretch of the Black Sea coast near Odessa, nothing was burning and no one was celebrating. The city simply went about business as usual, life as it had been under deposed President Viktor Yanukovych and, before that, under the Soviets as well. People here believed they were safe from the sort of chaos that topples governments, kills people and destroys monuments.

Since the occupation of Maidan Square in Kiev began in the fall, Lenin statues have been toppling all around Ukraine. The Communist Party erected these statues in honor of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known as Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, while Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. They were meant to serve as a symbol of Moscow's power. Now, they've become a symbol of revolution in a different way entirely.

In Kiev, demonstrators pulled one Lenin statue to the ground using a steel cable. In Andriyevo-Ivanivka they broke a statue into pieces. In Khmelnitsky, they tore a Lenin statue down, then danced on it. In Kotovsk, they tore its head off.

In front of Kristina Fabrika's Lenin, flames flicker in the oil barrel. The statue here is still standing, and its protectors have speared thick pieces of bacon on sticks and are roasting them over the fire. "For vitamin C," one woman says, humorously.

The woman speaks Russian, like nearly everyone in Illichivsk. Fabrika does speak Ukrainian, but she learned it as a foreign language. One of her grandmothers was born in a town near Moscow.

Fabrika says she didn't really pay any attention to the protests in Kiev at first. It wasn't until the police attacked the protesters on Maidan Square, she says, that she knew there would be war.

An Insurrection

Fabrika lives with her parents in an apartment on the city's outskirts. There's a Scorpions poster on her wall, Wella hair wax and a Harry Potter book on her shelf. Fabrika reads books from England, listens to music from Germany and dreams of a life in America. She seems like exactly the sort of person likely to have been at Maidan Square in Kiev, demonstrating in favor of Ukraine developing closer European ties.

Yet Fabrika calls the protests rocking her country an insurrection. She calls the demonstrators anarchists and Yanukovych a legitimate president. The revolution has certainly destroyed many things: more than 80 lives at Maidan, a presidency, a couple of statues. Now it's up to people in Ukraine to show whether it can also create something new, something more than a country divided between east and west.

Fabrika has asked the other defenders of this statue why they're standing guard over Lenin. One man says he wants Ukraine to rejoin Russia, the "motherland." Another says Lenin was a hero. Another declares that western Ukrainians are all alcoholics.

In western Ukraine, the majority of people speak Ukrainian. About half of the west of the country once belonged to the Habsburgs' empire, and to this day Lviv has coffeehouses serving apple strudel with whipped cream that tastes just like it does in Vienna. The eastern and southern parts of the country, meanwhile, are home to cities such as Illichivsk, where people speak Russian and dream Russian, and the pelmeni with sour cream taste just like in Moscow. Here by Illichivsk's Lenin statue, its defenders gather under a tent that bears a printed image of a hammer and sickle.

There are also a few people in Illichivsk, though, who would like to see the Lenin statue melted down. They ask not to be photographed or for their real names to be used, but one of them -- let's call him Boris -- is willing to explain where the difficulty in destroying the Lenin statue lies.

The first problem, he says, is that 90 percent of Illichivsk's residents are in favor of keeping it. The second is that the statue is anchored too deeply in the ground.

Far-Right Leanings

Boris is sitting at a table in a crowded supermarket a couple hundred meters from the statue. He's being hunted, he says.

Boris works as an engineer, lives in Illichivsk and is a member of Svoboda, a radical nationalist political party that has its power base in western Ukraine, and many enemies in the east of the country. Boris and his fellow Svoboda members venerate Stepan Bandera, a western Ukrainian soldier who collaborated with Nazi Germany; after World War II, Bandera and his comrades fought in Ukraine's partisan army, murdering Soviet police officers and party functionaries into the 1950s. Many western Ukrainians consider Bandera a hero. For people like Fabrika, he's a Nazi and a murderer.

Svoboda is particularly hated these days, because it wants to ban Russian as an official language in Ukraine. The party also calls for a ban on immigration, and for "ethnic affiliation" to be noted in Ukrainians' identity cards, to identify Ukrainians of Russian origin. Svoboda also maintains strong ties with Germany's right-wing extremist National Democratic Party (NPD). Boris knows two words of German: "danke" ("thank you") and "Rasse" ("race").

Boris filed a petition with the mayor of Illichivsk, calling for the Lenin statue to be removed and Lenin Street renamed on the grounds that, he says, both are symbols of a criminal regime. Looking around the supermarket and spreading his arms, Boris says, "During the Soviet era, everything here was empty. Why do people want that back?"

He offers to drive us back to the statue, though when we arrive, he prefers not to get out of the car himself. In parting, Boris tells us Lenin was gay. As he drives away, he rolls the window down and plays the Ukrainian national anthem at booming volume:

"Ukraine's glory has not yet died, nor her freedom, Upon us, fellow compatriots, fate shall smile once more."

One of the men standing guard at the Lenin statue watches the car drive away and comments, "What an animal."

At noon, a bus pulls up in front of the statue. Fabrika and the others board it and drive the 20 kilometers (12 miles) to Odessa, leaving a few of the older men to keep watch over Lenin. In Odessa, the bus parks at a square in front of a trade union building, where several thousand people have gathered. This is a rally of those who support Russia.

At the edge of the square, a couple of the demonstrators have set up an altar in honor of the Berkut, the special police unit that attacked the protesters at Maidan Square. The interim government that now holds power in Ukraine dissolved the Berkut and declared it would bring the unit's members to justice for the deaths at Maidan. Here at the square in Odessa, though, candles burn beside a small sign that bears the words "Glory to Berkut."

Fabrika carries a white flag with a blue diagonal cross -- the flag of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, stationed in Sevastopol in Crimea. The flags of Odessa and Russia are also flying over the square. The Ukrainian flag is nowhere to be seen.

The demonstrators chant, "Russia, Russia." Fabrika, wearing her headphones, is quiet. She looks like she's turning something over in her mind. Loudspeakers blare old Soviet anthems with lyrics about fighting fascists. One man in Fabrika's group, who has a particularly lovely singing voice, introduces himself as Maxim Skoblinsky. The woman standing next to him describes him as "the golden voice of Illichivsk."

Skoblinsky, 35, is an opera singer who teaches at a music school. Fabrika stands next to him in the rain for a couple hours, listening to the revolutionary speeches, then they drive back home. As the bus pulls up in Illichivsk, Skoblinsky gets a call from a friend, telling him that Russia has given its troops orders to march in Crimea. "Putin has sent his soldiers to Ukraine," he announces, smiling.

Fabrika, Skoblinsky and a couple of others sit down together at a café, where they order cognac and gin and tonics to toast to the good news. Soon there's a bottle of Belarusian vodka on the table as well. Skoblinsky made sure not to order any Ukrainian products.

Fabrika and Skoblinsky raise their glasses in a toast to friendship, then chase the vodka with mango juice. The second toast is to the beauty of women. "Nazdarovya," they intone. The third toast is to rock and roll. The fourth honors us, the reporters from Germany, and the hope that we may write the truth. The vodka is quick to take effect. Skoblinsky stands, hums a little to himself, then announces, "This is Don Juan's Serenade, by Tchaikovsky." He sings in Russian:

"Much blood, many songs

Pour forth for the lovely women

And I, for the loveliest one of all

Am ready to give my song and my blood."

When he finishes singing, Skoblinsky gives a short speech about the Soviet Union, beginning with the words, "Really, no one is saying that it was bad. In every ideology, there are things that people take too far." Then he talks of the many Olympic medals that the Soviets won, and the good musical education that existed then. The economy in the Soviet Union was very good, too, he says. He adds, "Things were more democratic then, because America didn't dictate what we could do."

There Are Few Heroes Ukrainians Agree On

One issue in this conflict is Russian propaganda. Many people in Illichivsk watch Russian TV, and anyone who views a lot of Russian TV can easily start to believe that the Soviet Union had a functional economy, that America is fundamentally evil and Putin is a model statesman.

The waitress in the café brings another bottle. Skoblinsky says, "I'd like to drink to all of us remaining people. Black, white, green, Ukrainian, Russian. We're all people. That has to remain the main thing."

Then he takes a drink and talks about how much he hates western Ukrainians. His Jewish great-grandfather was murdered in a concentration camp run by western Ukrainians, he says. And a bank teller in Lviv, western Ukraine, once refused to serve Skoblinsky because he spoke Russian.

The eastern and western parts of Ukraine have always had trouble agreeing on a common story. Ukraine was front and center in the worst conflicts of the 20th century. Before World War I, one part of what is today Ukraine belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the other was part of the Russian Empire. Later, the country was divided up between Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union. During World War II, some Ukrainians collaborated with the German army. Ukrainians killed Ukrainians. There are few heroes everyone can agree on.

Until now, though, all Ukrainians were at least able to agree on Kiev as the capital uniting both parts of the country. But now suddenly Kiev is in the hands of insurgents that Skoblinsky and many eastern Ukrainians consider western fascists.

Fabrika has been keeping pace with the drinking, but she's been very quiet. Now she raises her glass and says, "I'd like to drink to the hope that we find a person who can bring our country together. I hope we can all come together."

She looks a little shocked at her own words. They don't exactly fit in with her friends' war rhetoric. They don't fit with the rage at Maidan, with the brutality of the Berkut police or the chaos in parliament. But they do seem a little like a candle in the night, a small flicker of hope.

Skoblinsky rises slowly from his chair and says, "I won't stand under a flag with them."

"Do you want to fight the west?" Fabrika asks.

"The west wants to fight us. I've been to the west. I know what kind of people they are."

Fabrika says, "We have to find a compromise. Otherwise others are going to divide up our country."

'I Don't Want a Compromise'

Skoblinsky takes a deep breath, then launches into a long speech. He speaks as though his thoughts were drowning in a deep river of vodka, but at the end of it he finds a moment of clarity and says, "I don't want a compromise. Dear friends, I don't wish to be polemic, but Kristina here is an agitator."

The two of them are facing each other as if about to duel, delicate Skoblinsky the warmonger and strong Kristina dressed in leather. She asks, "Should I hit you with this chair?"

Then she runs out of the café and makes her way alone along the tree-lined boulevard. At the end of the street, the golden Lenin is still standing. Fabrika says she knows Lenin wasn't a good person. She knows he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, people he had killed because they opposed him. But, she says, he also stands for multinational coexistence. In the last decade of the Soviet Union, Armenians, Jews, Azerbaijanis, western Ukrainians, eastern Ukrainians and southern Ukrainians all lived together in one state. Asked why she is guarding the golden Lenin statue, Fabrika says she wants to protect the city from the western Ukrainians. Asked whether she believes the western Ukrainians will ever come to knock Lenin from his plinth, she answers, "No."

The Death of Certainty

This is about more than one bronze statue. People in Illichivsk don't have much money, their houses are gray and their streets full of potholes. But they also have a beach and the Black Sea, they have friendship and love, they have the Russian language and an identity of their own, and until now they also had the certainty that when they woke up each morning, they would be allowed to live the way they chose. That certainty ceased to exist when the old regime did.

When it comes down to it, everyone in Ukraine, east or west, wants the same thing: To be allowed to live the way they see as right. In other words, they want freedom.

That same evening, Fabrika says she'd like to emigrate. Canada would be nice. She spent a month in Toronto last year, attending an English course. Her mother sold her car to be able to pay for her daughter's trip. Then Fabrika says that she actually doesn't think it would be so terrible if the Lenin statue were taken down. Maybe they could put up a fountain in its place.

The next morning, a thick fog shrouds Lenin's bronze head. A fire is still smoldering in the oil barrel. Fabrika looks tired. The bus full of armed western Ukrainians never turned up. But there's a new rumor now, this one from city hall. The word is that the city wants to take down the Lenin statue, renovate it and fill in the cracks that have formed in its feet over the years -- then erect the statue once again.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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