The statue of Lenin in Zaporizhia is the last major edifice of the Bolshevik leader left standing in the centre of a major Ukrainian city. Or rather, it was.
Last week it was pulled down in accordance with Ukraine’s new “de-communisation” laws and its ban on Soviet symbols.
The statue had it all: the gigantic scale (20m tall), the heroic scowl and the red granite plinth featuring a crowd of smaller workers crowding around the feet of the giant leader. Lenin made the “look here, see what we have wrought” gesture common to many of the tens of thousands of mass-produced Lenins, although this specific one is not one of the standardised Lenins churned out in factories during the Soviet era.
But the real communist significance came in the inscription – and the direction in which he was pointing. On the now decapitated plinth was, in Ukrainian, the famous slogan “Communism = Soviet Power plus Electrification of the Whole Country”, while his gargantuan hand gestured to the nearby Dnieper dam, one of the largest ever constructed.
In the 1930s under Joseph Stalin, images of the dam were ubiquitous in Ukraineand beyond, featuring on countless reliefs (on the side of a block of flats in Dnipropetrovsk, in Metro stations in Moscow and Kiev), on stamps, on badges. After it was opened, it generated more power than the entire infrastructure of the pre-1917 Russian empire.
Despite removing the Lenin statue, the planning of the city, its whole construction, will still be around the dam, that most Soviet of symbols. In fact, in Zaporizhia it becomes clear that the only way to “de-communise” a city such as this would be to raze it to the ground.
Zaporizhia is organised around a typical Stalinist boulevard, an example of Soviet imperial baroque at its most stupefying – a long, wide road which begins near the railway station and then after several miles terminates at the former Lenin statue.
This avenue is no longer called Prospekt Lenina on Google Maps (where it has reverted to its original name, Prospekt Sobornyi), but it is on all of the street signs, many of which are built onto the buildings, and decorated with golden swags.
On Lenin Prospekt, a small monument of molten steel being poured stands in one corner of the square, with the legend “Glory to Work” on one side and a sheaf of wheat on the other. An immense Soviet era steelworks stands just outside the city centre.
Much unlike nearby Dnipropetrovsk, the money made in this industrial city hasn’t been invested to any obvious effect in Zaporizhia. However, left over from the Stalinist era there are plenty of amenities, cinemas, theatres, concert halls, mostly neoclassical – the Dovzhenko Cinema features a lovely metal bust of the film director and relief sculptures of workers and peasants.
But what is most interesting in Zaporizhia is the casual, slightly mocking approach that citizens have taken to its apparently overpowering history. “Citizens of the USSR have the right to work”, reads the pompous Russian inscription opposite the Kirov Palace of Culture. Appropriately, then, someone has put a baton in the hand of the statue of the early Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov that stands in front of this neoclassical temple, so that he looks either like a conductor or a magician.
This sort of gentle mockery seems a much more genuinely democratic and “anti-totalitarian” approach than pulling down monumental statues to build new ones.
As Zaporizhia was in the 18th century the administrative and military centre for the Cossacks, the replacement for Lenin will, apparently, be a military Cossack “hetman”.
Communist history is remembered with a certain critical distance here, but it isn’t stripped away. In a city so totally Soviet as this, how could it be?