Like all post-Soviet states, Ukrainians harbor a complicated relationship with their Communist roots. For decades, statues of revolutionary figures like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and, particularly, Vladimir Lenin were erected around the country. By 1991, there were 5,500 in Ukraine alone. Until as late as 2015 in some instances, Lenin's stern visage surveyed many village squares and city centers, serving as a literal pillar of ideology.
After the Soviet era crumbled and Ukraine picked through its own pieces of the rubble, the statues became less objects of reverence and more clunky reminders of past struggle. They began to disappear, quietly at first, and then in waves sparked by the 2004 Orange Revolution. Finally, in 2015, as part of the official process of decommunization, the Ukrainian Parliament passed legislation banning these monuments, triggering a phenomenon known as Leninopad (Leninfall)—the mass toppling of Lenin statues. Today, officially, none are left standing.
They're still out there, though, and photographer Niels Ackermann and journalist Sébastien Gobert went looking for them. The Kiev-based pair document the inglorious fate of Ukraine's fallen idols in a new hardcover book, Looking for Lenin, out this week from Fuel Publishing. The political and cultural complexities of decommunization are thrown into sharp relief when one is confronted with the image of a decapitated Lenin statue toppled over in the underbrush, dressed up like Darth Vader, or peeking out of a storage closet. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and it's a wholly strange thing to see a lonesome bust of Lenin—leader of the Bolsheviks, guiding light of Communism, father of the revolution—ignominiously stashed away in a storage closet, half-buried under a pile of toys like so much common rubbish.
With this project, Ackermann and Gobert sought to illustrate the still-sinister aura that hangs around these disgraced relics. Combined with witness testimonies, their photos add an intriguing, tragicomic element to the larger discussion around the way Ukrainians perceive their own history—and what the future may hold. I recently caught up with the duo to talk about Soviet nostalgia, the relation between architecture and power, and whether monuments like these can ever truly be separated from their political histories.
VICE: What gave you the idea to take on this project?
Niels Ackermann: The project's genesis happened in the early days of the Maidan Revolution, on December 8, 2013, when nationalist protesters toppled the Lenin monument on Bessarabska Square, in the center of Kiev. This was the first sign of weakness from the regime, and it started a viral movement called Leninopad. Try "#Leninopad" on Google, YouTube, Twitter, and you'll find interesting stuff. I was there, and I saw how protesters were hitting on this solid rock super hard. To destroy it, but also to take home a little souvenir. It felt like looking at people crushing Berlin Wall. But this statue's red quartzite—the same as for Lenin mausoleum in Moscow and Napoleon Bonaparte's tomb in Paris—was very resistant and only small fragments were broken. But on the following morning, nothing was left. So, with Sébastien, we started investigating to find this statue. A difficult quest that's still ongoing, but it led us to discover tons of other monuments.
Sébastien Gobert: It was a way for both of us to forget the revolution and the war we had been covering, and to deal with Ukraine-related issues in a different way. Something interesting and less bloody. It became serious quite quickly.
Why did you decide to focus on Ukraine specifically?
Gobert: Ukraine is especially important for this project for two reasons. First, because since May 2015, the government passed Decommunization Laws making the glorification of Soviet symbols illegal—similar to Nazi symbols. So, all these monuments had to disappear. And that leads us to the second reason: Ukraine had by far the highest density of Lenins per square meter on Earth. In 1991, there were 5,500 statues in Ukraine against 7,000 in Russia. But Russia is 28 times bigger. Now, officially, not a single statue is left. So our work is here to question this decommunization process: How is it perceived by its inhabitants? How is it conducted, and what can this process tell us about the country?
The way some of the fallen idols are photographed renders them almost absurd—a headless torso planted forlornly in a field, a bust peeking out from beneath a pile of toys. How did you approach the framing of the shots themselves?
Ackermann: My goal as a photojournalist—and I insist even more when I see all the scandals occurring these days about staged or retouched documentary works—is to photograph things as is without staging them. I do my best to capture strong and beautiful images, but nothing is added or moved by us. Very often we even had to ask people not to touch anything when they showed us their statues. It's important to show these statues as they are now. Without any artifice, to show the condition of decay, abandon, or in some cases glorification. There's something that fascinates me when I see that some statues that were in the center of some big cities become instantly some sort of an annoying piece of waste occupying someone's backyard. A bit like Ukrainian's Soviet past: They didn't chose to have it, but it's here.
Gobert: Another element that was important in our approach is that we never judge. We don't say whether what we see or hear is good or bad. It's not our history. We are foreigners and judging the way Ukrainians deal with their Soviet past would be very inappropriate. What matters for us is to provide a panorama of the situation and to show to the rest of the world the complexity of this issue. We may think that it makes sense to take Lenin down. But it's not as consensual as this. The same with the idea of keeping it, transforming it, preserving it. Besides, the act of toppling in itself does not solve a number of issues. Where does Lenin go? What next? Which memory of it? This is the philosophy beneath the pictures and the stories. To show that this is an undecided issue.
What was your selection process for determining which statues to seek out and photograph?
Both: Every time there was an opportunity to photograph a statue and to reach it, we did it. Some required long negotiations; some were a matter of five minutes chat. On average, it took about one week of work for every statue. The first ones we found running random queries on Google Image. For example, by typing "Lenin garage" in Ukrainian, or "Lenin [name of a city]" and then picking the most surprising image we could find. It led us to articles about the toppling, which then led us, sometimes, to information about its location. But it's often very tough because Lenin moves rather quickly for a dead guy. His monuments are moved, transformed, broken, stolen, sold… Sometimes we just arrived a few days too late. We did develop an extensive network also on social media. People interested in our work were telling us about Lenin locations and helping us with contacts.
Sometimes the people we meet start to talk, tell, complain, scream. The common trend is that each and everyone has something to say about Lenin. You say the word "Lenin," and people have a reaction to express. When it comes to other Soviet monuments or mosaics, people usually have to reflect for a few seconds. When it comes to Lenin, everyone has a readymade opinion. There were people who proved suspicious and closed up, of course. The Bessarabska Lenin, for example, has led us to understand that a private collector has it—he grabbed it illegally. So he is cautious, and does not want to talk, despite repeated attempts.
"You say the word 'Lenin,' and people have a reaction to express. When it comes to Lenin, everyone has a readymade opinion."
We had a fun story with the city administration of Melitopol, a city in southeastern Ukraine. We knew they had three monuments, taken down and parked somewhere. We asked to see them. We called. We wrote letters. We tried to ask high-ranking contacts to help us. We went there twice. We talked to a few civil servants. Nothing worked. The only answer we got was from the press officer of the city: "We cannot allow you to see our Lenins. Your project does not depict our city and our country in a positive way." This has to do also with the vision of Soviet aesthetics: Everything has to have a shiny and bright façade even if reality is more dusty and rusty. In that perspective, allowing us to take pictures of Lenin in a warehouse was not acceptable for them. On the contrary, we were contacted by people who were really interested to have us over. "I have a Lenin, come and have a tea with me and take a picture!" This happened to us very recently in Kiev.
It's interesting to think about the very physical rejection of past political ideals that Leninfall represented when one considers the current debate around the removal of Confederate monuments here in the States. Why do you think it's so difficult for some people to let go of these figures?
Gobert: First of all, there are some strong emotional factors that go beyond any kind of ideological belief. Nostalgia for a better time, for a time when the environment was safer, when cities were cleaner, when people had jobs, when people were younger. We see a lot of these reactions occurring in Ukraine where people had to undergo tremendous upheavals in the course of their lifetimes.
More generally, I would say that the relation between architecture and power and between monuments and citizens is a matter of collective sense of identification—the symbiosis of a group. We were asked the question during one of our presentation: "Why do Parisians keep a metro station named after Stalingrad, or some streets and schools named after Lenin?" It is not a matter of ideology, but more of political and intellectual representations. To remember some names who have, at some point, marked history and contributed to the course of the world. The same thing is true in Ukraine. Lenin has been used by generations as a marker of identity, as an element of speech, as a cultural reference. To topple Lenin is to make him/it disappear from the public space, as well as from the mental space. It obliges people to redefine new references. And that's a hard and painful process.
Do you think there can be an argument made for these statues' artistic value? Or is their political history too strong to allow them to exist in an objective capacity?
Ackermann: Again, there's not one single answer to this question. Among the 5,500 monuments erected in Ukraine, most were industrially produced concrete copies of a very limited artistic value. But some, made out of more noble materials, had more artistic properties.
One interesting point that was highlighted during one of our conference is how some of these Soviet monuments lost their political meaning. (It was mostly said about some ornamental mosaics). They were seen just for their beauty and their message was perceived as quite neutral. But when the decommunization process started, suddenly, people started looking at them as pieces of Soviet propaganda because they were created during Soviet time. Associated again with their political meaning, they now have to disappear for some. I recently traveled to Yekaterinburg, in Russia. Their Lenin statue is in the center of the city. But if you look at the pictures taken on the central square on Instagram, you'll find less than one percent of these pictures with this gigantic statue. It's not even mentioned on most of the city maps. It's there, but nobody cares about it. While in Ukraine, debate had rarely been that rich. Sometimes I wonder if, by removing Lenin from their cities, Ukrainians didn't make him more central than ever in their heads.
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