When the statue of Vladimir Lenin in Ukraine’s Bessarabska Square started coming down on Dec. 8, 2013, Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann was watching it on television at a pizzeria less than a mile away.He left his food and raced to the scene.
At the time, Ukraine was in the midst of the Euromaidan Revolution, a period of protest and unrest that ultimately ousted President Viktor F. Yanukovych. As Mr. Ackermann watched protesters slam cudgels and sledgehammers on the statue’s hardy red quartzite, he knew he was witnessing a symbolically rich historical moment.
By the time Mr. Ackermann left the square, the monument was battered but still largely intact. The next morning, however, it was gone. Mr. Ackermann didn’t think much of the disappearance until two years later when he broached the subject with his friend Sebastien Gobert, a French journalist, who had also spent the last several years covering the country’s strife.
“Niels just asked this seemingly random question: ‘Where did Lenin go?’ We realized we had absolutely no idea,” Mr. Gobert said.
They soon decided to find out. By then, the Ukrainian government had passed a law outlawing Soviet symbols, including monuments of Lenin. The move codified a phenomenon known as Leninopad, or “Lenin-fall”, which saw hundreds of monuments of the Soviet leader violently and suddenly toppled by Ukrainian nationalists. In 1991, there were at least 5,500 statues of Lenin in Ukraine — a greater density than in any other part of the former Soviet Union. Today, none are officially standing.
For a while, even the smallest fragments of the Lenin from Bessarabska Square proved elusive to Mr. Gobert and Mr. Ackermann. But in the course of their yearlong search, they came across dozens of other Lenins destroyed in the spirit of Leninopad, and decided they were worth documenting in their own right. In their book, “Looking for Lenin,” which was published in June by FUEL Publishing, Mr. Gobert and Mr. Ackermann present the Lenin statues as a lens through which to view conflicting Ukrainian visions of the country’s past, present and future.
“We quickly realized it was something very deep and very serious and meant a lot for contemporary Ukraine,” Mr. Gobert said.
Some statues they found were in disrepair and entirely neglected. Some were awaiting sale to the highest bidder. Some had been painted Ukraine’s national colors, or refashioned to resemble other figures, like Darth Vader. Others had been melted down and transformed entirely. The material from the leg of one Lenin monument now comprises a statue of Olympic champion Volodymyr Holubnychy. Mr. Ackermann photographed all the statues exactly as he found them, shooting with a 35mm lens so as to better capture the surrounding area.
“If there’s dirt on Lenin it says something,” Mr. Ackermann said. “If your shoes are next to him that also says something. We had to fight to keep the scene as untouched as possible.”
The condition and location of the Lenins, Mr. Ackermann said, were telling, but insufficient alone to create a truly illuminating portrait of Ukraine. Throughout the book, selections from Mr. Gobert’s interviews with citizens, government officials and security guards they met along the way reveal a country divided about its Soviet past, the influence of modern Russia, and the merits of Leninopad.
“It’s not like if you go east they want Lenin but if you go west they want to destroy him,” Mr. Gobert said. “These differences don’t only go through geography, they go through generations, through social criteria and economic criteria, through the urban and the rural.”
While some Ukrainians look at the Lenin statutes and think only of brutal Soviet occupation or contemporary Russian meddling, Mr. Gobert said, many see the statues as reminders of a time of economic prosperity. Others, first and foremost, view them as the lost centerpieces of their cities and towns, worth preserving more for their sentimental value than their political symbolism.
“One guy said he didn’t really care about Lenin, but the statue was at the center of the village and it was the place he kissed his wife for the first time,” Mr. Gobert said. “When the statue went down it was part of his personal history that went away.”
Though Mr. Ackermann and Mr. Gobert managed to track down the head and other small pieces of the Bessarabska Lenin, they have yet to find the rest of the monument. Like many of the statues they investigated, its fate is made mysterious by a combination of corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement. They still hope to see it one day.
In Bessarabska Square, meanwhile, the pedestal where Lenin once stood remains empty, perhaps the clearest sign of all that when it comes to Ukraine’s future there are more questions than answers.