Fine art, sculpture & photography in the heart of Kyiv since 1988

LOOKING FOR LENIN | Niels Ackermann & Sébastien Gobert

The 15th edition of IHRDFF Docudays UA and Triptych: Global Arts Workshop, with the support of the Swiss Embassy in Ukraine and the Journées francophonie 2018 programme, present ‘Looking for Lenin’, the critically acclaimed photography series by Swiss photojournalist Niels Ackermann and French journalist Sébastien Gobert. By demonstrating the various fates of Ukraine’s toppled Lenin monuments following the Revolution of Dignity, Ackermann and Gobert provide an insight into the profound transformation of Ukrainian politics, society, and national identity that is happening today.‘Looking for Lenin’ has been widely cited in the global media, became the basis of a book of the same name published in the UK and Switzerland, and has been exhibited in France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Lebanon. Ukraine’s Leninfall is perhaps the most sensational of symbolic purges in the contemporary world, but not the only one. As countries such as the UK, the USA, South Africa, and Belgium take stock of its monuments, who will remain in sight and who will vanish forever? What criteria of equality do we apply to the monumental remains of past regimes?

LOOKING FOR LENIN | Launch 17.03.2018

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Text by Myroslava Hartmond, curator, researcher, and managing director of the Triptych: Global Arts Workshop gallery in Kyiv, Ukraine. Her essay ‘Lenin After the Fall’ opens the book ‘Looking for Lenin’ (2017).

The Lenin statue, a unifying feature of the Eastern bloc’s public spaces, has proven to be an enduring trope of the imagined post-Soviet landscape, firmly embedded in the collective imagination. His image was serialized in statues and paintings, banners and badges, posters and postcards, the printed page and the film reel, and dispersed to the farthest outposts of the former Soviet empire and beyond.

When in 1991 the U.S.S.R. – a world power that spanned 22.4 million km2, with a population of almost 300 million people across 15 republics subject to a one-party government – ceased to exist, its complex symbolic system imploded with it, but the relics onto which the symbols had been grafted remained. Newly independent Ukraine inherited over 5500 Lenin statues alone, installed at much greater density that the 7000 remaining on Russian territory. Regional administrations in the Western parts of Ukraine ordered the removal of Lenin statues in the late 1980s. Many Lenin monuments were removed from the streets of the capital in the early 1990s, until the only one left standing was Sergey Merkurov’s famous statue in Taras Shevchenko Boulevard.

Ukraine’s Lenin statues became re-politicized during the Euromaidan protests of 2013, when they once again came to symbolize the hand of the Kremlin and its cronies. On December 8th 2013, an angry mob toppled Sergey Merkurov’s rose quartzite statue, and in the weeks and months that followed activists tore down hundreds of Lenins all across the country. By the summer of 2015, the new Ukrainian government passed a series of ‘decommunization laws’ that sanctioned the iconoclastic actions of the protesters and decreed the outlawing of Communist symbols and ideology, which called for the removal of other monuments and the renaming of place names.

Today, not a single Lenin statue remains standing on its pedestal in Ukraine. Order No. 200, issued on 4th April 2016 by the Ministry of Culture, stripped 794 cultural objects in 13 Ukrainian regions of their ‘heritage’ status, including ‘monuments to V. Lenin, M. Frunze, F. Dzerzhynskiy, S. Kirov and other perpetrators of the totalitarian propaganda of the Soviet regime.’ In their handling there is no uniformity, as we learn from Niels Ackermann’s iconographic archaeology: some have been stored away by the authorities, others removed from their original spot and laid out, some are broken, tampered with beyond recognition, while others – such as contemporary artist Alexandr Milov’s Darth Vader – became a global hit. A few have been repossessed by locals who hope to sell them to foreign collectors, others remain unclaimed.

Ukraine’s decommunization process has been characterized by a quarter-century disconnect with the fall of the regime that bore those symbols, by a lack of public consensus regarding its methods (including the criteria for the removal of Communist symbols), as well as an absence of vision regarding the future appearance of Ukrainian public places, liberated of the vestiges of totalitarianism. Indeed, the methods of decommunization have at times been less than democratic, and have incited parallels with the removal of Tsarist monuments and churches that were destroyed en masse when the Bolsheviks came to power a century ago. Ukraine, a contemporary European state that has many layers of history beneath its surface, has the potential to become a country that celebrates those pages in its public places.

No longer ‘colonized’ by Lenin, the vacant pedestal becomes an arena for contending visions of national representation. In some towns, Communist memorials are transformed into monuments to the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred or the war dead; in other towns, religious statuary takes the place of the political; other still are empty. It is these empty plinths that litter the towns and villages of Ukraine today, much like the stumps of felled trees, that ask the question: what next?

‘Looking for Lenin’, then, is as much about Ukraine’s Soviet past and revolutionary present as it is about its future, where different historical and political narratives can coexist in a united society without the fear of erasure. With no more Lenins standing in our streets, you are invited to look at the decommissioned ones in the safety of the picture frame and to reflect on what should replace them.

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Triptych: Global Arts Workshop

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