Goodbye Lenin: In Eastern Ukraine, The Mysterious Demise Of A Russian Symbol

Under cover of darkness, right-wing militias felled a massive Lenin statue in Sloviansk. Now there's talk of selling it to finance reconstruction in the war-damaged city.

Hello Lenin
Hello Lenin
Boris Mabillard

SLOVIANSK â€" In the main square of Sloviansk, a city in eastern Ukraine, a three-meter-tall pedestal lies empty. Until recently it held an enormous statue of Vladimir Lenin. But in the wee hours of June 3, the old communist revolutionary was secretly toppled.

Part of the local Russian-speaking population was furious, especially those who grew up during the Soviet times that glorified Lenin. But others were happy to see him go, as the bronze sculpture had become a symbol of separatism in Sloviansk, a city that served as capital of the pro-Russian insurgents before its recapture by Ukrainian forces.

The windows of the mayor’s office open onto the October Revolution square, another vestige of Ukraine’s Soviet past. The imposing marble base at the square’s center stands out under the blinding summer sun.

“It looks so empty now. The statue wasn’t bothering anyone. In my opinion it could have stayed in place,” says Natalia, the mayor’s secretary. “Removing a statue won’t help solve any of this city’s urgent problems. Poor Lenin has nothing to do with this.”

Yulia, the mayor’s spokesperson, disagrees. “I didn’t like it," she says. "I’m not going to cry over it now that it’s gone.”

Commando-style operation

Eastern Ukraine is covered in relics of the Soviet period, with city squares and factory walls littered with statues and pictures of communist leaders, red stars and heroes of the proletariat. Even the names of towns and streets bear witness to Ukraine and Russia’s common history.

But since war erupted last year, Ukraine’s west and east have been torn apart and everyone must choose a side. The government is picking Ukraine’s history apart, and the parliament in Kiev passed a law mandating the replacement of all place names that evoked the USSR. This quiet revolution is seen as an outright provocation in the east.

In Sloviansk, everyone knew the statue’s days were numbered. Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist far-right militia involved in the war on the government’s side, had made its intentions very clear: Last summer, after the city fell to the Ukrainian military, the militia promised to take Lenin down.

This was easier said than done in the hostile environment of Sloviansk, and locals resisted the attempts. Last January, hundreds of protesters surrounded the statue to protect it, but Right Sector ultimately had the final word on the matter.

“The militia announced a date for the dismantlement but they removed it two days earlier,” says Natalia.

The commando-style operation launched at dawn surprised everyone in the city. “At 4:30 a.m. a team from Right Sector arrived with bulldozers, and they started on Lenin’s feet,” says the sole journalist to witness the event. It took them four hours to dispose of the colossal monument.

Rumors abound that the statue is for sale and that the militiamen want around $20,000 for it. “Lenin was a criminal. We don’t need to have anything to do with him," says Yuri, a tennis teacher who is taking a moment to relax on a bench. "There are other heroes more relevant to us today that we could celebrate.” But then he strikes a more cautious tone, aware he might be overheard by passersby. “There are many pro-Russians in my neighborhood, I don’t want to cause any trouble,” he explains. “You never know who might hear you.”

Face down in the dump

There is no longer any trace of Right Sector members in Sloviansk, and their closest bases are located several dozen kilometers away. Some speculate whether they took the statue with them, but the mayor says the bronze Lenin lies in the municipal garbage dump, kept away from public view.

In the city’s outskirts, houses still bear the scars of war, riddled with bullet holes or simply destroyed by the fighting. A few birches and willows line the road leading to the World War II cemetery, a war everyone here refers to as the “great patriotic war” â€" another remnant of the communist era. Opposite, a battered fence stands in front of the city's desolate garbage dump.

Konstantin manages the land, and he looks at us with a mixture of suspicion and mockery as he exits the sentry box from which he watches over the entryway. “Lenin? Why?" But then he says we can go ahead and take a photo if we want. “I was born here," he says. "I was a member of the Komsomol, the communist party’s youth organization. I grew up hearing about Lenin. Why did they take him down? To punish Sloviansk. Before the war, they would have left him in place."

In Konstantin's opinion, the local authorities should have dealt with more pressing issues before wasting so much energy on a statue. He says they ought to rebuild the houses damaged by the war and fix the economy. “This dismantlement was completely illegal,” he adds.

The garbage dump is littered with Soviet-era cars, trucks, tractors and blocks of cement, with rubble strewn across the wild grass. At the far end, next to the statue, two dozen dogs bark. Lenin’s bronze mug faces the ground, wedged between a hedge and a car impound, still showing traces of red paint from the militiamen who vandalized him.

A man with a plan

Konstantin has heard rumors about the statue’s potential sale. “You have to contact the local council to buy it. Who would want it? It’s good Soviet bronze, of the best quality,” he says. “Hundreds of workers labored together to craft this sculpture. They deserve our respect.”

Andrey Nikolayevich, the deputy mayor, doesn’t miss the statue. Tanned and dressed in a pale cotton suit, he prefers instead to look towards the future, to Kiev. “It wasn’t just Right Sector who took down the statue of Lenin. Other civil society groups took part, and most people didn’t even notice it was gone,” he says.

Nikolayevich rejects claims that the removal was illegal. “In May we proposed a motion to the local council to remove the statue, but we only got 22 votes in favor when we needed 31,” he says. But with the anti-Soviet legislation passed in Kiev, he claims he no longer needed the local council’s approval.

Approximately 150 homes were destroyed by the Ukrainian army’s offensive to retake Sloviansk. Another 1,500 buildings were heavily damaged in the siege. “But we don’t have any specific fund or legal mechanism to finance the reconstruction,” the deputy mayor laments.

In Sloviansk, where the average monthly salary is 2,000 hryvnia ($93), people who lost their houses or property due to the war don’t have the financial means to find shelter or rebuild their homes.

Nikolayevich has his own plan at the ready. “I’ll put the statue up for auction," he says. "Maybe I’ll be able to raise $100,000 to build some new houses.”

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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