Finding Lenin: The ongoing hunt for Ukraine's missing Soviet statues

Story highlights

  • Niels Ackermann and Sebastien Gobert have tracked down fallen statues of Vladimir Lenin in Ukraine
  • Over 1,000 statues of Lenin have been removed since 2013

(CNN)When revolution comes, statues find themselves on the front line. And like pawns on a chessboard, they're often the first to fall.

It's as true for Ukraine as anywhere else in the world. Nearly a century after his death, monuments to Vladimir Lenin have come down in parts of the country, thumbing its nose at pro-Russian unrest in eastern regions.
    But what of the shattered pieces? Can there be new life after the death of a statue?

    The story behind "Leninopad"

    Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann and journalist Sebastien Gobert seek answers to these questions as they zigzag across western Ukraine in their hunt for fallen Lenins. Their ongoing project "Lost in Decommunisation" documents the fate of the leader as he goes to ground and becomes an unlikely trophy for everyone from ultra-nationalists to local officials.
    Ackermann and Gobert say that once upon a time Ukraine possessed around 5,000 statues of Lenin -- a number more impressive when you consider Russia, 28 times its size, held only 2,000 more. Approximately half of Ukraine's Lenins disappeared with independence in 1991, but the pair estimate a further 1,200 have fallen since unrest began in 2013.
    Lenin alongside Marx and Stalin in Kharkiv, part of a private collection.
    The move is one aspect of Ukraine's ongoing decommunization effort. Soviet symbols, from flags to statues to road signs, were banned in 2015; Lenin Street became John Lennon Street in one humorous corner in the southwest, but by and large the process has been a somber erosion of a chapter of Ukraine's history.
    The destruction of monuments -- dubbed "Leninopad" ("Lenin-fall") -- has been fractious and symbolic, suggest Ackermann and Gobert.
    "They're all still owned by municipalities -- at least on paper," Ackermann explains. In some communities local governments have voted to remove statues of Lenin. Elsewhere vigilante groups and ultra-nationalists have torn down statues independent of authorities' will.
    "The way that the Lenins fall down, it's being implemented in a very dysfunctional way," says Gobert. "There's not just one process, there's not a single way that it is done."

    Secrecy and red tape

    Gobert says tracking down the fallen Lenins has brought to light "two very strong symbols of contemporary Ukraine: the heavy bureaucracy and the lack of law."
    Finding their subjects means talking to figures on both sides of the law, often negotiating a web of red tape and cloak-and-dagger secrecy. Officials are often content to pass the buck when approached by Ackermann and Gobert, and private individuals in possession of statues are sometimes wary of revealing the location of their contraband.
    "There's many [points of opposition]," says Gobert, "but it's what makes this project fun."
    "Some statues we've been negotiating since last September to shoot," he explains. "We have to write tons of official request letters... We've become lost in all the layers of bureaucracy."
    Lenin's bust on display in Kyiv at the Museum of Soviet Occupation.
    Ackerman recalls one failed attempt to win round municipal staff in the southeast of the country.
    "We started by calling them. They said 'No, we don't want to show you,'" he says. "Then a letter -- they politely said no."
    Gobert and Ackermann visited anyway and negotiated in person, but officials stood firm.
    Ackermann summarizes their reaction: "'We do not want to show you the Lenins because your project does not show our country in a positive way.'"
    The photographer describes the "outlaws" who sequester relics of Lenin as a diverse group. Many have moved Lenin into sheds and outhouses around the region, beyond prying eyes. On occasion the ideologue finds company alongside Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin and other communist figures.
    "Nationalists would collect them as trophies," says Gobert, recalling one individual who "would collect the image of Lenin like you'd collect stamps."

    The show goes on

    Gobert says there are plinths bearing the name of Lenin that have been without his likeness for three and a half years in parts of the country.
    Tearing Lenin down is a move "against the past and their Soviet heritage," he argues, "but it's not for anything either."
    The duo say they are still on the hunt to find more Lenins, suggesting the numbers are on their side. Whether they'll be able to turn Ackermann's lens on all the statues they uncover is a different debate entirely.
    "[The project] keeps on changing and dragging us to new spots with new people," says Gobert. "It's like a never-ending story."