Ukraine’s political crisis has many dividing lines. And on a Monday night here in the country’s second-largest city, those lines all blurred into an argument about a man who died more than 90 years ago.
For thousands of pro-European protesters – who are trying to spread Ukraine’s revolution to this Russified part of the country – having a giant statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin on the city’s central Freedom Square is an absurdity that must immediately be ended. Dozens of Lenin monuments have been pulled down around the country since protesters first took to the streets against the government of Viktor Yanukovych three months ago.
But for many others in Kharkiv, the Lenin statue represents stability, as well as the country’s historic links to Russia. The 8.5-metre-tall monument – the largest built in Ukraine – has come to stand for everything they believe is threatened by the uprising that has seen pro-Western forces take over the government in Kiev.
Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, is now fully in the hands of pro-European forces, and the west of the country has always had more in common with neighbouring Poland and Hungary than with faraway Moscow. But here in Kharkiv – a city that Lenin initially made the capital of Soviet Ukraine – and other border areas, Russia is still close to the heart.
Those two sides of Ukraine and of Kharkiv now stand at opposite ends of the city’s vast Freedom Square, each erecting fences and gathering makeshift weapons for a fight, as the struggle for Ukraine moves beyond the capital to more reluctant regions.
“Lennon, not Lenin,” read one sign that hung on the barricades outside Kharkiv’s regional administration building, which sits at the eastern edge of Freedom Square and has been occupied by pro-European protesters since Saturday.
“Lenin is a symbol of totalitarianism, a symbol of the past, a symbol of what keeps us from going forward,” explained Oleg Zakapko, a key organizer of “Kharkiv Maidan,” an attempt to replicate the Kiev uprising here in this city just 40 kilometres from the Russian border.
“Twenty years ago [when the USSR collapsed] we didn’t take down these monuments to totalitarianism because they were important to a lot of these old people who believed in Lenin. For the past 20 years, a lot of young people have grown up with these symbols that mean nothing to them. The new generation is ready to move Ukraine towards another future, another fate.”
The 37-year-old Mr. Zakapko, a small-business owner before he became a full-time revolutionary, was among a crowd of several thousand that rushed to Freedom Square on Saturday – the day after Mr. Yanukovych fled Kiev – planning to yank Lenin from his plinth. But then the backlash began.
First, an all-call went out to Kharkiv’s taxi drivers, who sped to Freedom Square to defend the monument, injuring several pro-European protesters as they crashed into the crowds. The next morning, a rival crowd of several thousand – including veterans in Soviet Army uniforms – marched to the square and set up their own perimeter of fencing around the statue. “Kharkiv is not Kiev,” one sign warned.
“This monument to Lenin is a symbol of our city… we will leave it here and we will defend it,” Kharkiv’s pro-Russian Governor Mikhail Dobkin said in a speech delivered Sunday to a cheering crowd in Freedom Square.
Impressions of Lenin are deeply intertwined with how Ukraine’s history is told. To many Ukrainians, particularly in the centre and west of the country, Soviet rule was a time of horrors, marked by official repression of Ukrainian language and culture, as well as a state-orchestrated famine that caused the death of millions.
The black-and-red banner of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – a guerrilla group led by Stepan Bandera that fought against Soviet rule in the 1940s and 50s – has been adopted by the ultranationalist Right Sector movement that was the militant backbone as protesters battled police on the streets of Kiev.
The sight of that flag is too much to bear for many in the Russian-speaking east and south of the country. Here, Soviet times are remembered well, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army is condemned as “fascists” who temporarily co-operated with the Nazis in hopes of establishing an independent Ukrainian state. Many of those defending the Lenin statue wore orange-and-black St. George’s ribbons, commemorating those who fought and died in the Second World War.
“Everybody [in Kharkiv] has a grandmother or grandfather who died in the war. They think Bandera was a supporter of Hitler, and against the Soviet Union,” said local journalist Zurab Alasania, who supports the pro-European protesters, but thinks they made a tactical error in trying to pull down Lenin.
He said the argument over the Lenin statue has revived the political hopes of Mr. Dobkin and Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes, two long-time Yanukovych allies. Both men left Kharkiv for Russia over the weekend – sparking rumours they had gone into exile – only to return to address the crowd that had gathered to defend the monument.
Now, after his speech at the foot of Lenin, there’s talk that Mr. Dobkin may emerge as Mr. Yanukovych’s successor as the chief pro-Russian politician in Ukraine.
“They got some hope out of this,” Mr. Alasania said. “This is not about Lenin… This is about this [statue] is ours, leave it alone.”
Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon