Staunton, September 29 – The demolition of the statue of Lenin in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv has attracted international attention, with some seeing this as a provocation by one or another side in the war in Ukraine and others viewing it as an indication of the maturation of the Ukrainian revolution and a sign of the final divorce of Ukraine from Russia.
But this latest destruction of a statue of the founder of the Soviet state — the 390th to be taken down in Ukraine over the last two years — ought to prompt two larger questions: How many more Lenins are there; and, far more important, what does it mean that they are still around 20 years after the system he founded died?
The exact number of such statues is unknown, but it is certainly in the tens of thousands. According to one count in 2012, there were “about 1800” in the Russian Federation alone, not counting “up to 20,000 busts,” the mausoleum in Red Square, and some 5,000 streets bearing his name.
In other former Soviet bloc countries and former Soviet republics, there are even more, although their numbers continue to decline as more people learn about the crimes Lenin committed and especially as religious leaders focus on his efforts to destroy religion and extirpate Russian national traditions.
But there is one discernible pattern about the demise of Lenin statues: When the Soviet system was viewed as an occupation rather than an organic part of national history, such as the Eastern European countries and the formerly occupied Baltic states, there are very few Lenins left and these countries have made the greatest progress toward democracy and freedom.
Where statues of Lenin continue to be viewed as an integral part of the national experience either to be tolerated or celebrated depending upon the country involved, with more Russians than anyone else prepared to view the founder of the Soviet state as a hero now, often for the un-Leninist reason that he kept the Russian empire from disintegrating in 1917.
And in these countries, there has been much less progress toward democracy and freedom and must less progress toward a modern economy, with economic growth far more anemic except in those which have significant amounts of natural resources that they can sell to other countries.
Obviously, Lenin statues are a symptom rather than a cause of this pattern, but the demise of the large one in Kharkiv suggests three conclusions which it would be well for everyone to keep in mind going forward:
First, except for a very few true communists, Lenin has become the symbol of the Russian empire rather than of any radical social transformation. Both those who are taking down statues of him, such as the Ukrainians, and those who oppose them, including many in Moscow, clearly view him in this way.
Second, the Lenin statues, which were part of a broader Lenin cult, were in fact totems of a terrorist transformed into a god and thus one of the clearest indications of just how evil the Soviet system was and how great a burden it still places on the peoples who were subject to its crimes.
And third, the fight over the statues of Lenin 23 years after the USSR disappeared and communists declared themselves to be something else shows how unwilling the West was to face up to the evil of that system and to demand that the losers of the cold war de-communize themselves as part of the settlement.
Instead in the name of not offending their new “partners,” costing themselves access to new markets, and putting additional burdens on themselves to complete the job of the cold war, Western leaders proclaimed victory and ignored the ways in which some parts of the Soviet inheritance could haunt the world if they did nothing.
The Ukrainians won a victory in that struggle by taking down the statue of Lenin in Kharkiv. At the very least, they have helped to separate themselves still more from what Ronald Reagan properly called “the evil empire.” Their victory should be celebrated and others encouraged to emulate it rather than be second-guessed by those who fear offending Moscow.