The clutches of communism proved almost too strong for Kyiv on Tuesday, as a symbolic move to dismantle a controversial Soviet monument nearly ended in failure.
Workers have spent hours trying to remove a famous statue from the Ukrainian capital. Overlooking the Dnieper River, it depicts a Ukrainian and Russian worker holding hands in solidarity.
But the ritual removal of a monument turned into an afternoon battle
The statue is part of the Arch of Friendship of Peoples monument, which was built in Kyiv by the USSR in 1982, and is the first of 60 such monuments which the Kyiv City Council announced that they would be suppressed to “decommunize and de-Russify” the capital. .
“The Russians destroyed our relationship, destroyed [the] friendship between our countries,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the site on Tuesday, to the sound of a circular saw working on the Russian workers’ left foot.
“We were in the Soviet Union and we don’t want to go back there… we don’t want to live in a country without human rights.
The city’s most recent decommunization process began shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday in front of a crowd of onlookers with the accidental beheading of the statue of the Russian worker, whose head was shattered during an attempt to fix the monument with crane straps.
The head fell to the ground and rolled until it stopped. Witnesses then began to use the dismembered skull as a prop to pose with or on.
In the middle of the hijinx, work to dislodge the monument continued.
After about five hours of attempts to tear the bronze statue from its base – first with a circular saw and a crane, then with desperate attempts with a crowbar – the workers sawed off the legs of the statue and the gently lowered to the ground with the crane at around 6:30 p.m.
Along with the dismantling of the 60 monuments, memorials and commemorative plaques, Klitschko, who was present to oversee the start of work on the statue, said 460 streets and other places in Kyiv with ties to Russia would be renamed.
He said Tuesday was a “symbolic” day for the city.
“We must be free,” he said.
“I was born in the Soviet Union. I know how much [of an] the impact of Russian propaganda and Soviet propaganda on the people. And that’s why we have to stop Russia, stop Russian propaganda, stop influence in the world and stop invasion [in] Ukraine.”
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Klitschko said he hopes the Peoples’ Friendship Ark site will be renamed “Free Ukraine”. The upper arch will remain but will be repainted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
“Our goal is to be part of the democratic European families… This is actually the reason for the war because the Russians want… to rebuild the Soviet empire. We were in the USSR and we don’t want to come back [in it].”
Ukrainians who gathered to watch the spectacle agreed – but many said the process of removing these monuments should have started years, if not decades, ago.
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“We no longer have any friendship with Russia”
Some couples stood close together looking at each other. Others came with bottles of wine under their arms. A woman called a friend on her iPad so they could both watch it together. Many took turns posing with their heads decapitated.
Dmitry Sobolev, from Kryvyi Rih, the largest city in central Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, posed for a photo with his foot on the head of the Russian statue. He said he felt “happy” to capture such a moment.
“That’s how it should be,” he said.
“Now I feel happiness, because there is no friendship between [our] people, because it’s “the so-called friendship”, because the enemy has come and civilians and children are being killed. We see bombings and destruction every day. My heart is breaking and now I have tears in my eyes.
Other Ukrainians who gathered to witness the dismantling process echoed similar statements.
Iryna Zhivoluk, who came with her parents, said her family was “very happy” that the monuments were removed. She said her parents did not remember Soviet times favorably.
“We no longer have any friendship with Russia. It’s a historic moment, but I also think it should have been done 30 years ago,” she said.
Poplavskiy Yuriy, who held his wife as they watched workers attempt to dislodge the statue, said it was an important moment for the “end of Russian propaganda” but was long overdue.
“But it’s not just about this monument, it’s about Russian propaganda and Russian stories,” he said.
“Then…it’s [Russian] language, army and beliefs.
Yuriy had recently returned home to kyiv after being evacuated to the west of the country for several weeks. He said it was hard to say if he felt safe now, but he hoped so.
Historical unease with the statue
The Arch of Friendship of Peoples has long been a controversial landmark for Kyiv.
Its completion year in 1982 coincided with three important dates for the Soviets: the 60th anniversary of the USSR, the 1,500th anniversary of the founding of kyiv, and the 65th anniversary of the October Revolution.
But its Soviet ties and public unease with its significance have been ignored as it has become a tourist attraction, in part because of its stunning city and river views.
In 2016, Ukrainian Culture Minister Yevhen Nyschuk announced that the entire complex, including the arch, would be dismantled as part of ongoing Ukrainian efforts to decommunize the country. In turn, they would replace it with a war memorial in the Donbass. However, a lack of funding and concerns about its impact on tourism meant that this never happened.
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In 2018, human rights activists painted a large crack at the top of the arch to illustrate the murky ties between the two countries.
In a statement on the dismantling of the monuments when announcing the move on Monday, Kyiv City Council member Kseniya Semenova said the removal of the monument was necessary to “protect Kyiv’s cultural space and minimize the cultural impact of the pro-Russian narrative on the worldview of Kyiv residents and guests of the capital.
“We must get rid of memorials that forever perpetuate Russian, imperial, communist and anti-Ukrainian personalities, events and symbols,” she said.
– with files from Crystal Goomansigh.
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