06 Jan Going Once, Going Twice, Gone!
World’s Fair to Scaffold to Lenin to Gold Toilet
On December 8, 2013, an angry mob toppled the last statue of Lenin in Kiev from its massive pedestal. The rebels then schlepped a gold-painted toilet bowl up a 20-foot ladder to install it in place of the ex-god. The crowd supported them with chants “Long live Ukraine!”
Made from the same stone as Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, the statue was considered a work of art. In 1939, it traveled to the New York World’s Fair. During the WWII, the Nazis publicly hung the “enemies of the Reich” on the spot where the monument would end up. Post-war, the existence of the historic market Bessarabka across the street was in danger because some communists resented such an unworthy neighbor.
No coincidence it happened in December. Just think about it. The USSR was established on December 30, 1922 and collapsed 69 years later, almost to the day. Lenin gave birth to the KGB on December 20, 1917. Stalin’s Constitution took effect on December 5, 1936 and on its tenth anniversary the imposing Lenin’s statue appeared in Kiev. And Shostakovich’s Symphony 13, with its first movement subtitled Babi Yar, was performed on December 18, 1962. Convinced now?
It’s hard to visualize Kiev without that benevolent visionary scanning the horizon from his 30-foot vantage point—quite a view it must have been!
Hello Lenin! And Good-Bye!
Luckily, we visited Kiev when the great leader was still safe up there. Not that my husband or I were particularly nostalgic, but it was time to show Polina her birth city. She posed for a picture hugging the pedestal… hopefully in appreciation for not experiencing his legacy.
Before emigration, the monument had long been merely a fixture we paid no attention to. But I can’t forget my friend’s mother, a die-hard communist, who spent hours every April 22, Lenin’s birthday, on one of the benches around the statue. She could not take her eyes off the dear face—quite a task, considering the face was 30 feet above—not even daring to eat in the supreme presence.
Then the city’s Party bosses would arrive and chase her off because they needed to tape the official celebration for TV. Once I witnessed that scene—the one person in Kiev who sincerely worshiped Lenin being shooed away unceremoniously by uncouth cynical men. She begged her only son not to insist on emigrating so as not to deprive her of the sight of Lenin. They never left.
Scrap or Statue
The Soviet Union used to be awash in statues of Lenin—a total of 7,000 of statues and busts in outside public places, plus those inside lobbies and offices and countless paintings and posters.
Ukraine hasn’t yet dismantled all of its 2,500 statues. The town that demonstrated true capitalist spirit was, of all places, the infamous border station Chop remembered with horror by the immigrants who passed the customs inspection there.
Chop sold its dismantled Lenin in an auction! What chutzpah! Their statue of the leader of the world’s proletariat weighed almost 4 tons and was 10-foot high. A local entrepreneur scooped it up, so to speak, for an equivalent of $9,500, a princely sum in Ukraine. If sold as scrap it would have brought in much less. The city will use the windfall to improve the quality of their drinking water. Kudos to Chop!
And Now What?
In Kiev meanwhile, the toilet bowl was eventually removed from the previously Lenin-occupied space. Last spring, the Mexican artist Isa Carillo covered the pedestal with rosemary and mint plants—her installation is called “Ritual of Self-Nature.” A few days later, the plants were vandalized. A few months later, Ukrainian radicals placed nationalist symbols and flags on the pedestal. History in the making, day by day.