KIEV, Ukraine — As the grinder sawed through the legs of Europe's largest Lenin statue on Saturday, causing the massive granite structure to land on its face, hundreds of protesters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv waved Ukrainian flags, leapt for joy, and scrambled to break off souvenirs.
The euphoria of the surprise assault on the statue of the first Soviet leader, however, could barely mask deep tensions between hardcore pro-Ukrainian activists, the police, and the government, highlighting the difficulty the country faces in remaining united while shaking off its stagnant, corrupt past.
Several hundred pro-Ukrainian activists and soccer fans gathered early Sunday evening and spent several hours trying to pull down the statue with a cable.
Some of them waved nationalist flags.
Others waved the flag of the Azov Battalion, a volunteer brigade whose core is made up of far-right activists from Kharkiv. Its leader denies being a neo-Nazi but has written of a "final crusade" of "White Peoples" against "Semite Untermenschen."
The Lenin statues ubiquitous across the former Soviet Union became a popular target during protests last winter that eventually ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February. Ukrainian nationalists who made up much of the movement's vanguard saw the Kremlin's attempts to stop the country moving toward Europe as the continuation of a long history of colonial dominance by Moscow, and the statues as symbols for Russian rule. According to the online Lenin statue database Leninstatues.ru, 168 statues in total have been dismantled in Ukraine since the protests began.
Authorities in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city and the main center of opposition to the protests, had long vowed to protect the statue, however. Last year, the city's flamboyant Instagram-loving mayor, Gennady Kernes, vowed to "break both arms and legs" of a nationalist lawmaker if he made an attempt on the statue.
After the activists began dismantling it on Sunday, Kharkiv police threatened them with five years in prison for vandalism. Soon afterward, however, the warning disappeared from the interior ministry's website and, two eyewitnesses told BuzzFeed, officers armed with machine guns arrived to guard the protesters.
An adviser to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who himself hails from Kharkiv, posted a decree by the province's Kiev-appointed governor approving the removal of the statue.
"Let Lenin fall," Avakov wrote on Facebook. "Just as long as this bloody Communist idol doesn't take any more victims with him on the way out."
Kernes, who defeated Avakov in elections to become mayor, condemned the destruction of the statue on Monday and vowed to restore it.
Many of the activists, however, saw the government's actions as a face-saving measure to avoid having to prosecute them for the assault.
"This is because the government isn't doing anything. That's what we said," an activist who helped provide the grinder told BuzzFeed News. "Ukrainian warriors are dying, and Lenin was just standing there."
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
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