Looking for Lenin in contemporary Ukraine

Reading Time: 4 minutes

On 08 December 2013, the Bessarabska Lenin statue on Taras Shevchenko Boulevard in Ukraine was demolished in the midst of the Euromaidan revolution. What followed was a wave of symbolic violence that came to be known as Leninfall [or ‘Leninopad’ by Ukrainians]. Seeking to erase all traces of the Ukraine’s Soviet past, the government launched an official decommunisation process, outlawing communist monuments. Prior to these events around 5500 statues of Lenin stood in former Soviet state; today, not one remains.

Fascinated by the fate of these statues, Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann and journalist Sébastien Gobert went on a quest to find them, documenting the results in the series Looking for Lenin. Published as a book last year, the series now going on show at Espace Images, Vevey.

Ackermann, who is originally from Geneva, discovered Ukraine in 2009, eventually moving there in 2015. He was instantly attracted by “the generosity of the people” but, arriving just after the momentous events of Euromaidan, he was also there at a pivotal time in the nation’s history, choc-full of interesting stories. He stumbled on the idea of Looking for Lenin almost by accident.

“I met Sébastien a little before the beginning of Maidan, when he was covering news for various publications,” says Ackermann. “After the revolution, I asked him where the statue in the centre of Kyiv was – because after it was toppled, there was nothing left the next day.”

Ukrainian artist Alexander Milov has transformed this Lenin statue into the Star Wars character Darth Vader. It stands in a factory courtyard on the outskirts of Odessa. Odessa, 21 November 2015. From the series Looking for Lenin © Niels Ackermann / Lundi13 / Fuel Publishing

They started searching for the missing monuments, initially “purely for fun” then in more earnest as they thought more about the story and its ramifications. “As we invested more time in the project, we realised that nobody had attempted anything like this before, and that was a powerful realisation,” says Ackermann. “But it was also difficult.”

Some of the statues had been immediately destroyed but others started to resurface in peoples’ homes, municipal buildings and scrapyards – Ackermann estimates it took about a week to find each statue they managed to locate, and some turned up in some unexpected places. The most outlandish was probably the 2m-high head they found inside Chernobyl, close to the nuclear reactor.

“Access was difficult, and the authorities made excuses that the area was still radioactive so we couldn’t enter,” says Ackermann. Persisting, they found the head which had previously stood on the site of the V.I Lenin Nuclear Power Station [Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant] – which has come to rest in a room used by the facility cleaning staff.

Ackermann is primarily a documentary photographer, and says that, no matter how surreal the images look, none were staged. “People did try to clean the statues when we were photographing, but we insisted they leave them as they were,” he says. “We wanted to give a truthful portrayal of how things are.

“People very rarely liked the pictures,” he adds. “In Ukraine, people have a tendency to want to show you things that look nice, and that’s not the case with toppled statues of Lenin.”

Kharkiv, 02 February, 2016. From the series Looking for Lenin © Niels Ackermann / Lundi13 / Fuel Publishing

To some Ukrainians, Lenin is the embodiment of evil and destruction; for others he represents past ideals. In Looking for Lenin these contradictory voices represent the general divide in the increasingly polarised state, and for Ackermann and Gobert it was important to simply reflect these voices.

“Throughout the project, we’ve insisted on the idea that we don’t express our own opinion,” says Ackermann. “Some people ask us: are you for decommunisation or against it? We always say that we are neither for, or against. That’s very important to us. Neither for or against, we want to show how complex this question is within Ukraine.”

“It’s funny because there is a kind of romantic element involved, too, in that we still haven’t managed to photograph the very first statue,” he says. “It’s a bit like an unattainable first love – the project won’t be complete until we have photographed that statue.”

Looking for Lenin is on show from 24 January-04 March at Espace Images, Vevey, Place de la Gare, 3 CH-1800 Vevey, Switzerland https://www.images.ch/en Plus, there is an exhibition showing at the Side Gallery, 5-9 Side, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, NE1 3JE until March 25, 2018. The series was also published as a book [Looking for Lenin] last year by FUEL https://fuel-design.com/. A French language edition is published by Les Éditions Noir Sur Blanc.

This Lenin statue used to stand at the center of the former Lenin Museum, now a convention center. It now sits in a box in the basement. Kyiv, Ukrainian House. 12 January, 2016. From the series Looking for Lenin © Niels Ackermann / Lundi13 / Fuel Publishing