Once again, the world bears witness to the spectacle of Vladimir Lenin caught off guard.
History has repeated itself — and with a vengeance — as the citizens of Ukraine have given us another image, like the one that front-paged the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, of a statue of Lenin being toppled in a popular action against the hated symbol of totalitarianism.
And once again, a massive statue — this one, 11 feet, 6 inches of red granite — seemed oblivious and unprepared for the assault of the masses. As in Moscow in 1991, the far-seeing visage of the communist revolutionary depicted in stone could not foresee that the monuments to him would one day be joyfully toppled — and not by capitalist bosses or their “running dogs” but by ordinary workers and students fed up with the false ideology that promised freedom and brought enslavement.
The Lenin statue brought down in Kiev was symbolic not only of the historic Russian influence on Ukraine in general but, in particular, of the pompous rigidities of the pseudo-scientific ideology of communism. The prophets of the revolution claimed an analysis of the forces of history that showed that world communism was inevitable. But they could envision neither the path that their victories would take, nor their ultimate demise.
They thought revolution would come first in the advanced industrial states of the West; instead, it came in backward Russia. They thought it could only be undertaken successfully by an industrial proletariat, but in China the peasants were the driving force. They believed that they would bury capitalism, but free markets triumphed over the command economy.
Lenin himself was, as historian Paul Johnson notes in a devastating comment, “invariably surprised by the actual turn of events.” The October 1905 revolution astounded him; the beginning of World War I came “like a thunderclap from a clear sky”; the fall of the czar amazed him; he was staggered when the Germans offered him safe passage from exile back to Russia, where he anticipated his immediate arrest but was instead greeted with a bouquet of roses. These events may have caught many others by surprise, as well, but then they did not claim a “direct line to History.”
Lenin may be down, but the inscrutability of history stands.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s tack towards Russia, which precipitated the current crisis, was sudden. He defended his decision to shelve an EU trade deal because, he argues, it would have been too costly for Ukraine’s struggling economy, and the country needs more time to prepare. He says he is working on a “strategic partnership” with Russia, but has not yet committed to joining a Russia-led customs union which could supply his country with cheap gas.
The ferocity of the street response was similarly unforeseen.
The protesters in Kiev were surprised that the statue of Lenin, a sacrosanct fixture in the capital since 1946, came down so easily. “It is amazing how the authorities allowed Lenin to go down!” said Sergei Andriyenko, a 51-year-old Kiev businessman who applauded the action. “Where were the police? Where were the Communists who were always protecting him?”
Not far off. Last weekend, riot police beat protesters and journalists, and opposition leaders have been thrown into prison.
There is every indication so far that it will take more than photo-op iconoclasm to deter Yanukovych from pursuing closer ties with Russia rather than the European Union.
The Ukraine is at a dangerous turning point. “We are on a razor’s edge between a final plunge into cruel dictatorship and a return home to the European community,” jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko proclaimed in a message to the crowd at Sunday’s rally.
As people hacked off pieces of the prostrate — and by then headless — Lenin to take home for souvenirs, a poster could be seen attached to the plinth on which the statue had stood, reading: “Yanukovych, you are next!”
While it gladdens the heart to see such idols falling, the threat of violent overthrow does not. Ukraine’s 46 million people are angrily torn between East and West, and the consequences of a deepening confrontation could be dire.
It was a hopeful sign of moderation that opposition leaders denied involvement in the statue’s destruction, an act that could inflame passions further. The spokesman of Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov called it “barbarism,” a sentiment likely shared by half the population of Kiev, who are Russian speakers and among whom respect for Lenin’s memory persists.
What will come of this? No doubt, there will be more surprises in the coming days, no less for the spiritual descendants of Lenin than anyone else.