In a country waging war on Soviet symbols, what do you do with a Lenin statue in your backyard? For Swiss documentary photographer Niels Ackermann and journalist Sébastien Gobert the answer is simple — shoot it. Ackermann typically focusses on small communities, documenting how they transform over time. In 2013, he turned his lens onto the aftermath of Maidan. In contrast to many other photographers cutting their teeth on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Kiev-based photographer decided to follow Ukraine’s battle with its past, having seen the city’s last remaining Lenin on Bessarabska square being toppled and smashed by activists in March 2013.
Last year the Ukrainian government banned any symbols, statues, flags, mosaics, imagery, anthems, street or city names affiliated with the Soviet Union. Over 900 Lenin statues have fallen across the country in the last three years in a phenomena known as Leninopad (“Lenin-fall”). Monuments to Lenin began to be removed mainly in the western parts of the country as early as the 1990s. Elsewhere, the statues survived until very recently, with the largest of Ukraine’s Lenins uprooted in Zaporozhia not two weeks ago. As easy it is to lose sense of what’s real when you witness historic events or conflicts on a screen, it’s also easy to forget about the physical debris left after such a symbolic gesture as the razing of a monument. The public indifference to what happened to the statues spurred Ackermann and Gobert to trace the whereabouts of the fallen leader.
“This project started out of curiosity. After the the statue of Lenin fell during Maidan, nobody cared what had become of it. For me it’s a very different visual and narrative work from the things I’m usually doing. Most of the work is done beforehand, behind the picture. Going to the location where the statue is, the only variables you have are the weather, the moment of the day, and the composition,” Ackermann explains. Working alongside, Gobert was crucial in researching where the monuments might be, and began also to document the stories of the people they met in the process. Combining images and first-person accounts, they are hoping to show the various perspectives to decommunisation.
Many of the fallen statues are taken to local wastelands. As property of the municipalities they cannot be sold or destroyed without official permission. However this does not guarantee that this is where they will stay. Ackermann and Gobert spent three days in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine looking for Lenin on Freedom Square. “We had some high-level contacts before going to Kharkiv and it was supposed to be a breeze. One or two days before, we started getting the news that people didn’t know where the statue was, that it had been moved. Then we started to look for the parts. We heard about someone who had the ear of the statue. He left for the war in the east, and then we found someone else who was supposed to have the nose. We met him and he told us the nose is exhibited in Pinchuk Art Centre. We spent three days calling the whole city to end up photographing a tiny piece of one of the biggest Lenins of Ukraine in a contemporary art gallery in Kiev, two kilometres from home,” Ackermann describes.
Statues are attacked for their association with power. Once fallen the monuments still find themselves in the midst of political struggles. As Gobert reflected: “Over the three days in Kharkiv we came to understand the balance of power in the city between the mayor and the governor and also between the activists who were united at the time of Maidan but are now fighting against each other. Looking for remnants of decommunisation, we found traces of corruption and a Soviet state of mind.”
There’s something slapstick about the very idea of chasing statues — “they move quickly for the dead”, as Ackermann says — to the peculiar places where they end up. In the photographs, a Lenin reads leisurely at the Museum of Fine Arts in Kiev; another lies face first in an allotment. Many Lenin-heads are hidden and locked away. The statues were subjected to comedy even before they were razed, with locals dressing them in national dress or Star Wars costumes, as was the case in Odessa. “In many cases, people found our approach funny. When they understand why we are doing it they become quite helpful,” Gobert says.
As with the hundreds of empty pedestals still standing across Ukraine, Ackermann’s Lenin series is incomplete. The photographer continues the search, interested as much in photographing the various contexts as the statues themselves: “Maybe there’s a businessman sitting in an office somewhere with a Lenin-head, as a hunter would have the head of a deer in his living room. That’s what we are looking for, the most unexpected situations for Lenin to be: from the city centre to surprising locations.”