They were the images that accompanied the end of the Soviet Union, the fall of Ceaucescu, the overthrow of Saddam. Monstrous and hated statues that had dominated every square and public place for decades ripped bodily from their plinths and then contemptuously defaced.
There was only one statue of Lenin left in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, but it stood no chance last night against steel hawsers powered by the fury of a million-strong crowd. And where Lenin once stood, there is now a sign that says “Yanukovich, you are next”.
But is he? Is this really the end of a president who was democratically elected less than three years ago in an election widely regarded as free and fair? There are already signs that he might be ready to use the full apparatus of state control to stay in power, his security service, the SBU, making ominous noises about cracking down on “activities aimed at overthrowing the Government”.
EU Commission President Manuel Barosso has been in regular phone contact with Yanukovich. Catherine Aston, the EU foreign policy chief, will fly to Kiev this week to try and mediate. And it will not be simply a mediation between the Government and the protesters, but between the two halves of modern-day Ukraine.
The roots of all this go back to Stalin. From the earliest days of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian nationalism was a threat to the Soviet ideal, and was thus ruthlessly crushed. The forced famine of 1932 and ’33, the deportation of ethnic Ukrainians during World War Two, the Great Terror that followed the war, the imposition of the Russian language. All were designed to make Ukraine a part of Greater Russia, and to a great extent they succeeded.
The pull toward Europe and the EU comes almost exclusively from the Western half of Ukraine. In the East, the great coal- and grain-producing areas around Donetsk, the people look, sound and feel Russian. It was they who put one of their own, Viktor Yanukovich, into power in January 2010, and it is they who feel much happier moving towards a ‘Customs Union’ with Moscow than an association agreement with Brussels.
Yanukovich has rejected the proposed deal with Brussels, and is believed to be close to signing up with President Putin following talks in the Olympic city of Sochi last Friday. Protestors in Kiev fear their country may sign a ‘strategic agreement’ with Moscow on Decmebr 17th. But is is not clear that Yanukovich can move either East or West without tearing his country apart.
He faces opposition from two formidable, and high profile, figures to any move towards Moscow: Vitali Klitschko, the world heavyweight boxing champion, who leads his own pro-European party. And Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister who he beat in the 2010 presidential poll, and then promptly jailed on largely trumped-up charges of ‘abuse of power’.
Even from her jail cell she has been leading the recent protests. A letter from her, which was read out to the crowd yesterday, warned that Ukraine was “on a razor’s edge between a final plunge into cruel dictatorship, and a return home to the European Community”.
For three successive Sundays the crowds in Kiev’s Independence Square have grown bigger. They are not going home during the week. Indeed, there are reports of a concerted effort now to blockade all Government ministries in the capital and paralyse the workings of the Ukrainian state.
There is an urgent need for de-escalation before a battle between the state and the protesters, even between Ukraine’s two communities, steps up another level.