A Bolshevik Treasure Hunt
It seems that few places in the world have escaped the trials and damage that come with generations of political, social, financial or violent unease. As a generation of quizzical and conscious minds, we tend to process these trials much faster, taking to social media with questions and opinions and following situations in real-time across may mediums. We even make in our mission to explore the culture and lasting damage that these situations inevitably leave in their wake.
One such quizzical mind is that of photographer Niels Ackermann has embarked on a project to track down the crumbling remnants of the USSR, Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin legacy. The Swiss photo journalist has begun tracking down the ousted Lenins in his ongoing series Lost in Decommunization. It shows statues and busts gathering cobwebs in garages, wasting away in basements, and lying facedown in the dirt. It’s a far cry from the grand, public places where they once stood. “You can see them as fallen Lenins, and that can make you laugh,”Ackermann says. “But the point was to go deeper and explore the complex situation of a country dealing with its past.”
Self proclaimed Marxist, Lenin was the leader and protagonist in the story and history that we now learn about the failing state saying; “Give us an organization of revolutionaries and we will overturn Russia!”
Following Lenin’s death in 1924 thousands of monuments erected across the Soviet Union. In its heyday, Soviet officials erected some 14,000 statues in his honor. Ukraine was especially overrun—some 5,500 statues in 1991 compared to just 7,000 in Russia. The nicest were made of bronze or stone in important cities like Kiev and Kharkhiv. The rest were cheaply fabricated from cement and resin to remind schoolchildren and factory workers of their leader. But once the union crumbled, the statues began to fall. Former Soviet states began dismantling Lenin statues by the thousands. Passions reignited in 2013 during the Euromaidan demonstrations, where some 200,000 Ukranians protested in the streets.
Ackermann was working as a freelancer in Kiev that December, and watched as activists in Independence Square toppled a giant Lenin statue and smashed it to pieces. “It was a bit like the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he says. “It was one of those moments when you understand the wind is changing a bit, the historical face of Kiev was changing.”
Ackermann thought about tracking down the statue, but only got serious about it after Ukraine passed laws banning all Soviet symbols last year. With the help of journalist Sebastien Gobert, Ackermann started making calls to local authorities and asking around. They didn’t find it, but the process sparked a treasure hunt for other dethroned Lenins across the country.
They’ve discovered 20 statues so far, traveling some 4,000 miles around Ukraine. The pair spend hours researching online, contacting officials and writing letters that often lead to dead ends. They find statues discarded on musty basement shelves, crammed in the back of workshops, and dumped in snowy backyards. Some are a bit worse for wear. There was a decapitated golden statue in an overgrown square in Chabo, and nothing but the nose of a 28-foot monument—once the largest Lenin in the country—in Kiev. An Odessa statue was completely unrecognizable, transformed into Darth Vader by artist Alexander Milov.
Lost in Decommunization shows how the past has a way of sticking around. Ackermann plans to keep searching for Lenins, and still hopes to one day find that Kiev statue he watched fall three years ago. “It’s the ultimate goal,” he says.
Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann