Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Lenin Toppled in Kyrgyzstan

Leftists furious at removal of 10 tonne sculpture of revolutionary from the centre of the capital.
By Leila Saralaeva

Bishkek communists are up in arms over the authorities’ decision to remove a statue of Lenin from the city’s central Alatoo Square.

Several dozen protesters carrying the scarlet banners of the Soviet Union and placards reading “Hands Off Lenin!” gathered in the square while workmen were dismantling the 10-tonne monument last week.

The local Communist party has now started legal action against Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, who signed a decree ordering the renovation of the square as part of anniversary celebrations to mark 2,200 years of Kyrgyz statehood.

They claim that the order is in direct contravention of a June 2000 decree signed by President Askar Akaev giving “historical monument” status to the figure and placing it under the protection of the state.

The row has grown steadily since. On August 19, Kyrgyz deputy Turdakun Usubaliev - a Communist party leader during Soviet time - demanded the resignation of the authorities over the decision.

“A government which ignores the view of the population, the constitution and the laws of country doesn’t have a right to exist,” he said.

Bishkek moved swiftly to play down the crisis, employing sculpture specialists to examine the statue and declare it in violation of architectural regulations, and warning that it was made of “dangerous materials” which were slowly liquefying.

In an attempt to smooth things over, the government has announced that in addition to finding a new home for the statue, it would rename a nearby square in Lenin’s honour.

However, such explanations have not mollified Bishkek’s Leninists. Klara Ajybekova, one of the leaders of the Kyrgyz Communist party, told IWPR, “We suspected the authorities were planning something when workers put up scaffolding and frames around the pedestal. But I was reassured by state officials, who said that ordinary repairs were being carried out.”

The Bishkek authorities have denied that the statue is being scrapped altogether. They say that following necessary repairs, it is merely being moved to another square in the city. Its place will be taken by a “freedom statue”, in the form of a flying woman.

But the communists have described the move as “illegal, cynical and amoral”, and have vowed to fight the authorities every step of the way.

“Who gave the small nation of Kyrgyzstan its statehood? Lenin!” said Ajybekova in a speech on the square. “To crush the personality of the person who did so much for Kyrgyzstan citizens is a disgrace for the nation!

“By removing the statue we are striking a blow to Russia and bowing before the United States instead - as we are putting a Kyrgyz version of the Statue of Liberty in his place.”

At a press conference on August 18, Kyrgyz Communist party leader and parliamentary deputy Absamat Masaliev described the move as “barbaric”, and gave his own interpretation of the events.

“There is an enormous space under the Lenin statue which was built as a bomb shelter,” he said. “Someone wants to exploit this property as a retail trade area – and make money at Lenin’s expense.”

However, the government does not see its decision as disrespectful to the Soviet leader’s memory. Tokon Shalieva, the head of the Pervomaisky district, where the statue is being moved, told IWPR that she respects Lenin tremendously.

“Lenin did a great deal for the Kyrgyz people, and no one can deny this. We decided to improve the square by the parliament and put this statue in the place of honour,” she said.

The government has found an unlikely supporter in the form of the local coalition of non-governmental organisations For Democracy And Civil Society, whose leader Edil Baisalov told IWPR, “Lenin did not offer anything except violence and dictatorship.

“There are around 4,000 statues of Lenin in this republic. Isn’t that rather too many for a person who never even visited Kyrgyzstan, and didn’t say a word about our country anywhere in his works?

“For Kyrgyzstan to still have so many monuments to Lenin is like Germany preserving statues of Hitler. Fascism and Communism are as bad as each other. If we really want to build a democracy and a new civil society, we must tear such things down.”

However, the unusual nature of the row has drawn a more cynical response from certain sections of the government. Parliamentary deputy Doronbek Sadyrbaev told IWPR, “If the authorities don’t like Lenin anymore, why don’t they just remove the statue’s head?

“That way, each new leader could simply screw a model of his head onto Lenin’s body. Just think of the money that could be saved.”

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.