“I’d say on average it’s one week of work for one Lenin,” says photographer Niels Ackermannn of the project, “Looking for Lenin.” Jointly produced with French journalist Sebastien Gobert, the series currently includes images of 70 different statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin that were toppled in Ukraine’s quest to rid the landscape of Soviet symbols.
That’s about 490 days that Ackermann and Gobert have dedicated to tracking down and photographing Lenin in places like storage units, dumpsters, car trunks, closets, fields, artist studios, and museums. Each image hides a unique story of the bureaucracy they hurdled and the estimated 6,000 miles traveled in Ukraine to discover what might turn out to be only Lenin’s beard, elbow, or nose. “It’s like an addiction,” says Swiss-born Ackermann of the chase.
A beheaded Lenin statue on display in the Museum of Soviet Occupation in Kiev.
The idea for the work was sparked on December 8, 2013 during a protest against the government’s rejection of an EU trade deal. Ackermann witnessed hundreds of Ukrainians tearing down the Lenin statue that stood in Kiev’s Bessarabska Square. The protestors were hitting the statue with hammers “trying to destroy it and preserve a souvenir,” recalls Ackermann.
The next morning there was –– surprisingly –– nothing left of the 11-foot quartz statue except the pedestal and destroyed pavement.
Ackermann asked himself, “Where did it go?”
Ackermann and Gobert, who are both based in Ukraine, began an investigation to find the Lenin Statue that once stood in Bessarabska Square. Along the way, they discovered a nuanced story of Ukraine told through the varied fates of the many fallen and dismembered Lenin statues they found.
At the moment of independence in 1991, Ukraine was home to 5,500 Lenin statues, says Ackermann compared to Russia’s 7,000; a striking comparison given that Russia is 28 times bigger than Ukraine. Now, all the statues in Ukraine are gone, capsized after a formal de-communization process started in 2015.
For Ackermann and Gobert, the treatment of the ousted statues symbolizes the disjointed cultural and political fragments of Ukraine. In the region of Shabo, for example, a decapitated statue is painted in gold, simultaneously telling of the contempt for Lenin and the stubbornness of orderly and glorified Soviet aesthetics. And, reasonably, the nostalgia for a time when jobs were plentiful and lives felt as bright as the golden sun reflecting off the shiny statues.
Just like there is no agreement on how to handle the statues, there isn’t a unified vision of the country’s past, future, or even its identity, says Gobert, even in the 25 years since gaining independence.
When people look at the images showing “Lenin in dumps or transformed into Darth Vader,” it can seem funny, says Ackermann, but in reference to the political unrest and conflict of recent years, “what is happening in Ukraine is not fun.”
Ackermann has begun to question if the elimination of the statues has actually made them more visible. From his perspective, the dramatic process of removal has given them a visibility they lost with time. Now we have these weird leftover pedestals and discussions about Lenin, he muses. “Moving a statue is one thing, but changing what’s in people’s minds is another.”
After years of detective work Ackermann and Gobert have managed to find the person who is holding the Bessarabska Lenin in custody, the statue that planted the seed for the project in 2013. For now, they’re sworn to secrecy about its whereabouts and are keeping their promise in hopes they’ll be allowed to photograph it one day.
The “Looking for Lenin” book will be released in July 2017, published by Fuel Publishing in London and Noir sur Blanc in France.