When the statue of Vladimir Lenin in Ukraine’s Bessarabska Square started coming down on Dec. 8, 2013, Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann was watching it on television at a pizzeria less than a mile away. He left his food and raced to the scene.
At the time, Ukraine was in the midst of the Euromaidan Revolution, a period of protest and unrest that ultimately ousted President Viktor F. Yanukovych. As Mr. Ackermann watched protesters slam cudgels and sledgehammers on the statue’s hardy red quartzite, he knew he was witnessing a symbolically rich historical moment.
By the time Mr. Ackermann left the square, the monument was battered but still largely intact. The next morning, however, it was gone. Mr. Ackermann didn’t think much of the disappearance until two years later when he broached the subject with his friend Sebastien Gobert, a French journalist, who had also spent the last several years covering the country’s strife.
“Niels just asked this seemingly random question: ‘Where did Lenin go?’ We realized we had absolutely no idea,” Mr. Gobert said.
They soon decided to find out. By then, the Ukrainian government had passed a law outlawing Soviet symbols, including monuments of Lenin. The move codified a phenomenon known as Leninopad, or “Lenin-fall”, which saw hundreds of monuments of the Soviet leader violently and suddenly toppled by Ukrainian nationalists. In 1991, there were at least 5,500 statues of Lenin in Ukraine — a greater density than in any other part of the former Soviet Union. Today, none are officially standing.
For a while, even the smallest fragments of the Lenin from Bessarabska Square proved elusive to Mr. Gobert and Mr. Ackermann….