SLOVIANSK — In the main square of Sloviansk, a city in eastern Ukraine, a three-meter-tall pedestal lies empty. Until recently it held an enormous statue of Vladimir Lenin. But in the wee hours of June 3, the old communist revolutionary was secretly toppled.

Part of the local Russian-speaking population was furious, especially those who grew up during the Soviet times that glorified Lenin. But others were happy to see him go, as the bronze sculpture had become a symbol of separatism in Sloviansk, a city that served as capital of the pro-Russian insurgents before its recapture by Ukrainian forces.

The windows of the mayor's office open onto the October Revolution square, another vestige of Ukraine's Soviet past. The imposing marble base at the square's center stands out under the blinding summer sun.

“It looks so empty now. The statue wasn't bothering anyone. In my opinion it could have stayed in place,” says Natalia, the mayor's secretary. “Removing a statue won't help solve any of this city's urgent problems. Poor Lenin has nothing to do with this.”

Yulia, the mayor's spokesperson, disagrees. “I didn't like it," she says. "I'm not going to cry over it now that it's gone.”

Commando-style operation

Eastern Ukraine is covered in relics of the Soviet period, with city squares and factory walls littered with statues and pictures of communist leaders, red stars and heroes of the proletariat. Even the names of towns and streets bear witness to Ukraine and Russia's common history.

But since war erupted last year, Ukraine's west and east have been torn apart and everyone must choose a side. The government is picking Ukraine's history apart, and the parliament in Kiev passed a law mandating the replacement of all place names that evoked the USSR. This quiet revolution is seen as an outright provocation in the east.

Destroyed cars after heavy fighting betweeb Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels, on July 6, 2014 — Photo: Alexander Ermochenko/Xinhua/ZUMA

In Sloviansk, everyone knew the statue's days were numbered. Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist far-right militia involved in the war on the government's side, had made its intentions very clear: Last summer, after the city fell to the Ukrainian military, the militia promised to take Lenin down.

This was easier said than done in the hostile environment of Sloviansk, and locals resisted the attempts. Last January, hundreds of protesters surrounded the statue to protect it, but Right Sector ultimately had the final word on the matter.

“The militia announced a date for the dismantlement but they removed it two days earlier,” says Natalia.

The commando-style operation launched at dawn surprised everyone in the city. “At 4:30 a.m. a team from Right Sector arrived with bulldozers, and they started on Lenin's feet,” says the sole journalist to witness the event. It took them four hours to dispose of the colossal monument.

Rumors abound that the statue is for sale and that the militiamen want around $20,000 for it. “Lenin was a criminal. We don't need to have anything to do with him," says Yuri, a tennis teacher who is taking a moment to relax on a bench. "There are other heroes more relevant to us today that we could celebrate.” But then he strikes a more cautious tone, aware he might be overheard by passersby. “There are many pro-Russians in my neighborhood, I don't want to cause any trouble,” he explains. “You never know who might hear you.”

Face down in the dump

There is no longer any trace of Right Sector members in Sloviansk, and their closest bases are located several dozen kilometers away. Some speculate whether they took the statue with them, but the mayor says the bronze Lenin lies in the municipal garbage dump, kept away from public view.

In the city's outskirts, houses still bear the scars of war, riddled with bullet holes or simply destroyed by the fighting. A few birches and willows line the road leading to the World War II cemetery, a war everyone here refers to as the “great patriotic war” — another remnant of the communist era. Opposite, a battered fence stands in front of the city's desolate garbage dump.

Konstantin manages the land, and he looks at us with a mixture of suspicion and mockery as he exits the sentry box from which he watches over the entryway. “Lenin? Why?" But then he says we can go ahead and take a photo if we want. “I was born here," he says. "I was a member of the Komsomol, the communist party's youth organization. I grew up hearing about Lenin. Why did they take him down? To punish Sloviansk. Before the war, they would have left him in place."

In Konstantin's opinion, the local authorities should have dealt with more pressing issues before wasting so much energy on a statue. He says they ought to rebuild the houses damaged by the war and fix the economy. “This dismantlement was completely illegal,” he adds.

The garbage dump is littered with Soviet-era cars, trucks, tractors and blocks of cement, with rubble strewn across the wild grass. At the far end, next to the statue, two dozen dogs bark. Lenin's bronze mug faces the ground, wedged between a hedge and a car impound, still showing traces of red paint from the militiamen who vandalized him.

A man with a plan

Konstantin has heard rumors about the statue's potential sale. “You have to contact the local council to buy it. Who would want it? It's good Soviet bronze, of the best quality,” he says. “Hundreds of workers labored together to craft this sculpture. They deserve our respect.”

Andrey Nikolayevich, the deputy mayor, doesn't miss the statue. Tanned and dressed in a pale cotton suit, he prefers instead to look towards the future, to Kiev. “It wasn't just Right Sector who took down the statue of Lenin. Other civil society groups took part, and most people didn't even notice it was gone,” he says.

Nikolayevich rejects claims that the removal was illegal. “In May we proposed a motion to the local council to remove the statue, but we only got 22 votes in favor when we needed 31,” he says. But with the anti-Soviet legislation passed in Kiev, he claims he no longer needed the local council's approval.

Approximately 150 homes were destroyed by the Ukrainian army's offensive to retake Sloviansk. Another 1,500 buildings were heavily damaged in the siege. “But we don't have any specific fund or legal mechanism to finance the reconstruction,” the deputy mayor laments.

In Sloviansk, where the average monthly salary is 2,000 hryvnia ($93), people who lost their houses or property due to the war don't have the financial means to find shelter or rebuild their homes.

Nikolayevich has his own plan at the ready. “I'll put the statue up for auction," he says. "Maybe I'll be able to raise $100,000 to build some new houses.”