At 5.36 pm on Tuesday in the historic Kyiv district of Pecherskyi, an imposing Soviet-era bronze monument symbolising the friendship between Russia and Ukraine was accidentally decapitated and then deliberately dismantled to the applause of hundreds of people.
As local officials explained, when one country invades and bombs another, killing its people, their friendship is over.
The 40-year-old statue, depicting a Ukrainian and a Russian worker on a plinth, was pulled down on the order of local authorities in Kyiv. It is one of the first steps of a plan to demolish about 60 monuments and to rename dozens of streets associated with the Soviet Union, Russia and Russian figures, including the writers Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin, as a result of the war between the two countries.
Serhii Myrhorodskyi, 86, an architect from Kyiv, watched excitedly as the head of the Russian worker accidentally broke off from its body and tumbled to the ground during the removal. He did not appear bothered, despite the fact it was he who had designed the monument, erected in 1982 as a gift from the Soviet regime to the Ukrainian government.
“It is the right thing to do,” he told the Guardian. “There is no friendship with Russia and there will not be any friendship for a long time while Putin and his gang are in this world. After they drop dead, maybe in 30 years, something will change.
“The presence of the monument that represents a friendship with Russia is a sin. Removing it is the only right decision. And we could use that bronze of which the monument is made. We could melt it down and sculpt a new monument dedicated to Ukraine the motherland, which would symbolise the unity of all Ukrainian lands.”
“As for my emotions,” he added, “I am just happy to see that people are glad this whole thing is being taken away.”
As the monument began to fall, the crowd chanted: “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes, glory to the nation of Ukraine.”
The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, who presided over the dismantling, said the removal of Russian symbols from the city was now under way. “You don’t kill your brother. You don’t rape your sister. You don’t destroy your friend’s country. That’s why, today, we have dismantled this monument, once created as a sign of friendship between Ukraine and Russia,” he said.
Other cities in Ukraine have in recent days begun to rename streets associated with Russian figures or to dismantle monuments related to the Soviet Union.
The city of Ternopil, in western Ukraine, has renamed a street dedicated to the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and removed a Soviet tank and aircraft. The aircraft is to be replaced with a “heroes of Ukraine” monument.
Fontanka, a village near Odesa, decided to turn a street dedicated to the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky into Boris Johnson Street, after the UK promised to send a £100m weapons package to Ukraine.
And the mayor of Dnipro, Borys Filatov, said streets named after Russian towns would be rededicated to Ukrainian cities and symbols: Abkhazia Street became Irpin, while the street of the 30th Irkutsk Division is now called Ukrainian Soldiers.
Officials in Kyiv are to approve a law to rename 60 streets, meaning Russian writers and Ukrainians who wrote in Russian – or even assumed a Russian identity – are among those who may be written out of public life in the city. A metro station named after Tolstoy is on the list.
“The war changed everything and things have accelerated the times,” Alina Mykhailova, one of the two Kyiv city deputies who put forward the law, wrote on Facebook. “Finally, there is an understanding that [our] colonial heritage must be destroyed.”
Mykhailova and her colleague Ksenia Semenova campaigned for the removal of the People’s Friendship monument that was dismantled on Tuesday. There had been plans to remove the statue under Ukraine’s decommunisation laws passed in 2015, but at the time they received pushback from other members of the Kyiv city council, Mykhailova wrote.
The Ukrainian language and Ukrainian national identity were suppressed by tsarist Russia and its Soviet successor. Russian was considered the language of high culture and official business, and many Ukrainians, particularly peasants who moved to the big cities after the second world war, adopted Russian to distance themselves from their rural origins.
Perhaps more controversially, the de-Russification list includes Ukrainian-born writers such as Mikhail – or Mykhailo, in Ukrainian – Bulgakov, who was born in Ukraine, wrote about Kyiv, but had derogatory views about the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian national identity. His statue sits next to his former house on one of Kyiv’s most famous streets, which is now the Bulgakov Museum and is popular with tourists.
“Only idiots could do this because Leo Tolstoy is a world-famous writer, not just Russian or Ukrainian,” said Ihor Serhiivych, a Kyiv resident, inside Leo Tolstoy Square metro station.
“There are lots of [ethnic] Russians who live in Kyiv and they are probably doing more right now to protect Ukraine than those western Ukrainians who think of themselves as the elite,” Serhiivych said. He said there was a gulf in understanding between those Ukrainians who lived for a significant period under Soviet and tsarist rule and those in western Ukraine who did not.
“If it was a Putin statue I would understand, but you have to differentiate between enemies and world-famous literature.”
Another person at the station, Valetyna Hryhoryvycha, said: “I think people need to think about it a bit more. I don’t see how they relate to what’s happening now. It is part of our history.”
Ivan Andreiev, who works near Bulgakov Museum, said: “I’m for the removal of the friendship monument because there can’t be friendship between enemies. But I think it’s a fake that they’re planning on taking down Bulgakov’s monument. What Russian or Ukrainian would vote for such a thing? It’s just history.”
While Ukrainian authorities are working hard to disassemble the Russian monuments in their country, Moscow is doing the opposite in Ukrainian territories it has occupied, restoring statues and symbols of the Soviet era.
Two weeks ago in the seaside town of Henichesk, in the Kherson region, which is occupied by the Russian troops, a familiar figure returned to the main square. A statue of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, sporting his familiar goatee and moustache, was back on his pedestal, erected by Russian soldiers.