Ever since Oleksiy Baburin\’s Stalin statue in southeastern Ukraine was bombed, he has been hiding it behind heavy metal blinds. Now the Communist lawmaker says his entire party is under attack.
As Ukraine gears up to vote in a snap parliamentary election after a year of dramatic upheaval, the Communist Party is finding its power base has collapsed.
Polls indicate that for the first time in 20 years it will fail to be elected into parliament, a symbolic rupture with Ukraine\’s Soviet past as the country lurches toward the West amid a dispute with Russia.
Baburin, a veteran lawmaker who is running for office in the city of Zaporizhia — historically part of the so-called "red belt" of regions in the southeast where Communists had considerable support — said he may have to work underground after the October 26 vote.
"Today there are anti-Communist attitudes. A nationalist orgy is at its peak," Baburin said sitting in his office surrounded by red Soviet flags and a selection of cheaply-made party newspapers.
"All our attempts to hold a normal campaign are met with aggression" by football hooligans and nationalist activists, who attack campaign stands and tear up flyers, he complained. "Now we focus on door-to-door campaigning."
On the porch of his office once sat a bronze bust of Joseph Stalin — the Soviet dictator Ukrainians blame for a famine in the 1930s that killed millions.
But that had to be hidden after it come under several vandal attacks.
"The first time his head was cut off. The second time they tied a bag of explosives to it and blew it up," Baburin said as an assistant struggled with the metal blinds now shielding the statue from vandals.
Blaming anti-Communist attitudes on "oligarchs" who stirred pro-European rallies that eventually toppled Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in February, Baburin refuses to trust surveys showing his party being shut out in the polls.
"People are afraid… when there is persecution, this anti-Communist orgy in Ukraine. They are afraid to talk about who they will vote for," he said.
Even before the early polls, Ukraine\’s Communist Party — accused by nationalists of being Moscow proxies — had been staring at extinction.
In July, the pro-Western parliament voted to kick out its deputies and a court in Kiev is hearing a case on whether it should be banned nationwide.
To make things even harder, it lost a sizeable chunk of constituents when Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russian separatists declared independence in two eastern regions — home to 680,000 Communist supporters.
According to an opinion poll on October 13, only four percent will vote for the Communist Party, one percent short of the threshold to win a proportionate share of the seats in the new parliament.
"The odds of the Communists making it into parliament are not very high," said political analyst Vadim Karasev of the Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev.
And if the old party ever intends to attempt a comeback in an increasingly right-wing Ukraine, it would have to completely rebrand itself, breaking from Lenin and Stalin, he said.
"The main criticism of the Communist Party now is that it\’s more pro-Moscow than pro-Ukraine," he said.
Ukraine — historically split into the west, where nationalist guerrillas have battled the Soviets well into the 1950s, and the Russian-speaking east, where a bloody conflict with pro-Moscow rebels has raged since April — has been physically shedding its Soviet symbols.
Statues of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin have fallen throughout Ukraine, with the largest in the eastern city Kharkiv hooked with a lasso and downed in September.
Zaporizhia now has the largest standing Lenin in the country, a statue on the Dnipro River with arm outstretched to point at the Dnipro hydropower plant — a monstrous Soviet-era facility in the region.
This month however the local Lenin got dressed by activists in a Ukrainian vyshivanka — a traditional embroidered shirt that has made a popular comeback amid the wave of patriotic sentiments in the country.
Strolling among the rose bushes in the square the Lenin overlooks, people took selfies with the statue and pointed it with bemusement.
"Some people want to knock Lenin down and others want him to stay. To find a compromise, people did this," said Antonina, who came to the square on a recent weekend with a Ukrainian flag painted on her cheek.
"It\’s not the monuments that matter," she said. "We have to minimise Soviet symbols, but we have to build a future in any case."
"Nobody needs the Communist Party. It a relic," she said. "Let the grannies and grandpas vote for them, who else?"