KIEV, Ukraine — Protesters toppled a monument to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin on Sunday during the biggest march and rally in central Kiev since President Viktor Yanukovich galvanized his opposition by turning down a trade deal with the European Union.
The protesters blocked and barricaded government offices and said they were giving Yanukovich 48 hours to disband his government before marching on his country residence near Kiev. A government spokesman said Yanukovich's administration was "ready for negotiations."
In turning down the trade deal with the EU, Yanukovich was in effect asserting that Russia remained Ukraine's key trading partner. The country is politically and geographically divided between those who favor ties to Russia and those who would like to see Ukraine more aligned with Western Europe.
That gave the toppling of the Lenin statue symbolic resonance — despite the fact that most Lenin statues in Russia itself were torn down during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Statues of the Soviet leader were once ubiquitous throughout the East bloc, but those that remain are more likely to be museum pieces than public memorials.
No police officers could be seen anywhere in the vicinity of Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, where the granite and marble monument was brought crashing into the street by a group of young protesters.
"It is amazing how the authorities allowed Lenin to go down!" said Sergei Andriyenko, a 51-year-old Kiev businessman who applauded the action. "Where were the police, where were the communists who were always protecting him?"
A young man climbed the empty base of the statue Sunday evening and was brandishing a Ukrainian national flag as a crowd of several hundred young protesters chanted "Way to go!" and some young men set about demolishing the fallen communist idol with sledgehammers.
The protests Sunday were the largest in Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution, which resulted in the reversal of a marred presidential election in which Yanukovich was initially declared the winner but eventually found to have lost. He was later elected in 2010.
Although crowd estimates varied widely — from an official police estimate of 50,000 to rally organizers' claims of up to 1 million — the turnout appeared clearly larger than at a demonstration the previous Sunday that was officially calculated at 300,000.
Opposition leaders in Independence Square, where the demonstrations have been centered, reiterated their primary demand that Yanukovich dismiss his Cabinet, and that those responsible for the brutal dispersal of a student rally Nov. 30 be punished.
However, the president's jailed rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, urged the opposition not to compromise and to focus on removing the "tyrant" Yanukovich from power.
"Do not distract your attention!" Tymoshenko said in a letter from jail read at the rally by her daughter, Yevgeniya. "Negotiations with Yanukovich are only possible on the condition that early presidential and parliamentary elections be held."
As the rally responded with the cry "Down with the gang!" hundreds of protesters marched to the government headquarters less than a mile from Independence Square.
There has been criticism of the opposition for concentrating its efforts on mass rallies rather than on the political process, and some protesters expressed concern about the lack of any results.
"I have been hearing the same things over and over again for two weeks," said Oksana Kutsenko, a 19-year-old university student from Kiev. "But outside [Independence] Square, nothing is changing."
Despite its leaders' claims that their protest is and will remain peaceful, the toppling of the Lenin monument could hurt the opposition, said Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Moscow-based think tank.
"Half the population of Kiev are Russian speakers and a majority of the elderly still have respect for Lenin," Karasyov said in an interview. "I am afraid this action could be a provocation designed to present protesters as vandals and hooligans and thus build up a basis to introduce a state of emergency in Ukraine."
Opposition leaders were also warning their followers that the Yanukovich administration might try to introduce a state of emergency.
"We are officially addressing President Viktor Yanukovich: Attempts to declare a state of emergency are nothing but a state coup," opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk told reporters at a briefing Sunday.
Yanukovich had no public response Sunday, but a spokesman for Prime Minister Mykola Azarov suggested the possibility of progress.
"Peaceful gatherings can happen and the government is ready for negotiations," Vitaly Lukyanenko told RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency. "But when peaceful rallies build barricades and destroy monuments, call for terror on certain employees and their family members, these gatherings are not peaceful."
The reference to "certain employees and their family members" was apparently to Azarov, who complained last week that his family was receiving threats.
As a cold winter dusk settled over Kiev, thousands of protesters returned home from the rally, some carrying pieces of the broken Lenin statue with them as souvenirs.
Communist leader Petro Symonenko, writing on the party's official website, called those responsible for toppling the Lenin monument "vandals" and said the Communist Party will restore the monument at the same location.
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.Copyright © 2015, CT Now