Ukrainian protesters toppled a statue of the Soviet Union's founder Vladimir Lenin in Kiev last night, aiming a symbolic blow at Russia during huge protests against leaders who they accuse of dragging their country away from the European Union and into Moscow's grasp.
Hundreds of thousands of people filled Independence Square and surrounding areas in Kiev for the second Sunday, as they kept pressure on president Viktor Yanukovich and his government to resign.
Ukrainians weary of rampant corruption, widespread poverty and the lavish wealth of politicians and oligarchs took to the streets after Mr Yanukovich scrapped plans to sign a historic deal to move closer to the EU last month. Their numbers swelled after riot police beat protesters and journalists last weekend. The opposition movement occupied Kiev city hall and a trade union building and filled Independence Square with a stage, scores of tents, braziers and booths offering food, drinks, medical help and warm clothes to demonstrators.
“We are sick of the way we live, and how they lie and steal and beat our children. We want to go towards Europe,” said Lyudmilla Shevchuk, drinking tea with three friends on Independence Square.
Ina Protsenko said: "We want our children and grandchildren to have the opportunity of a better life. That won't happen under the gang that runs Ukraine now."
Protesters hooked cables around the 3.5metre granite statue of Lenin, hauled it to the ground and set upon it with sledgehammers. They then placed candles and Ukrainian and nationalist flags on the empty plinth where Lenin had stood since 1946.
Thousands of demonstrators also blocked roads leading to government buildings with barriers, tents and cars. Mr Yanukovich insists he is still committed to signing an association agreement with the EU, but suspicions that he is happier dealing with the Kremlin have been fuelled by four secretive meetings with Russia's president Vladimir Putin in recent weeks.
The last meeting was on Friday, prompting opposition leaders to accuse Mr Yanukovich of preparing to sign up Ukraine to a Kremlin-led customs union comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in return for cheaper gas and multi-billion euro loans from Moscow.
The economy of Ukraine, a country of 46 million, is in danger of collapse, but analysts believe Mr Yanukovich is not willing to conduct the reforms that the EU and IMF want in return for aid.
With presidential elections due in 2015, Mr Yanukovich needs money quickly and without conditions that would stop him spending freely ahead of the ballot. Brussels also wants him to release jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, his most popular opponent, who the EU and US see as a victim of political persecution.
In an address read by her daughter Yevgenia, Ms Tymoshenko said Ukraine was “on the razor’s edge between a final plunge into cruel dictatorship and a return home to the European community”.
“Don’t give in. Don’t take a single step back. Don’t sit at the negotiating table with this gang that is up to its elbows in the blood of our children, and whose offshore accounts are stuffed with your money,” she told the protesters. “Yanukovich has lost legitimacy as president . . . He is a tyrant.”
Russia has condemned the demonstrations, but the US and EU have urged Mr Yanukovich to listen to demands and to resolve the crisis peacefully.
Crimea denounces protests that divide Ukraine
Ukraine's anti-government protests have reopened deep divisions between the country's regions, with nowhere opposing the rallies more forcefully than Crimea. Russia annexed this peninsula in 1783 and, despite being given to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954, it remained under Kremlin control until the USSR collapsed in 1991.
Since somewhat reluctantly becoming part of an independent Ukraine, this autonomous republic has been a flashpoint for disputes between Kiev and Moscow and clashes involving Russian and Ukrainian nationalists.
Most of Crimea’s population is ethnically Russian, and Sevastopol is home to the Russian navy’s powerful Black Sea Fleet; after becoming Ukraine’s president in 2010, Viktor Yanukovich signed a deal allowing the fleet to remain until at least 2042.
Ukraine’s western regions have denounced Mr Yanukovich and sent busloads of people to Kiev to join the main rally on Independence Square; mayors and local councils are on strike, defying threats from prime minister Mykola Azarov to cut their funding. Western Ukraine was for centuries part of Poland and the Habsburg Empire, the Ukrainian language predominates and most of its people follow the Uniate or Greek Catholic Church.
The west is also the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalist groups who lionise second World War partisans who sometimes fought alongside German troops against the Soviets who occupied western Ukraine in 1939; these groups’ flags now fly at anti-government rallies, prompting Mr Azarov to call the protesters “Nazis”.
Demonstrations have been much smaller in Crimea and eastern regions that are Mr Yanukovich’s home territory, where politics, business, language, culture, history and religion are inextricably linked with Russia.
Crimea’s parliament urged Mr Yanukovich to “stop the rampage of lawlessness and anarchy overwhelming the capital”, including “if necessary, by declaring a state of emergency.”
Sergei Smolyaninov, a Crimean deputy from Mr Yanukovich’s party, even appealed to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin to offer military help.