Pro-European demonstrators toppled the statute of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, from its plinth in central Kiev as record numbers flooded the city streets.

The crowds had gathered to protest against the Government's decision to pursue closer ties with Moscow at the expense of the West.

In jubilant scenes that demonstrated President Victor Yanukovich had lost control of the heart of the capital, the crowd pulled down the statue and took turns with a sledgehammer to smash its marble hulk to bits.

Sparks flew as each blow landed to cheers. A priest emerged from the throng with holy water and proceeded to bless the hammer as the mood hovered between euphoria and happiness.


The statue of the Kremlin's first communist ruler is the symbol of Ukraine's shared history with Russia and sits on the main boulevard leading to Kiev's Independence Square.

Russia is the enemy for the hundreds of thousands who marched yesterday to stop Kiev joining a new, Moscow-led customs union.

Klinchuk Valera, a builder, held a fragment of the 6.5m statute. "For me, this moment means the freedom of Ukraine is won," he said.

As if to underline the dilemma confronting the Government, as its hopes of riding out the protests fade, a number of riot police who had been tasked with guarding the statue stood with their helmets in their hands, simply watching near their van.

Officially, the authorities had spent the day preparing to end the disruptions. The security service said protest leaders faced arrest for participating in a coup attempt.

"Today, December 8, data on individual politicians perpetrating illegal acts aimed at seizing power was entered in the universal register of pre-trial investigations," said the state security service, Ukraine's main successor agency to the KGB.

The large crowds demanding the resignation of the President, who infuriated the western half of the country by pulling out of a deal to align it with Europe, represented the biggest challenge to the state since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Rallying in driving snow on Independence Square, the protesters vowed to maintain their occupation of central Kiev until the Government reverses its tilt towards Russia.

Leaders of the protest movement, which aims to turn out a million-strong crowd against Yanukovich, said the country was on the "razor's edge" between dictatorship and European democracy.

Vitali Klitschko, the former world boxing champion who is increasingly seen as a President-in-waiting, called on the crowd of at least 200,000 to maintain pressure on the Government.

"The dictator will not go away himself. He must be made to leave," he said.

His call was echoed by Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former Prime Minister, whose daughter, Yevgenia, read out a statement on her behalf.

"Do not surrender, do not take a single step backwards, do not sit at the negotiating table," said Tymoshenko.

"Our goal is the immediate removal of Yanukovich as the President of Ukraine.

"We are on a razor's edge between a final plunge into cruel dictatorship and a return home to the European community."

Activists, who have occupied central Kiev for a week, are demanding the resignation of Yanukovich over his refusal to sign an association and free trade deal with the EU and subsequent restrictions on protesters.

Thousands of people packed into the square yesterday. The rally remained peaceful, despite concerns that the violence which marred a similar demonstration the previous weekend would be repeated.

The Government has so far defied the protesters' demands.

Some fear the opposition, which includes an uneasy alliance of pro-European liberals and hard-right nationalists, is struggling to maintain momentum.