Communal workers remove the toppled Soviet-era memorial for Nikolai Rudnev in Kharkiv on April 11, 2015
Kharkiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Masked men toppled Soviet-era statues in night raids in Ukraine's second city Saturday, as moves to erase fraught symbols of the past widen the country's divide.
Monuments to three Bolshevik heroes were smashed in the dead of night in the Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv, close to the northeastern border with Russia, 48 hours after parliament passed controversial laws banning Nazi and Communist symbols.
Police launched a probe and the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc party, which has 40 of 450 parliamentary seats, accused Ukraine's pro-West government of undermining traditions and encouraging "chaos on the streets".
Nina Soboleva, daughter of sculptor Viktor Volovik, lamented the destruction of his statue of Russian revolutionary Nikolay Rudnev.
"It was a work of art," she sighed, urging the government to appoint a commission tasked with deciding the fate of Soviet-era monuments, which should be stored in safety in the meantime.
A video posted on YouTube by anti-Russian group "We've had enough" shows the three raids. In one instance, police can be seen looking on without intervening.
Their faces covered, the men use a ladder to hook the statues with a cable tied to a white van then which pulls away, bringing them down.
An industrial hub of 1.4 million people, Kharkiv lies about 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the fighting in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where pro-Russian insurgents are fighting the Kiev government in a conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people.
Kharkiv's pro-Russian mayor Gennady Kernes described the raids as "vandalism" and demanded that police "explain why they allow the illegal demolition of monuments."
- Communist ban controversy -
The attack follows a ban this week on Nazi and Communist-era symbols and names that is designed to shed Ukraine's Soviet past.
The Opposition Bloc party blamed the legislation for the destruction of the Kharkiv statues, and said the government was bent on "dismantling everything, from history, to tradition, national holidays and memory."
Supporters of the ban, which was rushed through parliament Thursday and must be signed by President Petro Poroshenko before it comes into force, say it will help Ukraine break with its tragic past and with Moscow's domination through most of the 20th century.
But Moscow says Ukraine is "rewriting history", and a Russian foreign ministry statement Friday said "Kiev used truly totalitarian methods of liquidating unwanted parties, civic organisations and movements."
The law will "create divisions" and promote a "nationalist ideology", Russia said.
The legislation means that Soviet-era Lenin statues will have to be removed and streets and town squares renamed across the country of some 45 million.
And as Kiev and Moscow traded angry barbs in an escalating war of words over their shared history, Poroshenko likened Russia's support of separatist insurgents to Nazi Germany's actions in Europe in the 1930s.
"What is the difference between the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria or the occupation of Sudentenland (in ex-Czechoslovakia), and the annexation of Crimea or the attempts to tear away Donbass in 2014?" said Poroshenko.
The Donbass is a swathe of eastern Ukraine captured by separatist rebels who the West says are operating with Russia's support -- allegations denied by Moscow.
Kiev sociologist Andriy Bychenko said the parliament's anti-Soviet drive was in tune with widespread belief that Russia is fuelling the bloody rebellion in the east.
"Feelings towards the symbols of the Soviet Union have become sharply more negative since the beginning of the Russian aggression," he told AFP.
But Poroshenko's harsh tirade ahead of the 70th anniversary of the WWII victory over the Nazis is likely to deeply offend Moscow, which is planning massive May 9 celebrations.
Historian David Marples at Canada's Alberta University was critical.
"In the West, friends of Ukraine will have a difficult time accepting both the wisdom and timing of such a facile and asinine decree," he said.
"The all-encompassing rejection of any facets of the Soviet legacy is troublesome," Marples wrote.
"The Red Army after all removed the Nazi occupation regime from Ukraine in alliance with the Western Powers."
Soviet WWII veterans will be entitled to continue to wear their medals, however, and graves left in peace, even if inscribed with the hammer-and-sickle or other Soviet insignia.
You can watch the amateur footage of the night raids at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4Q7a_IXX40