KIEV — Protesters in the Ukrainian capital toppled the city’s main statue of Lenin on Sunday and then pounded it into chips with a sledgehammer as a crowd chanted and cheered. The destruction of the statue was a cathartic moment in the biggest day of demonstrations against President Viktor Yanukovych’s turn away from Europe.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians filled the streets of Kiev on Sunday, first to hear speeches and music, and then to fan out and erect barricades in the district where government institutions have their headquarters.
Carrying blue-and-yellow Ukrainian and European Union flags, the teeming crowd filled Independence Square, where protests have steadily gained momentum since Yanukovych refused on Nov. 21 to sign trade and political agreements with the European Union.
The Associated Press estimated the crowd at about 500,000.
The square has been transformed by a vast and growing tent encampment, and demonstrators have occupied City Hall and other public buildings nearby. Thousands more people gathered in other cities across the country.
“Resignation! Resignation!” people in the Kiev crowd chanted Sunday, demanding that Yanukovych and the government led by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov leave office.
With the police nowhere to be seen in the city center, protesters in Bessarabia Square toppled the Lenin statue using steel cables and cranks as a crowd gathered to watch.
“People were waiting for this for decades,” said one man in the crowd, Leon Belokur. “Now it’s happened.”
He pulled from his pocket a chip of granite.
“This is a piece of Lenin’s hand,” he said.
Once the statue was down, men took turns smashing it with the sledgehammer. Onlookers chanted, “Glory to Ukraine!”
Many towns in Ukraine tore down statues of Lenin years ago, erasing monuments to the Soviet communism that had crushed their nation with famine, but the one in Kiev had stood intact until Sunday.
The giant rally reflected how deeply divided this nation of 46 million people has become since Yanukovych reneged on more than a year of promises to complete the political and free-trade agreements with the European Union.
With Western governments urging a peaceful and lawful solution, but no indication of any possibility of a compromise, the continuing unrest seemed likely to confront Yanukovych with several unpalatable choices, including a crackdown by security officers. Many demonstrators say such a demonstration of force was inevitable.
The president could wait, hoping that increasingly cold weather and demoralization will thin the crowds, but the continuing occupation of a large swath of the capital has added a patina of weakness and indecision to the government’s growing unpopularity.
Heightening the tension is a severe and urgent economic crisis, along with Ukraine’s need to secure a financial aid package worth $18 billion or more. At the moment, that help seems most likely to come from Russia, but any agreement with the Kremlin is likely to spur further public fury.
Many Ukrainians view the accords with the EU as crucial to a brighter future, with Western-style rule of law that could combat what many view as deeply entrenched public corruption and cronyism among the country’s wealthy elite. They also see the agreements as eventually offering better economic opportunities.
The accords were also viewed as a way to break free of the grip of Russia, which nearly a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union continues to exert heavy sway here, including complete control over Ukraine’s crucial natural gas supply.
Yanukovych’s comments that in retreating from Europe, he planned to restore relations with Russia — where he met Friday with President Vladimir V. Putin — have only further inflamed the crowds.
The demonstrators were old and young and middle-aged, from Lviv in the west to Odessa in the south, and from Dnipropetrovsk in the east to the country’s heart, Kiev.
Parents held children onto their shoulders, students wore blue-and-yellow-striped face paint, and volunteers handed out steaming cups of tea and other refreshments.
They sang the national anthem and were blessed from the stage by representatives of all of branches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, save for the Moscow Patriarchate, which is loyal to Russia.