“De-Communization” and Legislating History in Post-Maidan Ukraine

Both advocates and critics of the Ukrainian “de-communization” tend to present it as exceptionally important or even crucial for the future of Ukrainian society and state. Their arguments usually imply “identity” and “memory” to be central for the Ukrainian public opinion.

At the same time, polls show that public opinion remains rather skeptical or even indifferent to the renaming of streets and the removal of Lenin monuments. This article strives to propose a concise contextual analysis of political, legal, and historical aspects of present-day Ukraine’s politics of memory.

The political sense of the adopted laws seems to be in a search to draw a new symbolic division line between post-Maidan Ukraine and Putin’s Russia.

The “Historical” Laws of April 9

On April 9, 2015, the Verkhovna Rada voted, without any discussion, for four laws:

1. On recognizing members of various Ukrainian political organizations (including members of the wartime and postwar nationalist underground) as “fighters for Ukrainian independence”;

2. on celebrating victory over Nazism in the Second World War, establishing May 8 as Day of Memory and Reconciliation and maintaining May 9 as Victory Day;

3. on creating open access to the archives of the communist regime (1917–1991) and the transfer of all relevant documents to a new archive based at the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory;

4. on condemning the communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes, banning the “propaganda” of their symbols (with provisions for criminal prosecution for preparing and use of these symbols; re-naming of towns and streets carrying the names of high-ranking Soviet officials).

The political sense of the adopted laws seems to be in a search to draw a new symbolic division line between post-Maidan Ukraine and Putin’s Russia. This division is supposed to be constructed not according to language or religious identification but alongside the attitude to the Soviet past: largely glorified in Russia and condemned in Ukraine.

In Eastern Galicia Lenin monuments and street names were replaced with the figures from national canon already in the early 1990s. The rest of Ukraine experienced much less change.

Aside from political consideration and historiographic battles, it is hard to overlook numerous legal problems with the adopted laws. One of them is the lack of clarity over the concept of “propaganda” and its openness to abuse; the absence of a clear list of symbols which should be banned; the unjustified harsh punishment for preparation and use of the banned symbols (up to five years in prison). It should be noted that so far there were no criminal cases opened on such basis, but one could not guarantee that at some point such a persecution may not start.

Legal experts claimed that “historical” laws could lead to serious limitations on the freedom of expression and to violating the Constitution of Ukraine and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Despite that, President Petro Poroshenko signed all the laws, and then announced their further improvement (which never happened until September 2017 when this article was written).

Ukraine without Lenin

In post-Soviet Ukraine since 1991, the questions of memorials or the renaming of the streets belonged to the competence of the local elected councils. It caused serious differences in country’s symbolic landscape: in Eastern Galicia (often mistakenly identified with the entire “West Ukraine”), Lenin monuments and street names were replaced with the figures from national and nationalistic canon already in the early 1990s. The rest of Ukraine experienced much less change. In the center of Kyiv, one Lenin monument on the present-day Maidan was dismantled in the early 1990s, the other one (infront of the Bessarabs’kyj market) survived until December 8, 2013.

This Lenin monument in Kyiv, destroyed during the Euromaidan by the supporters of the far-right “Svoboda” party, became the first victim of the “Leninopad” movement – the destruction of the Lenin monuments all around Ukraine. The cases of two big East Ukrainian cities—Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv—were especially important. The Lenin monuments there were destroyed in 2014 at night time by unidentified people using radical right-wing symbols, on February 22 and September 28 respectively. The April laws legalized the ongoing process of dismantling Lenin monuments. Till the end of summer 2017, 1320 monuments to the founder of the Soviet State were removed all around Ukraine.

Who Will Replace Lenin?

The Institute of National Memory reported that until the end of 2016 the names of 32 cities, 955 villages, and 51 493 streets were “de-communized.” The names of Soviet officials were mostly replaced by the figures from Ukrainian political and literary canon. One should note that not every Soviet name was supposed to be changed. “De-communization” does not include Soviet Ukrainian artists and writers, Soviet heroes of the World War II, or astronauts (even if they were high-ranked party or military officials in the USSR).

In some cases the local political elites tried to preserve the Soviet name by reinventing its non-Soviet meaning. The most telling example was the case of the city of Dnipropetrovsk named in 1926 after Grigory Petrovsky, an old Bolshevik and the head of the Soviet Ukraine’s government. Newly elected after the Maidan, the mayor and city council proposed to preserve the name “Dnipropetrovsk” by “re-thinking” Petrovsk as a reference to St. Peter instead of the old Bolshevik. Their logic was predominantly non-ideological, based on the citizens’ fears of the potential costs of renaming. Still, the Ukrainian parliament voted for renaming Dnipropetrovsk into Dnipro on May 19, 2016.

“De-communization” does not include Soviet Ukrainian artists and writers, Soviet heroes of the World War II, or astronauts.

Bandera Crossed the Borders of Western Ukraine

The name of one of the biggest Ukrainian cities just became shorter, but who will replace Lenin on the pedestals? His place in the very centers of the cities and villages now usually remains empty. To respond to the anxious claims that Lenin will be replaced by Stepan Bandera—the symbol of radical Ukrainian nationalism—the Institute for National Memory claimed that in Ukraine there are only 40 Bandera monuments and 34 streets named after him.

The Ukrainian public sphere is still acutely lacking criticism of integral nationalism and its symbolism from democratic, pluralistic viewpoints, rather than from the perspective of the “Russian world.”

Even more, all of them are located in two historical regions of Western Ukraine – East Galicia and Volhynia. However, on July 7, 2016, something exceptional happened – Moskovsky Avenue in Kyiv was renamed into Bandera Avenue. By this decision of the Kyiv city council the commemoration of the highly disputable nationalistic figure crossed the geographical borders of Western Ukraine.

Still, the problem of the legal status of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) underground remains unresolved. The history of the UPA contains the anti-Jewish violence and the organized mass murder of the Polish population of Volhynia region in 1943, but the local memory of East Galicia and the national history narrative concentrate on the anti-Soviet struggle of the UPA (pretty strong till the beginning of the 1950s) and the severe Soviet repressions in response. The Ukrainian parliament has more than once failed to grant the status of war veterans to the nationalistic combatants (the last unsuccessful attempt was made already after the Euromaidan). One could even argue that the newly-adopted law proposes a kind of “compromise” by granting the UPA veterans a special status of “fighters for Ukrainian independence” but refusing to give them the same social privileges as the Soviet veterans of war.

How to Deal with Ukraine’s Complex Past?

War, even the “hybrid” one, is not suitable for sophisticated debates. Both the proponents and the opponents of “de-communization” usually see it in the context of national security, social stability, and memory conflicts. Both sides quite often simplify the unique post-Soviet pluralism of contemporary Ukraine, asserting, for example, that all supporters of “rehabilitating UPA” or “preserving Lenin monuments” share the ideology of integral nationalism or Marxism-Leninism (or at least have a notion of what they are).

At the same time, the Ukrainian public sphere is still acutely lacking criticism of integral nationalism and its symbolism from democratic, pluralistic viewpoints, rather than from the perspective of the “Russian world” or the “Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people.” Likewise, Ukraine lacks a critique of the communist narrative which does not elicit suspicion of the author’s narrowly nationalist outlook. It is crucial for such criticism to refrain from totalitarian ideological connotations.

Discussing the “de-communization” presents us with a truly difficult question: How should we deal with the Soviet past? As a historian, I would argue for the importance to fully understand its heterogeneity and inconsistencies, which in no way calls the criminal character of the numerous decisions made by the Soviet regime into question. Here, it is also important to think about the problem of present-day ignorance and incomprehension.

To Think about Ukraine Beyond “Identity”

The controversy over renaming of Dnipropetrovsk was already mentioned above. Much less is being said about Dnipro(petrovsk) residents’ almost complete ignorance of who Petrovsky was. Is it important to know about Petrovsky in order to condemn communist crimes? How important is it to know that, by contrast, it was the Soviet authorities who erected a monument to the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko in Lviv and popularized his works, while on the other hand they actually censored Franko and adapted him to the demands of “building communism”? The interconnection of (not) knowing and condemning, the means and methods of disseminating knowledge, the phenomenon of aestheticizing political evil and the “forbidden fruit” – this is far from an exhaustive list of subjects that are practically absent from the current discussion in Ukraine.

Maidan, among other things, became a way for society as a whole to reject the constructed “divisions” that had been presented to us as insurmountable and primordial.

Meanwhile, in the international discussion, there is much being written about whether or not history, memory, and identity are the main causes of Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas. “Identity” and “history” are brought up much more frequently than the desire for political freedoms, corruption, economic problems, group pressure, the behavior of local elites, or the makeup of subversive groups.

Ukraine needs a new analytical language to describe itself and to be described. The existing schemes are too narrow for such a complex society.

Are we capable of thinking about Ukraine beyond essentialized “identity,” “historical memory,” and the “clash of civilizations”? Maidan, among other things, became a way for society as a whole to reject the constructed “divisions” that had been presented to us as insurmountable and primordial. Maidan emphasized something that really was not that sensational anymore: in contemporary Ukraine, the language used for everyday communication does not automatically equal ethnic identification and political loyalty.

Nevertheless, instead of looking for adequate and dynamic methods of analyzing the realities of the Maidan and the post-Maidan era, a significant number of analysts remained loyal to the familiar, stereotypical paradigms of “two Ukraines” or even “ethnic zones.” The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas are still more frequently described using the categories of “identity” and “historical rights” than through a careful contextual analysis of the behavior of key actors (above all, the local elites, the Kyiv government, and the Russian involvement).

Ukraine needs a new analytical language to describe itself and to be described. The existing schemes are too narrow for such a complex society. We also need rather to analyze “identity-talk” by various social actors than to impose the existence of “identity” as the main reason for social action. And proper contextualization as well as cross-regional and transnational perspectives could bring a lot of important insights.

Andriy Portnov

is a historian, director of the Prisma Ukraïna Program at the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin, and Visiting Professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin (since 2012). In 2015, he was International Chair for the History of the Second World War at the Free University of Brussels. In spring 2016, he was a Guest Professor at the SciencesPo Paris, and in spring 2017 at the SciencesPo Lyon. He is the author of five books and numerous articles on the intellectual history, historiography, genocide and memory studies in Eastern and Central Europe.

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