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Decommunisation in Ukraine. Implementation, pros and cons

The word “decommunisation” has become a familiar one in Ukrainian society. It is a means of fulfilling the mandate of the so-called Memory Laws of the spring of 2015, and the programme of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINR), founded originally in 2006, but organised in its current form as subordinate to the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers in November 2014. The process has involved the removal of Lenin statues, of other statues linked to the Soviet period as well as Soviet symbols and monuments. It also entails changes of names in cities, towns, and streets and their replacement with more acceptable ones not linked to the Communist period.

September 16, 2016 - David Marples - Articles and Commentary

Falling of Lenin in Khmelnytskyi park

Photo: Volodymyr D-k (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

 The process

Some features of decommunisation predate the laws, particularly the removal of Lenins, which began in the late Soviet period in parts of Western Ukraine and accelerated during the EuroMaidan protests of 2013-14 that resulted in the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych. The protests and the ensuing conflict with Russia, which has resulted in the loss of Crimea and the occupation of eastern territories in Donetsk and Luhansk regions by separatist regimes, are closely linked to decommunisation and the way in which it is being introduced. The Memory Laws, in turn, were also passed with unusual haste, and with minimal discussion in the Ukrainian Parliament.

One of the authors of the Memory Laws and the leader of the decommunisation programme is historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, the head of the UINR. In early August, Viatrovych took part in a series of lectures that formed a joint collaboration between UINR, Ukrainian Radio, and the public organisation Information Initiatives. His talk “Decommunisation as Rethinking the Past” summarised the main ideas behind the reform.

For Viatrovych, decommunisation means “rethinking the past” and “a chance for the future.” Without it, in his view, Ukraine cannot become a “developed democratic country” in the manner of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic States, as opposed to the unreformed states such as Russia, Belarus, and the Central Asian republics. This reform did not take place, as perhaps expected, after Ukraine became independent in 1991 because there was no change of political elites and the old Communist leadership remained in power. The first change came with the Orange Revolution, which led to the creation of the UINR and focus on the Famine of 1932-33 (Holodomor) as a crime of the Communist totalitarian regime. The government then opened the Ukrainian archives, at a time when Russia was heading in the opposite direction by rehabilitating the Soviet past. As a result, history, states Viatrovych, “became a battleground between Ukraine and Russia just like the disputes over gas prices and deliveries.”

He continues by noting that after 2010, President Yanukovych halted these initiatives and began to rehabilitate the Soviet past, but the EuroMaidan of 2014, “an anti-Soviet and anti-Communist rebellion,” terminated his regime. The laws of 2015 then gave decommunisation a new framework. Parliament passed four laws: commemoration of the Second World War without Soviet militarist pathos: a law on fighters for independence [of Ukraine in the 20th century] that allowed the proper veneration of such heroes; a law allowing access to archival collections that eventually will be transferred to a new Archive of National Memory; and a law on Nazi and Communist symbols and a ban on their propaganda. According to Viatrovych, Ukraine was “the most Leninised country in the world” in terms of Lenins per square meter (over 5,000 compared to 6,000 in Russia).

In conclusion, Viatrovych maintains that decommunisation is “not about forgetting the totalitarian past, but learning the truth about it.” By changing city and street names, Ukrainian citizens learn about the past, specifically about the “criminal nature of the Communist regime and why we should remember its crimes.” Ultimately, the goal of decommunisation is to make “Ukraine’s democratic development” irreversible, thus Viatrovych equates anti-Communism with democratic progress and assumes that the latter is a process naturally derived from the expulsion from public memory of Communist heritage and symbols.

Decommunisation in practice

Though many of the name changes to date have occurred without rancour, there have been some notable exceptions, as well as many instances when activists, frustrated with the tardiness of local officials, took matters into their own hands. In these cases, groups of people brought their own tools to demolish the monument surreptitiously, usually at night. The attitude of the UINR to such activity is one of benign resignation, often with the argument that the authorities in question did not respond promptly enough to the call for changes.

For example, Oleksii Byk narrates the story of how six young men and one woman “decommunised” the entire district of Chornukhyns’kyi (Poltava Region) in one night. Arriving from Kyiv in a microbus, bringing with them a ladder, wire ropes, and a hammer to attack “three Lenins, one Marx, and one Chapayev.” These monuments were located in communities made up mainly of elderly people who “tenderly cared about their idols.” Evidently local activists had requested the assistance of the Kyiv gang, while neither the communities nor the administrations in this district “understand why [decommunisation] is needed and why it is important. Symbols form consciousness, consciousness forms reality.”

The biggest obstacle to renaming cities was Kirovohrad in central Ukraine, named after the party leader of Leningrad who was assassinated on December 1st 1934, the event that some argue led directly to the Stalinist Purges of 1936-38. Local authorities wanted to use the name Elizavethrad, which, Viatrovych argued, was unacceptable because of its tsarist connotations (supporters had argued that the name was in honour of St. Elizabeth, declaring that the city never had a church dedicated to that saint. Eventually it was renamed Kropyvnytsky, the third choice of citizens. Viatrovych declared that the Opposition Bloc made up of former Party of Regions’ supporters was resisting decommunisation and supported court cases against it for political reasons.

Though Viatrovych has remained the ostensible director of decommunisation, Poroshenko has not remained on the sidelines. In early June a journalist asked the president about his attitude to the renaming of Komsomolsk, which now bears the name Horishni Plavni. Poroshenko responded “Bravo!” He commented that he began the reform and expressed his certainty that the new name had the approval of the territorial community. If a community fails to reach a decision, then the Supreme Soviet has the authority to override its authority. Central control, however, was not the best method in his view. The community should have the responsibility, but should choose a name not linked to “the aggressor” (Russia) and not linked to Communism. Everything else was feasible.

Decommunisation affects more than physical entities. It has also had a significant impact on the approach to the Soviet past. On July 27th, Liliya Hrynevych, the Minister of Education and Science, signed Decree 826, revising the current educational systems of the History of Ukraine, especially for Grades 10 and 11 in the Ukrainian school system. The revisions follow recommendations put forward last year by the UINR and encompass more lengthy and revised treatment in school textbooks of a number of events, including: the Wars of Soviet Russia with the Ukrainian National Republic; “the Soviet occupation of Ukraine”; the Declaration of the Ukrainian State Act (1941)—the reference is to the controversial declaration of independence by the Bandera faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists which entered Lviv at the time of the June 22nd 1941 German invasion; the contribution of the Ukrainian People to the Victory over Nazism; the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944; the Deportation of Ethnic Ukrainians from Poland in 1944-46; and the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.

The apparent selectivity of the list of topics to be revised has already led to some heated discussions, not least on the question of Polish-Ukrainian relations during the war and early post-war years. At the end of July, Sejm – the lower chamber of the Polish Parliament passed a resolutionrecognising the events in Volyn in 1943-44 as genocide of the Polish population by Ukrainian nationalists of OUN-UPA. Viatrovych had responded quickly to the initial draft plan as a “provocation,” which he attributed to a quest to achieve a title for Poland as the nation that suffered most during the war. He asserted that Polish and Ukrainian politicians had exhausted the Volyn issue between 1997 and 2003 and that subsequently the question should have been left to historians. The problem is that the boundary between politicians and historians, as he should well know, has become invisible. Poles, he claimed, need to comprehend the Ukrainian view of events in order for Ukrainians to understand theirs.

Support for decommunisation

Some analysts have expressed unreserved support for decommunisation. Rostyslav Khotyn, a prolific journalist for RFE/RL, Den’ and other media, justifies such changes as part of the fight for independence that arose to some extent because in 1991, Ukraine attained its independence too easily. He feels that a conflict with Russia was “inevitable” and that Ukrainians should have been better prepared for it. A major goal of decommunisation is to change the consciousness of Ukraine’s citizens. Today the designation of Ukraine as a former Soviet republic is no longer valid, he maintains, because the Revolution of Dignity, the war in Donbas and decommunisation have “severed the umbilical cord that linked Ukraine with its Soviet past and strengthened the independence of the state.” In other words, EuroMaidan and decommunisation are directly linked and the former took place as a way to disassociate Ukraine from its Soviet legacy.

Serhii Riabenko, an associate member of the UINR, notes that most Central and East European countries experienced decommunisation after the collapse of the Communist regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ukraine followed them in part, but it was a grassroots operation limited to the western regions and the city of Kyiv. But the current reform is not simply about renaming streets and removing monuments, but rather to condemn both Soviet and Nazi crimes and ensure that they are not repeated. The goal is to change the consciousness of Ukraine’s citizens and EuroMaidan and Russian aggression (my italics) gave a serious boost in convincing Ukrainian citizens that they belong to the Ukrainian political nation. Ukraine in Riabenko’s view now belongs to the EU region rather than those countries of “classical Soviet space.”

In similar vein is an opinion piece on Radio Svoboda by Serhii Hrabovs’kyi, who notes the success of decommunisation in Western Ukraine after local and regional elections in 1990. But it ended there, in his view, because the new governing elite, made up of former nomenklatura and national democrats, decided that the population was averse to radical changes. Instead the electoral process was undemocratic, and the Communist Party legalised, thanks to “red directors” and semi-criminal business circles. The latter preferred a passive population unable to develop its own initiatives. By 1994, decommunisation ended. Under Yanukovych’s presidency, the “criminal and oligarchic regime” preserved and expanded Communist symbols and Soviet traditions to prevent the formation of a modern Ukrainian nation. The stoppage of the reform resulted in two Russian efforts to take over Ukraine, prior to the Orange Revolution and under the regime of Yanukovych. Today, the changes in Ukraine constitute in Hrabovs’kyi’s view a form of decolonisation and express Ukrainian’s self-assertion. The apparent contradiction between a state controlled reform and self-assertion is never addressed here.

The reform also receives praise from Levko Lukianenko, formerly a prominent dissident, the leader of the Ukrainian Republican Party and an ambassador of Ukraine to Canada, who perceives the process of eliminating Communism as the removal of the legacy of two occupations—that of Imperial Russia before 1917 and that of Communist Russia installed after 1917. In his view Russian Communism was merely a stage in the development of the Russian Empire under which Ukraine was the chief victim. Today Ukraine has accomplished “great steps, very great steps.” There are no longer people defending monuments of Stalin (!) and Lenin and when they were demolished, there were no tears for them. In Lukianenko’s opinion, the main goals of decommunisation have already been attained.

Opposition to decommunisation

Though there seems to be quite widespread opposition to decommunisation in Ukrainian society, it appears, as noted by Oxana Shevel, to be less ideological than directed against the costs and sheer inconvenience of the changes. Taxi drivers in Vynnytsia, for example, reportedly complain that GPS navigators have not been updated with the new names and locals often grumble that they do not know the new names and who is responsible for them. Nevertheless, there has been serious criticism particularly against its more controversial aspects, such as the renaming of Moskovskyi Avenue in Kyiv after Stepan Bandera, the leader of the revolutionary wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the destruction of monuments that are considered valuable works of art. We will limit the discussion here to two debates: that over Bandera and the changes made to the façade of the Ukrainian House in Kyiv.

One critic of the veneration of Bandera is eminent historian of the Holodomor, Stanislav Kul’chyts’kyi, who comments that half of the population of Ukraine does not know who he was or knows him only from the Soviet interpretation. Bandera’s glorification by the former president Viktor Yushchenko divided Ukrainian society because it was not preceded by significant educational work about the subject. During the war Bandera’s name “was like a banner” for those who fought against Poles, Germans, and especially the Soviet Union. Ironically, however, he took no part in the Second World War, most of which he spent in a German concentration camp (Sachsenhausen, near Berlin) in contrast to the leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Roman Shukhevych, who was killed fighting for Ukraine. For Kul’chyts’kyi Bandera’s role in the history of Ukrainian nationalism, both during the war and afterward in Munich, was a negative one.

In early August 2016, the leaders of twenty-nine Jewish community and public organisations published an open letter condemning the heroisation of OUN and UPA by the UINR. Included were Borys Fuksman (Jewish Confederation of Ukraine), Arkadii Monastyrs’kyi (Jewish Forum of Ukraine), Oleksandr Levin (Jewish Religious Community of Kyiv) and Oleksandr Feldman (Ukrainian Jewish Committee). The letter describes the former as anti-Semitic in nature and the latter’s actions as “irresponsible.” It claims that the participation of OUN and UPA in killing thousands of Jews during the Holocaust is a proven fact and UINR’s policies of denial and obfuscation of their actions offends the memory of one million Jews killed in Ukraine by Nazis and local collaborators. The signatories protest therefore not only the appearance of Bandera Avenue in Kyiv, but also Shukhevych Street. The letter was evidently prompted by the celebration of June 30th (1941) in Ukraine and the laying of flowers on a memorial to Dmytro Maron-Oliinyk, a man who according to Eduard Dolyns’kyi, the head of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, was involved in pogroms in Western Ukraine in 1941.

Dolyns’kyi elaborates on his opposition in particular by referring to the law on “fighters for Ukrainian independence” of April 9th 2015, which he finds “nonsensical” – “the law forces you to respect and love certain organisations and forbids any criticism of them.” In his view this obligation flies in the face of the most basic principles of democracy and is incompatible with the European values that Ukraine wishes to emulate. “Everyone knows well,” he continues, that OUN and UPA were anti-Semitic in their ideology and actions. UINR’s statements to the contrary, he maintains, qualify as Holocaust denial. Dolyns’kyi would like Ukraine to make a decision on its stance toward the Holocaust and to understand that the goal of Ukrainian independence cannot be justified if it involves the genocide of the Jewish population.

In addition to the Volyn issue, the commemoration of June 30th 1941 has sparked frenzied debates in Ukrainian society. But perhaps it is the roughshod and sometimes violent methods (or lack of them) by which street names and monuments are changed that has aroused most bitterness. A case in point is the enforced removal of a sculpture by Valentyn Borysenko from the early 1980s on Ukrainian House, ordered by the current director of the building Yurii Stelmashchuk, who claims that it needed to be removed in accordance with decommunisation and that it will be transferred to a new Museum of Totalitarianism and replaced by yellow and blue national flags that will glow in the dark. A short video of the event, however, demonstrates that the sculpture was being destroyed, rather than removed, by power cutters. The protests against the bas-relief’s removal originate in part from the prominence of the building in European Square at the north end of Khreshchatyk Street, which played a central role in the EuroMaidan protests.

Art expert Olha Balashova quotes an article entitled “Exit on station ‘Ukraine’”, written by journalist Oksana Forostyna: “We are building a community united through hate, faith, and memory: hatred toward sovok [emphasis in the original], faith in freedom, memory about escape.” She also cites Olena Mokrousova, an associate of the centre to protect the cultural legacy at Kyiv City Council, who stated that the Ukrainian House had received the status of a cultural heritage building in 1996, which was renewed in 2011. But two recent requests to the Ministry of Culture to include the building in the state register were rejected. Mokrousova perceives the act of removal as a “Bolshevik-like desire to destroy everything [old] and build a new world.” But the bas-relief was not breaking any law as it depicted neither totalitarian symbols nor Soviet or party leaders, comments Balashova.

The perpetrator (Stelmashchuk) and two critics – Nazar Bilyk, the grandson of Borysenko and Vladyslava Osmak, the head of the Centre for Urban Studies at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, appeared on Hromadske Radio on August 20th. Stelmashchuk declared that the sculpture met all the criteria of “symbols of the totalitarian regime”: the sign Avrora denoting the cruiser that sparked the October Revolution of 1917, the quotation from Lenin (“study, study, and once more study”) and the hammer and sickle. He was acting fully within his powers in ordering its removal, so close to the memorials of the “heavenly hundred” (those who died of gunfire in the Maidan in February 2014). Moreover, he has acceded to the request of Borysenko’s grandson to remove the bas-relief in a more professional manner and save it (currently discarded monuments that are considered worth saving are being stored at Kyiv’s Zhuliany Airport.)

The other speakers had little time for Stelmaschuk’s explanation. Bilyk pointed out that the bas-relief depicted the workers and their faith in a bright future. It lacked any outright Communist propaganda other than by association. He supports decommunisation but in a normal and civilised fashion. The removal of the sculpture required at least 2-3 weeks and should not have been undertaken with power cutters. Most of all the decision should not have been made by one person but by a group of experts. Osmak was more forthright and commented that the bas-relief was clearly exempt from decommunisation. She accused Stelmashchuk of abusing his authority and violating the Law on Cultural Legacy. Decommunists, in her view, are behaving exactly like Communists and she scoffed at the planned replacement display.

Two days later, the radio station interviewed cultural expert Diana Klochko, who emphasised the uniqueness of the bas-relief as a form of angular engraving technique. Borysenko’s work was treated “in the Sovok tradition.” In reality it depicted a myth about the Ukrainian people. Borysenko, she notes, was a man of great humour and included in the relief portraits of his family and a self-portrait. It was in short “an act of mischief,” an ironical retort to the commission from Moscow to construct it. In this regard it was not unique as there are many monuments constructed during the Communist period in Ukraine that include hidden Christian motifs and links to antiquity. Borysenko, she adds, was neither a dissident nor pro-Soviet, and his other works devoted to Ivan Franko, Ivan Fedorov, and Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi are still intact. She notes some decommunisers want an amputation of the Soviet past without regard for aesthetics, but others—the majority—recognise that one cannot fill up every space with tridents.

The furore over Ukrainian House is replicated with statues, in particular the radicals’ plans to dismantle the monument to former Red Army commander Nikolay Shchors (announced on the Facebook page of Mykola Kokhanivs’kyi) and wartime general Nikolay Vatutin (both are currently still in place) and the apparent savagery with which activists toppled the memorial plaque to Soviet Marshal Georgiy Zhukov in Odesa. Three other monuments and plaques of Zhukov in that city were as yet still in place in mid-August 2016, but the region’s governor, the former Georgian president Mikeil Saakashvhili, had approved their removal in accordance with decommunisation. Interestingly the inclusion of Zhukov crosses a barrier of sorts in that memorials of Soviet heroes of the Second World War, including the infamous Motherland Memorial (1981) on the hill overlooking the city of Kyiv, have hitherto been left untouched.

Controversial and politicised

Decommunisation is a result of the EuroMaidan protests and the conflict in the eastern regions as well as the Russian annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014. The physical transformation of Ukraine from the Soviet era in many ways seems natural. It is a symbolic manifestation of the political changes that have taken place since the departure of former president Yanukovych. It also accompanies a wide reform that seeks to decentralise decision making from the centre to the regions to ensure that the latter gain more autonomy over their affairs. The reality, on the other hand, is that the way it has been conducted to date is very similar to the way the Communist system was imposed in the past. The Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, working closely with the government of Petro Poroshenko, is making decisions that necessarily affect all parts of Ukraine, but which essentially are rather crude interpretations of the recent past, and the Soviet period specifically. Moreover, the narrowness of the solicited expertise in defining the various events, freedom fighters, villains, etc., ensures that the reform will be controversial. Not surprisingly some of the fiercest critics of decommunisation, such as Vasyl Rasevych of the Institute of Urban Studies in Lviv, are professional historians, both in Ukraine and abroad.

In some respects, the nature of the reform seems justifiable. Ukraine has lost territory, its relationship with Russia is one of outright hostility, and the losses and destruction caused by the conflict in the east has served to solidify ranks and united them in the cause of preserving and protecting independent Ukraine. But as with EuroMaidan itself, there is always the danger of giving way to minority extremist forces, particularly those who wish to replace Communist memorials and Communist “heroes” with others that can charitably be called radical nationalists or for that matter a list of acceptable organisations according to laws passed by the Parliament. Some of these are no more representative of Ukrainian society than their Communist predecessors and equally divisive. Monument, memorials, and street names that might be perfectly acceptable in Lviv or Ternopil are alien to, say, Odesa, or the separatist controlled Luhansk and Donetsk.

Furthermore, if Ukraine is to be truly unified on a lasting basis and solidify its territorial integrity, with or without parts of the eastern regions (assuming Crimea to be lost), then its leaders need to treat the past with more care and sensitivity and, critically, with patience. Above all the impression of recent events is overwhelmingly one of measures introduced in great haste, which in turn brings unwonted destruction, sometimes of architecture of cultural value, and sometimes of sculptures that perhaps have no place in Ukraine (Vatutin, for example), but surely deserve some scholarly debate. The issue is that in this country, history, at least at the political centre, has become politicised and propagandised, which paradoxically replicates past practices. Had he witnessed the progress of decommunisation to date, Lenin would surely have had a smirk on his face even as Ukraine becomes “deleninised.”

David R. Marples is a Distinguished University Professor of Russian and East European History and currently Chairman of the Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta. He is the author of fourteen single-authored books, including Our Glorious Past: Lukashenka’s Belarus and the Great Patriotic War (2014) and Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine (2008). He has published over 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals. He has also edited three books on nuclear power and security in the former Soviet Union, contemporary Belarus, and most recently Ukraine’s Euromaidan: Analyses of a Civil Revolution (Stuttgart: ibidem Verlag, 2015, co-edited with Frederick Mills).

*The author gratefully acknowledges the research assistance on this paper of Ernest Gyidel, PhD Candidate in History at the University of Alberta.

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