Tetiana Zhurzhenko
September 2014

From Borderlands to Bloodlands

2. Upon the ruins of Soviet modernity

The Maidan 2013/14 has been widely interpreted as a delayed attempt to complete the de-Sovietization of Ukraine and to catch up with the 1989 revolutions in eastern and central Europe. Demands for the lustration of the ruling elite and the banning of the Communist Party reflect the popular view that almost all the problems facing Ukraine are connected to the Soviet legacy. Although most of the remaining Lenin monuments were destroyed as the Euromaidan rolled over the country, in the East – notably in Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk as well as dozens of small towns in Donbas – they were not only left standing but received a new lease of life as sites of pro-Russian mobilization and symbols of discontent with the Kyiv government. However, is the clash of values and ideologies in Ukraine really about a final farewell to the remnants of the Soviet system?

Twelve years ago, opposing the thesis of the backwardness and inferiority of the eastern part of the "two Ukraines", I argued that Ukraine had inherited both the industrial, communicational and cultural infrastructure of a modern nation as well as a framework of collective identity from the Soviet era and that this heritage is not necessary something negative. At that time, I also believed that eastern Ukraine, with its industrial and academic potential, human resources and modern urban culture, was a vital part of Ukraine's European project. Eastern Ukrainian cities referred proudly to the legacy of Soviet urbanization and the Ukrainian modernism of the 1920s and early-1930s. Built in 1928, Kharkiv's Derzhprom (in Russian Gosprom) – the former House of State Industry – was one of the first skyscrapers in the early Soviet Union and is still a landmark and a symbol of the city, which likes to present itself as the "first capital of Ukraine" (1919-1934). In Donbas, industrial culture and the working-class ethos formed in the Soviet era was a source of collective pride and a cornerstone of local identity.

Today, more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I am no longer so optimistic. Modernizing Soviet modernity is an almost impossible task, as the epic failure of Dmitri Medvedev's programme for Russian modernization demonstrates.

Of course, de-industrialization is a global trend and not something peculiar to the post-Soviet space. In developed countries, old industrial regions also suffer from structural problems – think of Detroit or the Ruhr valley in Germany. Reviving these regions requires investment, creativity and political will. However, in the case of eastern Ukraine, post-Soviet privatization and the local version of neo-liberal economics that went with it generally failed to bring a solution: on the contrary, the complex problems facing these regions were exacerbated. Rather than being modernized, the industrial assets and facilities inherited from the Soviet era were exploited to their limit. Post-Soviet capitalism in eastern Ukraine was a symbiosis of "red directors" and criminal clans; trade unions and institutionalized workers' movements were largely absent.5 Today, those lucky enough to have a job work on temporary contracts and are entirely at the mercy of the management. Many small, mono-industrial towns – especially in Donbas – have become depopulated; people have either left to work in Russia, joined smuggler gangs or turned to small-scale subsistence agriculture. The urban infrastructure is obsolete and local mayors are considered successful when they provide some cosmetic improvements to city centres. The European football championship of 2012 left behind a few stadiums and hotels in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv, but had nothing like the impact on the economy promised by the Yanukovych government.

The Ukrainian variant of post-Soviet capitalism corresponds to a specific type of political system rooted in eastern Ukraine. Donbas in particular lacked political diversity and competition, and it provided the model that the regional elites tried to impose on the entire country. The political monopoly of the Party of Regions, which represented the interests of a single oligarchic clan, prevented the emergence of political alternatives. As the strongest political holding company in the country, the Party of Regions could afford to ignore the electorate and to disregard ideology. As the Ukrainian political scientists Oleksandr Fisun and Oleksiy Krysenko have argued, this model laid a time bomb under the Ukrainian state, as elections turned into formal procedures for legitimizing an unfair and opaque system of power.6 Social mobility was blocked and the population was employed at outdated, Soviet-era enterprises heavily subsidized out of the state budget. Unlike in other regions, there were almost no alternative elites in Donbas, which explains why local Euromaidans were marginal and why the anti-Kyiv protests that started in spring 2014 mainly attracted the losers of the post-Soviet transition. Similar tendencies could be observed elsewhere in the East of the country, for example in Kharkiv, where the governor Mykhailo Dobkin and mayor Hennadiy Kernes monopolized the political resources and took control of all financial flows, both public and private.

The Party of Regions, which claimed to represent Russian speaking eastern Ukraine, reflected the anti-democratic, anti-liberal political culture of their electorate which was interested less in representation than in protection. Paternalism – from food packages handed out to pensioners before elections to promises of protection from the "fascist threat" coming from western Ukraine – was the cornerstone of the Party of Regions' apolitical politics. Its bosses tried to ignore the Euromaidan protests and hired people – usually public service employees – to demonstrate in support of the Yanukovych government. Criminal bully-boys were used to harass Euromaidan activists and beat up protesters on the streets. Known as titushki, these former sportsmen were often informally affiliated to the police and used as body guards and thug squads in local business wars, once again revealing the mafia background of parts of the local political elite.

Donbas turned out to be an extreme case. Yet many other eastern and southern Ukrainian cities – their frustrated populations still suffering from the economic consequences of the Soviet collapse, their business and political milieus controlled by Donetsk "overseers" planted in the local police and security services – provided the social and political basis for a UkrainianVendée. Hence, it is not the remnants of Soviet modernity that prevents the Europeanization of Ukraine but a monstrous neoplasm that has grown upon its ruins. That is why the aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric of many Euromaidan activists misses the target. For them, the Lenin monuments are markers of a Soviet identity that has survived in the economically depressed industrial enclaves of the Ukrainian East. But what is currently confronting the Kyiv government has little to do with Soviet ideology and values; instead, it represents a phenomenon referred to by the Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov ten years ago as "negative identity"7 which operates primarily with the category of the "enemy". From the perspective of pro-Russian protesters, this is the "Banderists" and "nationalists" from Kyiv and western Ukraine, who want to destroy "our monuments" and steal "our past". The Lenin monuments thus have become a site and symbol of pro-Russian mobilization – "empty signifiers" that carry no ideological value but mark local identity as being "anti-Kyiv".

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