The Case of Decommunization

Mykhailo Haukhman
May 2015

The years of revolution and war of 2013–2015 have shown that the Soviet past is “alive and kicking,” and this does not mean a mere stream of pleasant nostalgia for the lost youth of the older generations. The Soviet past has become the basis for internal and external political manipulations aimed at weakening and discrediting Ukraine.

The public response to this is a new wave of “decommunization”—an attempt to defuse the past-in-the-present. It is worth remembering that the first wave of “decommunization” took place at the end of perestroika and its goal was to get rid of Communist party rule and communist ideology. Nonetheless, the Soviet system’s institutions and personnel remained untouchable, and for this reason Ukraine remained “Soviet, way too Soviet.” Today's decommunization is aimed at liberation from the Soviet mythology of the “Great Patriotic War” and the ideological remnants of the Soviet Union, as embodied in monuments to Communist leaders, as well as in the names of streets and cities.

In this regard, I am particularly interested in the following questions: What is the difference between “decommunization” and “de-Sovietization,” and why do we speak of “decommunization” today specifically, and not “de-Sovietization”? “Decommunization” is opposed to the communist regime and communist ideology. Decommunization is based on the nominal separation between the political sphere and everyday social life: the regime and ideology are separate from society. According to this position, society appears as a victim of the regime and a passive object of the actions of the totalitarian party. This corresponds to the classical theory of totalitarianism, which does not account for internalization of the regime and ideology.

In contrast to this, de-Sovietization, in my opinion, is an attempt to (re)interpret the Soviet period in Ukrainian history, to understand to which extent Ukrainians remain Soviet and how much Ukraine remains a successor to the USSR and the Ukrainian SSR. It is to think about which parts of the Soviet legacy deserve condemnation and which are worth accepting, and to deny Russia a monopoly on the Soviet legacy. De-Sovietization is more complicated and deeper than decommunization. If we don’t carry out de-Sovietization, we will be compelled to return to decommunization again and again. And what does this spring's return to decommunization, in the form of the four new laws, bring with it?

1. The Law of Ukraine “On the Condemnation of the Communist and National-Socialist (Nazi) Totalitarian Regimes in Ukraine and the Ban on the Propagation of their Symbols"

The parallels between the Communist and Nazi regimes, as registered in the law, appear logical: both regimes were totalitarian and were active in Ukraine. Although there is an important difference: Nazism arrived on bayonets from abroad, while Communism was or became “our own."

The law’s phrasing is baffling: “the condemnation of totalitarian regimes and the banning of the propagation of their symbols.” Why no ban on their ideologies? This is no doubt because the law would then need to define Communist and Nazi ideologies. And If one wanted to define them, one would find an assortment of misanthropic positions that would not be unique to Communism or Nazism.

The Nazi regime, in contrast to the Communist one, has not left any traces in contemporary Ukraine. So let us concentrate on the avenues for resisting the Communist legacy proposed by the laws that raise questions:

1) Symbols. The law bans the utilization of Communist or Nazi symbols, with exceptions for scientific-educational activities, military-historical reenactments, and imagery in cemeteries. But what is to be done when these symbols appear in non-educational, non-scientific texts—for example in Facebook posts—which do not contains calls for the establishment of a totalitarian regime? The reversed swastika can be used to explain what Nazism was, to condemn Nazism, or to support it. Can symbols be banned without the law’s condemnation of misanthropic slogans?

It is unclear to me why the law mentions not only the symbols of the Nazi party or Nazi Germany and the the Communist Party or Soviet Union, but the symbols of the “people’s democracies.” As if the state symbol and flags of the German Democratic Republic and socialist Yugoslavia pose a threat to Ukrainian society. At the same time, the flags of contemporary Belarus and the music of the national anthem of contemporary Russia are not covered by the law!

2) Personalities. It is forbidden to preserve and build new monuments to communist, Soviet, and Nazi leaders, and to disseminate their quotations. It is worth remembering that the great poet Pavlo Tychyna was the people’s commissar of enlightenment in the Ukrainian SSR and the head of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR. Will we have to rename all Pavlo Tychyna streets? This ban ought to extend only to those Communist party functionaries who carried out crimes against humanity.

3) City and Street Names. The law forbids toponyms related to the names and pseudonyms of communist and Soviet activists as well as with the activities of the Communist Party. Locals governments are given a six month period for replacing such toponyms. No legislation exists, however, that would provide for local referenda and opinion surveys, which would give members of local communities a chance to choose new names for their cities and central streets.

2. The Law of Ukraine “On the Perpetuation of the Victory over Nazism in the Second World War of 1939–1945"

The law replaces the term “Great Patriotic War” with the non-Soviet term “Second World War” that is used internationally, and to establish the Day of Memory on May 8, which corresponds to European practices. Thus, war is a tragedy, not a celebration. Moreover, the Day of Memory does not replace Victory Day, since Ukrainians are among the victors over Nazism. The formulation “victory over Nazism” is important, because it underscores the victory over one totalitarian regime and does not glorify war.

This law would be worth welcoming were it not for one major reservation: one of its provisions requires the “prohibition of falsification of the history of the Second World War.” Has this law been adopted in post-revolutionary Ukraine or in Putin’s Russia? Does the state take on itself the responsibility to support “correct interpretations”? Is this not a return to Soviet practices, against which these laws are directed?

3. The Law of Ukraine “On the Legal Status and Commemoration of Fighters for the Independence of Ukraine in the 20th Century"

The law contains a list of structures and organizations that carried on a “fight for independence” in the period from the fall of the Romanov dynasty to the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly those who opposed the communist regime. Why did I put the phrase “fight for independence” in quotation marks? The problem is that not all Ukrainian revolutionaries of 1917–1920 pursued the independence of Ukraine, although all of them supported its political distinctiveness, which caused conceptual confusion. But there can be no confusion in law.

The list contains organizations, members of which, through their resistance to Soviet power, in the best case risked finding themselves behind bars, as well as organizations in which membership did not even cause career troubles. In the latter case I have in mind the “Popular Movement of Ukraine for Perestroika” [Rukh] and other oppositional organizations from 1989–1991. It is strange to see them included in the same list as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).

The law declares that the direct result of the activities of the listed organizations was the creation of an independent Ukraine. Affirming such things means not understanding Ukrainian history in the twentieth century. Here the legislators became intellectual captives of the “from ruin to renaissance” narrative of Ukrainian history. According to this interpretation, Ukraine’s time spent under the control of states centered outside of its borders was the time of ruin, and Soviet power supposedly can in no case and in any way be considered a Ukrainian government. But how can the core element of Ukrainian history between 1920 and 1990 be anti-Bolshevik resistance?

One provision of this law baffled me: government agencies and local governments may “grant social guarantees, privileges or other payouts to fighters for the independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century and members of their families.” If we are honoring these persons, then they and/or members of their families must receive “social guarantees, privileges or other payouts."

The law requires the state to ensure the perpetuation of memory about the fighters for independence, and also to hold responsible those who “publicly display a disrespectful attitude” toward fighters for independence and “publicly deny the legitimacy of the struggle for the independence of Ukraine."

This raises a great deal of questions. First of all, the “fighters for independence” themselves were oftentimes in opposition to one another, as was the case with the Ukrainian Central Rada, Hetman Pavlo Skoropads’kyi, and the Directory of the Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1918, or the “Banderite” and “Melnykite” factions of the OUN during the Second World War. Does stating these oppositions qualify as a “disrespectful attitude”? Second, certain Ukrainian forces committed crimes against humanity. For example, in the spring of 1943 the UPA carried out ethnic cleansing against Polish villagers in Volynhia. Does acknowledgment of this act constitute a case of a “disrespectful attitude”? And from here can it be only a step way from being accused of “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for the independence of Ukraine”?

There you have it: we struggled for decommunization—and received an ideological orientation toward history in the “best traditions” of the communist regime.

4. The Law of Ukraine “On Access to the Archives of the Repressive Agencies of the Communist Totalitarian Regime of 1917–1991"

After the fall of the administrative command system and the collapse of the Soviet Union, law enforcement agencies were not reformed: Soviet agencies simply became Ukrainian. The archives of the KGB became the archives of the SBU.1 In contrast, in Poland the secret services of the socialist period were liquidated and their archives were passed along to the Institute of National Memory.

The new archival law was scathingly criticized by the Union of Ukrainian Archivists while it was still in draft form. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINP), seeking to partly follow the Polish model, decided to transfer KGB documents from the archival system of the SBU to its own sectoral archive. The procedure for transferring these documents will take a great deal of time, during which access to these documents will be impossible.

How this transfer will be made and whether it will include a transfer of storage space, archivists, and the archival apparatus from the SBU to the UINP is unclear. Let us not forget that there are SBU archives in each oblast center. The UINP staff is currently working on a plan for transferring the documents. In view of the fact that the laws have already passed, and the president most likely cannot but sign them,2 all that remains is to hope the historians from the UINP can quickly and carefully draw up plans to implement the law.

Conclusions

The four laws are interrelated, since they are aimed at questions that are highly relevant to the civic life and historical consciousness of the Ukrainian nation. For some reason, they were passed without public discussion and without parliamentary debate, on the first reading and through voting for them in one package. Not to mention, without the requisite thorough legal analysis at the stage of writing this legislation.

Socially significant laws cannot be passed in such a conspiratorial manner. Were representatives of the ruling coalition afraid of their political opponents, as well as of their own people? So “we have what we have”:3 four weak and problematic laws.

The post-revolutionary Ukrainian citizenry needs de-Sovietization. Instead, today’s political elite and part of the academic elite has proposed another round of de-communization. I hope that Ukrainian society will not allow for manipulations and the rebirth of Soviet practices of promulgating “truth” under the red guise of Ukrainian patriotism.

KRYTYKA expresses deep gratitude to Markian Dobczansky for his volunteer work in translating this article from Ukrainian.

  • 1.Editor's note: Acronym for the Ukrainian Security Service (Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukraïny).
  • 2.Editor's note: Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, signed the draft laws into law on May 15, 2015.
  • 3.Editor's note: A reference to the famous saying by Ukraine's first President, Leonid Kravchuk, which became the epitome of Ukrainian fatalism: "We have what we have" (Mayemo te, shcho mayemo).

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