"Decommunization" and Academic Discussion

Volodymyr Viatrovych
May 2015

After the Ukrainian parliament adopted the laws on decommunization, a number of myths have appeared that are rather distant from the text of the laws themselves. Some of them came about from a careless reading of these legal documents, and others from the critics’ desire to delegitmize the laws themselves. The maelstrom of struggle against the non-existent dangers of decommunization even pulled in Ukrainianists from abroad, who recently appealed to the President to veto the laws.

The letter, however, does not analyze the circumstances under which the Ukrainian parliament approved the “decommunization package,” nor does it analyze the international and internal Ukrainian context. The letter does not mention that similar laws were adopted by other Eastern European countries in order to overcome the totalitarian legacy of Communism. These steps were an integral element of democratic transformations, along with reforms in the economic and political realms.

The lack of a decommunization policy in Ukraine after its declaration of independence in 1991 was in part responsible for the revanchist neo-Soviet regime of Yanukovych. The persistent totalitarian past still stands in the way of Ukraine's development as a European, democratic state. It is precisely on this island of “Sovietness,” which for historic reasons remained strongest in the Donbas and in Crimea, that Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is taking place. The bearers of Soviet values (and not ethnic Russians or Russophones, as Russian propaganda would have it) are today the main source of manpower for the terrorist bands of the so-called DNR and LNR.1 For this reason, the question of the decommunization of Ukraine is today not only related to social policy, but to security policy.

This is the reason the four laws were adopted with clear majorities. This is why pro-Russian deputies from the Opposition Bloc did not vote for them. The authors of the letter to the President referred to these deputies as deputies with “dissenting votes,” but they did not indicate that this position was born not out of their respect for free speech, which was supposedly limited by these laws.

The absolute majority of those who did not vote on April 9, 2015 confidently hit the “yes” button on January 16, 2014, pushing Ukraine into the arms of a pro-Russian dictatorship.2 It is thus strange that the signatories of this letter, who regard themselves as defenders of freedom, are alarmed that these people did not vote.

It is also strange that the experts' warnings regard two laws, which are directly tied to defending the values of freedom: the first [law draft 2538-1 - Ed.] pays respect to participants of the struggle for independence, and the second [law draft 2558 - Ed.] condemns Communist totalitarianism, one of the most striking personifications of unfreedom in the past century.


Let us now turn directly to an analysis of the criticisms. What disturbs the appeal’s authors most (as this is noted in point no. 1), is that the law on recognizing fighters for independence implements criminal responsibility for not recognizing the legitimacy of “the struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the 20th century."

Perhaps an adequate knowledge of the Ukrainian language was lacking, even among respected Ukrainianists who speak other languages, such that they could not read the text of the Law of Ukraine “On the Legal Status and Commemoration of Fighters for the Independence of Ukraine in the 20th century” carefully enough to notice that the phrase “criminal responsibility” does not appear in the text being criticized.3

Likewise, in the other law being criticized—on condemning the Communist and Nazi regimes—the ban on the use of their symbols does not extend to academic research. Because of this, the laws adopted by Ukrainian parliamentarians will not in any way influence academic discourse.4

Only one of the laws of the “decommunization package" can influence academic life — that on opening the KGB archives.5 I am sure that the effect of this law will be exclusively positive, as it will allow a number of extraordinarily interesting facts to enter the discussion, facts that were previously inaccessible. But the signatories of the letter did not analyze this law, adopted along with the other three.

So, as we see, the concern about the possible interference of politicians in academic discussions, which was one of the main reasons behind the letter, is unnecessary.


Another motive of the authors is the desire not to allow Ukraine’s recognition of members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as participants in the struggle for independence.

In their opinion, the UPA “slaughtered tens of thousands of Poles in one of the most heinous acts of ethnic cleansing in the history of Ukraine,” while the OUN is “one of the most extreme political groups in Western Ukraine between the wars,” and an organization that “took part in anti-Jewish pogroms in Ukraine."

Of course, this characterization of the Ukrainian nationalist underground is present in discussions about its place and role in history. But this is only one of the opinions that has the right to exist.

As do other theses that argue that the image of UPA soldiers as xenophobes and anti-Semites was masterfully created over the decades by Soviet propaganda; and that this stereotype unfortunately still has a significant influence on historiography, although its influence is decreasing as previously secret archives are opened.


The authors of the letter are for some reason convinced that granting the legal status of fighters for independence to members of the OUN and the UPA will harm further research into the history of these structures. But an analogous status for participants of anticommunist movements in the Baltic countries and in Eastern Europe has not harmed research.

  • For example, Article 3 of the Czech law from July 9, 1993 on the illegality of the Communist regime and the struggle with it recognizes individual and collective resistance of citizens against this regime as “legitimate, fair, and morally justified” and that it is “worthy of respect."
  • Another law on participants of the struggle with communism from July 20, 2011 recognizes the forms of this resistance, specifically, “armed or substantially similar struggle” and grants participants of this kind of fight the status of war veterans.
  • The Polish law from January 24, 1991 on combatants and other people who were victims of repression during the war and the post-war period, grants legal status to those who took part in battles and insurgencies or were members of military formations or organizations that fought for the sovereignty and independence of Poland.

    This list included, specifically, participants of underground organizations and partisan units from World War II, and also those who participated in the struggle with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). This law requires “a deeply respectful attitude” towards combatants and victims of repression.

  • The Lithuanian law from January 23, 1997 on the legal status of participants of occupation resistance movements declares the entire period from June 1940 to March 1990 as a period of occupation. The Soviet and Nazi regimes that existed at that time on Lithuanian territory are recognized as illegal. Not only were members of the official structures of the Lithuanian state included as participants in the occupation resistance movement, but members of the various underground and partisan formations were included as well.

Granting the corresponding status to participants of resistance movements or the fight against occupation regimes has not harmed research in Poland, nor in the Czech Republic, nor in Lithuania. This also includes, in particular, the actions of participants of such a struggle that may have a criminal nature.

The same holds true of the Ukrainian law, which not only does not limit similar research, but on the contrary obliges the state to ensure “the comprehensive study of the history of the struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the 20th century and its fighters” and to support the activity of non-governmental organizations and institutions, which carry out similar research activities.

After all, Article 2 of the Law of Ukraine “On the Holodomor of 1932–33 in Ukraine,” in force since 2006, recognizes public denial of the Holodomor as illegal. This does not in any way impede comprehensive study of the Holodomor.

I am convinced that the adoption of this law will become a powerful incentive for the de-politicization of the history of the OUN and the UPA. The question of their interpretation will at long last not be a matter for politicians, to be discussed during elections. This will in turn reanimate academic discussion, since a number of scholars refused to enter this discussion due to its excessive politicization.

Unfortunately, the authors of the letter, who regard themselves as experts in Ukrainian matters, did not fully realize why the recognition of these partisans is so important to today’s citizens of Ukraine. The history of the UPA, particularly its resistance to the Soviet totalitarian regime, is not simply a dramatic period of history. It is a part of Ukrainian culture. Partisan folklore includes hundreds of folk songs and is one of its richest among folklore sources—this is evidence of how seriously their struggle has affected the consciousness of Ukrainians. It has become an integral part of the tradition of the struggle for independence all the way to our times.

As a symbol of the opposition movement to the Soviet regime or to the corrupted governments of Kuchma and Yanukovych, the red-and-black flag could be seen at all three Ukrainian Maidan protests — in 1990, 2004, and 2013-2014. The Maidan Self-Defense divided itself into “hundreds,” named after the main tactical divisions of the UPA, and the Banderite “Glory to Ukraine!” became the official Maidan greeting. Ukrainian soldiers, who are defending Ukrainian independence and European freedom in the East, regard their struggle as a continuation of that of the partisans.

A political signal—at the highest level—that the Ukrainian State honors those who fought for its independence is extremely important for today’s soldiers and volunteers, because it means that they themselves will not be forgotten or dishonored.


Recognizing the criminal nature of the Communist regime is another cause for concern for the letter’s authors. In their opinion, one cannot speak about a condemnation of the entire Soviet period, because the 1920s became a time of the blossoming of Ukrainian culture.

But should this blossoming, which eventually grew into an executed renaissance in the subsequent decade, serve to justify a regime guilty in the intentional murder of millions of Ukrainians? Should the brutal reprisals against Ukrainian partisans and wealthy peasants in the 1920s remain out of the view of my colleagues?

Should successes in Hitler’s economic policies stand in the way of recognizing him as a criminal?

I deliberately raise the comparison with Nazism, because it appears that it is precisely the equation of both totalitarian regimes that disturbs the signatories.

To me, they are equally criminal, and thus all of these regimes' victims deserve remembrance and respect equally, no matter where they were killed — in Auschwitz or in the Gulag.


Finally, the last remark in the appeal altogether reminds one of the constantly repeated theses of contemporary Russian propaganda about “the Kyiv fascist regime’s disdain for war veterans.” “Those who regard victory over Nazi Germany as a pivotal historical event should neither feel intimidated nor excluded from the nation,” the letter reads.

Perhaps the authors lacked the patience to read another one of the four decommunization laws, “On the Perpetuation of the Victory over Nazism in the Second World War,” which, among other things, declares a respectful attitude toward the memory of victory over Nazism in the Second World War, toward war veterans, toward participants of the Ukrainian liberation movement, and toward the victims of Nazism.6

Red Army veterans that fought against Nazism are among those recognized as war veterans by Ukrainian law. Monuments and memorial sites dedicated to participants and victims of the war are to be maintained and preserved.

In addition, even the adopted limits on the public use of Soviet symbols do not affect monuments connected with resistance to and expulsion of the Nazi occupiers from Ukraine, nor to gravestones and any monuments located in cemeteries.

The signatories of the letter call themselves “scholars and experts long committed to Ukraine’s regeneration and freedom.” And there truly are such people among them. But not all of them are.

The publications of certain of its authors on “primordial Ukrainian collaborationism” and “the threat of Ukrainian fascism” not only undermined understanding of social processes in Ukraine, but were also actively utilized and continue being actively used by Russian propaganda in an information war against Ukraine in recent years.

It appears that the misuse of the first group’s trust by the second group was a reason for the appearance of this appeal, which itself has already become an instrument in this war.

  • 1.Editor's note: DNR stands for Donetsk People's Republic; LNR stands for Luhansk People's Republic.
  • 2.Editor's note: In response to massive protests around the country, on January 16, 2014, Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) passed a package of laws severely restricting freedoms of speech and assembly. These laws were later dubbed "dictatorship laws" by Ukrainian intellectuals, scholars, media, and civil activists.
  • 3.Editor's note: The exact formulation of this stipulation in Article 6, no. 2 is as follows: "Public denial of the fact of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century is considered derision of the memory of the fighters for the Ukrainian independence in the 20th century, humiliation of the Ukrainian people's dignity, and is unlawful" (In Ukrainian: Публічне заперечення факту правомірності боротьби за незалежність України у ХХ столітті визнається наругою над пам'яттю борців за незалежність України у XX столітті, приниженням гідності Українського народу і є протиправним.)
  • 4.Editor's note: The exact formulation of this stipulation in Article 4 of the draft law is as follows: "Prohibition does not extend to the use of symbols of the communist totalitarian regime, the symbols of the national-socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regime in museum exhibitions, thematic exhibitions, scholarly and instructional handbooks; textbooks and other materials of educational and scholarly character (under the condition that this does not lead to the denial of the criminal nature of the communist totalitarian regime in 1917-1991, and or the criminal character of the national-socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regime); in scholarly research and dissemination of its results in a way that is not prohibited by Ukrainian law; on headstones, monuments and memorial signs that are placed on the territory of cemeteries (graveyards); during instruction about or reconstruction (including historical reenactment) of historical events; and it does not extend to collecting of such symbols" (In Ukrainian: Заборона не поширюється на використання символіки комуністичного тоталітарного режиму, символіки націонал-соціалістичного (нацистського) тоталітарного режиму в експозиціях музеїв, тематичних виставках, наукових, навчальних посібниках, підручниках та інших матеріалах освітнього і наукового характеру (за умови, що це не призводить до заперечення злочинного характеру комуністичного тоталітарного режиму 1917-1991 років, злочинного характеру націонал-соціалістичного (нацистського) тоталітарного режиму), під час наукових досліджень та поширення їх результатів у не заборонений законодавством України спосіб, на надгробках, пам’ятниках та пам’ятних знаках, розташованих на території кладовищ (цвинтарів), під час викладення або реконструкції (зокрема історичної) історичних подій, а також на колекціонування такої символіки.)
  • 5.Editor's note: Draft law no. 2540 "On Access to the Archives of the Repressive Agencies of the Communist Totalitarian Regime of 1917-1991." Full text of the draft law is available in Ukrainian here
  • 6.Editor's note: Draft law no. 2539 "On the Perpetuation of the Victory over Nazism in the Second World War" is available in Ukrainian here.

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