Ukraine's "Decommunization": Struggle Against the Past and Its Inconsistencies

Serhiy Lunin
May 2015

The laws adopted on April 9, 2015, have provoked a flood of criticism from those espousing liberal and other positions, not least among whom are professional historians from Ukraine and abroad. The reaction from the laws' supporters is often nervous and overly generalized. In order to have a more substantive dialogue, it is worth separating those who affirm that such laws are entirely unnecessary or ill-timed from those who criticize only certain shortcomings of the texts, which were adopted by the Verkhovna Rada but have yet to be signed by the President.

I belong to the latter group, that is to say, I agree that laws of this sort ought to have been adopted long ago. Nevertheless, I want to draw attention to certain provisions in the laws “On the Legal Status and Commemoration of Fighters for the Independence of Ukraine in the 20th Century” and “On Access to the Archives of the Repressive Organs of the Communist Totalitarian Regime 1917–1991."

The first law is interesting for its list of government organizations, military and other structures, membership in which grants a person the right to be considered a fighter for the independence of Ukraine (Article 1). Such a status, whether granted posthumously or to a living person, will have specific consequences—for researchers, among others, who may be threatened with legal sanctions for a “publicly demonstrated disrespectful attitude” (Article 6). What exactly constitutes a “disrespectful attitude” is not explained. Specialists are already analyzing Article 6, and my purpose here is to share a few examples to indicate to what absurd lengths this could be taken.

I take examples only from the period of the First Struggle for Ukraine's Independence (that is, the period of the Civil War in the former Russian Empire), because even historians in thrall to the myth of the “Great Patriotic War”—as well as the struggle against it—devote very little attention to them. The disputes center on the events of the Second World War.

Some are upset that Article 1 recognizes those who at times shot at one another as fighters for Ukraine. In my opinion, this becomes absurd only when one of the sides was represented by inveterate Ukrainophobes such as White Guard soldiers who, in a twist of fate, temporarily found themselves in the armed forces or other branches of the Ukrainian state. Their attitude towards that state is aptly captured by the phrase “ludicrous operetta” that Bulgakov uses in his The White Guard.

Thus, this status could be given to Count Fyodor Keller, who in November 1918 did not make it out of Kyiv in order to command the Northern White Army, and who led the defense of the city against the forces of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) — that is, against the true fighters for the independence of Ukraine (they, in turn, executed him).

An even more absurd example would be Nikolai Bredov. I don't know if he served in the Ukrainian army in 1918, and it seems highly unlikely that he did, yet as a member of a White Army unit subordinated to the Hetman he might fall under point d) of Article 1: “other military, armed, or paramilitary formations … of the Ukrainian State (Hetmanate).” The General joined later Denikin's Volunteer Army, distinguished himself by, among other things, forcing Anton Kraus, the Ukrainian army group commander which had almost liberated the Ukrainian capital, to abandon it on August 31, 1919. At that time, he also famously declared: “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities, it has never been Ukrainian nor will it be."

The law does not allow for the forfeiture of this status under any circumstances. Thus, officers and civil servants of the Ukrainian People's Republic (UNR) as well as UNR guerillas remain fighters for Ukraine, even when there is no doubt that they went over to the enemy side and facilitated the killing of their compatriots. For example, Petro Trokhymenko and Iukhym Tereshchenko were recruited by the Bolsheviks and played a key role as provocateurs in the “Zapovit” operation of 1922. In late September of that year, the State Political Directorate (GPU) lured three otamans and many other partisans into an ambush at Zvenyhorodka, after which resistance to the occupiers in Central Ukraine (the area of Kholodny Yar) considerably weakened.

Recently, I read the article “Laws 2558 and 2538-1: On Critical Inquiry, the Holocaust, and Academic Freedom in Ukraine" by Per Anders Rudling and Christopher Gilley and I could not agree, among other things, with this excerpt: “The army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) and insurgent detachments active after 1917 … were responsible for the deaths of at least 20,000 Jews in the 1919 pogroms in Ukraine.” One should not paint all units of the UNR army and partisan detachments with such a broad brush, because their actions regarding the civilian population varied—each should be researched separately.

If the authors had sought to provide the English-language reader with a true picture of events, they ought to have mentioned the White, Polish, and other pogroms, as well as the fact that specialists do not usually accuse the UNR leadership for inciting Judeophobia. (Having read my comments on the Facebook page, Christopher Gilley agreed with me on this point and stated that the authors simply did not want to go too far off topic.)

On the other hand, one ought not idealize all those who at the end of 1918 took up arms under the Ukrainian flag. Let us at least think carefully about whether to include among the fighters for Ukraine the Illya Struk guerillas, led by one of the worst pogromists, who after the above-mentioned occupation of Kyiv by the Denikin forces went over to their side, with no regard for the open Ukrainophobia of those defenders of “one and indivisible Russia,” and abandoned them only in February 1920.

Now, on to the opening of the archives of the Soviet repressive organs. Of course, historians welcome this kind of liberalization of access to sources — this is very good news, both generally and in the context of the strictness of the Russian authorities (on general terms, access to the archives of the FSB, which contain many documents on Ukrainian history, is closed, even when they pertain to the events of 1917 or 1918).

Without getting into the possible technical complexities of organizing a new archive - that of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, about which many are writing, I want to draw attention to the disrespect with which the law treats the privacy of relatives of the repressed (Article 9, point 9; the repressed themselves seem to be left with somewhat more rights). The law allows a 25 year embargo only on information related to racial (ethnic) origin, worldview or political opinions, religious affiliation, health, and sexual relations.

In this case, such people — most of all residents of Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, or for that matter Russia and Belarus — will most likely feel threatened, because they would not be able to prevent the distribution of almost all information from KGB case files on their repressed relatives (and it is not always true). Residents of Kharkiv and Zaporizhia, for example, may also not feel comfortable. A part of their establishment is made up of those who demonstrated their dedication to the regime 30 years ago, and now support, perhaps quietly, Putin and his accomplices.

Accordingly, let me once again welcome full access to the documents of the repressive organs up to and including 1991, while also calling on legislators to provide for the protection of the repressed and their families’ private lives.

Whether granting certain individuals the status of fighters for the independence of Ukraine will lead to bizarre cases of unwanted interference in the work of researchers will depend on the tangible content of Article 6 of the law mentioned earlier. As of now, nothing about this latter point is clear.

This is an authorized translation from Ukrainian.

KRYTYKA needs your support: Subscribing to our journal, you support the best in quality intellectual discourse and in-depth social, cultural, and political analysis Ukraine has to offer.

Your subscription or donation will help us remain truly independent!