Ukraine’s anti-Communist law should be rewritten, but not scrapped

lenin fall

The recently published open letter on Ukraine’s ‘anti-communist law’ has weighed into a heavily emotive debate. We could consider the law from the point of view of the ammunition it will give Ukraine’s critics, but I do not think this should be a key consideration. If their use of the repeal of Ukraine’s regional languages law (which never happened) is anything to go by, the trolls at 55 Savushkina street will have this woven into their technical tasks for the next few months, irrespective of whether it is ever signed into law. Russia has dictated Ukraine’s affairs quite enough, one would think

There are some points on which this letter hits the nail on the head. Where was the rigorous political debate in the Rada on such potentially divisive issues? Also, that the law creates a vaguely defined offence of denying the legitimacy of Ukraine’s struggle for independence in the twentieth century. Vaguely defined laws on which individuals could be arbitrarily lynched are a post-Soviet model of justice which surely has no place in today’s Ukraine. The offence of denying the criminal character of the entire Soviet regime from start to finish is also fraught with risks, although I think the examples given of potential offenders amount to mere thought experiments. This poor quality of legislative practice shows that Ukraine still lacks a culture of constitutionalism, and President Poroshenko should indeed send lawmakers back to the drawing board to pass a better law which better addresses these concerns. But the essence of what Ukraine is attempting to do here must not be discounted.

I first moved to Kiev in 2006, living first near Arsenalna, then Nyvky out in the suburbs, both on the metro system. Using the metro regularly there brings you face to face with the Soviet legacy, from small hammer & sickles in metal grills to the garish representation of Lenin and his sayings at Teatralna. I always hated it, and I also hated the seeming indifference of most locals to it. Even amongst the more active, nobody really raised this issue. The moderator of one pro Ukrainian language Facebook page was more concerned with a small Russian language sign at Palats Sportu station (only retained as it was part of the station’s original design) than de-Sovietization. For me the latter was far more important.

The Lenin menagerie at Teatralna was finally removed last year, and I was overjoyed on a visit back to Kiev to see it gone. Perversely, it is this exact display which is pictured atop the open letter itself on the Krytyka webpage. It’s common for western visitors to Eastern Europe to wonder why countries in the region saw the need to rip up their communist monuments. After all, it’s part of their history, they say. But as we all know, history is written by the victors, and in 1922, after a civil war which ravaged Ukraine, that’s what the Bolsheviks were. This regime not only built its own monuments but destroyed royalist monuments, churches etc. and, ultimately, their monuments were designed as symbols of central power, prescribed history, control and obedience. How can a country build a democratic mindset with monuments glorifying totalitarianism everywhere?

So in many ways the gist of the law is actually correct. Retaining Soviet detritus has been too costly to Ukraine’s societal development, and people’s indifference unhealthy. The law also bans Nazi symbols. Again, the law should bear in mind Ukraine’s needs, not Russia’s, and I think there’s a much more searching debate to be had about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. To me, the black and red flag should be permissible, Wolfsangels and other SS symbols etc. should not be. It’s difficult to apply a consistent standard across both the Nazi and Soviet periods as they are so vastly different in scope.

The most important desired outcome is freedom for independent historians, academics and journalists. Remember, by the way, that it was Yanukovych who closed the KGB archives in 2010, aiding the mythologization process in Western Ukraine, boosting the Svoboda party and creating a foil for the pro-Russian ‘anti-fascist’ constructs that the Party of Regions was using. When you have Ukraine sympathizers writing things like “so it is established fact that the UPA slaughtered tens of thousands of Poles? I don’t think so” (some here in Warsaw can tell you they lost family members at the hands of the Ukrainian insurgents), you realize the importance of the work of these historians.

Holodomor remembrance is a good example of the power of education. Not so many years ago the average Ukrainian knew little in concrete terms about what had happened to their country in the 1930s. The bringing to light of historical evidence has brought about the right kind of response, one of reverence and remembrance in which all public figures participate (leaving aside the more specific question of genocide). The fear of the mythologizing of history in Ukraine, as in Russia, is a legitimate one. Ukraine shouldn’t follow Russia down the path of pseudo-history.

Is there an alternative to smashing or bulldozing Lenin statues and other monuments? Perhaps. Hungary’s’ Statue Park is an example Ukraine could follow. What they do in former East Germany with Karl Marx in Chemnitz (complete with giant winter scarf!) is a perfectly sensible thing to do in the context of the free world safely inside the EU and NATO. But in Ukraine the monuments underline a medieval understanding of power which makes them much more problematic to retain. Another risk is that Soviet monuments can be reactivated as symbols by subversives or invaders. The reconstruction of a Lenin monument in occupied East Ukraine reminds us of their value to the opponents of a free Ukraine.

Perhaps the most damning criticism that could be made of the law is that it is in a way a cop out. If Communism was so bad, when will Ukraine act on lustration for the crimes of the Soviet period (not to mention for the Kuchma and Yanukovych eras)? The open letter is a thoughtful contribution to this difficult discussion. Although signed by one or two dubious figures it is also signed by many more respected and knowledgeable academics with Ukraine’s best interests at heart.

Monuments and street names to those who weren’t Ukrainian & killed Ukrainians is inclusivity Ukraine can do without.

The debate about de-Sovietization must by necessity move into controversial territory. Should it be only street names such as Lenina or Kominterna which should be changed? Should street names such as Heroiv Stalingrada (Heroes of Stalingrad) be changed purely because they contain, and indirectly venerate, the name of one responsible for the deaths of millions of Ukrainians (I’d like to see it renamed Heroes of Donetsk Airport instead)? The argument the open letter makes is for inclusivity of those across Ukraine, but surely, as someone has suggested, that inclusivity could be found in countless numbers of local figures worth celebrating. Monuments and street names to those who weren’t Ukrainian & killed Ukrainians is inclusivity Ukraine can do without.

By , originally published on Chicken in Kiev