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Source: «Critical solutions»,

On Decommunization, Identity, and Legislating History, From a Slightly Different Angle

May 2015

During Yanukovych’s presidency, Ukraine was systematically presented with an ideological choice between two Ts: Tabachnyk1 and Tyahnybok.2  Which is to say, between Ukrainophobia thinly masked by Soviet nostalgia on the one hand and provincial ethnic nationalism on the other.  The space for a third way of thinking was consciously limited, and society was mechanically divided along linguistic lines, which were routinely instrumentalized during election campaigns.

The hasty discussion of the “historical” laws passed by the Verkhovna Rada has given me a strong sense of déjà vu.  It’s as if we’re being forced back into this logic of “choice without a choice” between the two Ts (or pick whatever “up-to-date” names you’d like). Among historians, two clear camps have formed, and they (to paraphrase Mikhail Zoshchenko) have “expressed their ideology to the fullest.” At times this discussion between supporters and opponents of “decommunization” (and, by the way, that term is sometimes used to mean the laws that have been passed, while other times it implies a sort of broader, indistinct ideological project) has been reminiscent of parallel Komsomol meetings.  At those meetings, they condemned and called for the extermination of – depending on party affiliation – nationalism or communism.  Underlying this irreconcilable rhetoric was a fairly obvious similarity in the two sides’ approach to discussing problems.

What does this similarity consist of?  Above all, a conception of the historian as doctor, who has to prescribe society medicine against communism or nationalism.  What’s more, both sides of the ideological barricade are like communicating vessels.  They’re interdependent.  They need each other, so that they can put their opponent into a clearly defined ideological box, and then use that to elevate themselves morally and garner social capital.  In Western academia that can still be accomplished quite well, exploiting the stereotypical image of Eastern Europe as a sphere of political anarchy, economic backwardness, and ethnic nationalism. And in the Ukrainian case you can brilliantly play off a feeling of insufficient empathy on the part of the “Western world” and numerous prejudices and defensive reactions; by echoing these sentiments, it’s not particularly hard to earn the reputation of a patriot and a person of firm convictions.  These two seemingly antagonistic ideological positions coexist perfectly.  By unmasking each other, they mutually support and fuel each other.

It’s interesting that, in the heat of the argument, a striking similarity to, for example, “anti-Donetsk” or “anti-Galician” logic often goes unnoticed.  Both narratives contain a conception of a ruined ideal (depending on your ideological position, either European or Orthodox), a crudely simplified image of the imagined opposing group (“Galicians,” “residents of the Donbas”) as separated by “identity” or “values,” which that group supposedly imposes aggressively on the rest of the country, thereby preventing it from “normalizing.”

To me, this image of Ukraine seems not only discriminatory and destructive, but also unattractive and far removed from social and cultural realities.  It seriously simplifies the unique pluralism of contemporary Ukraine, asserting, for example, that all supporters of “rehabilitating UPA"3 or “preserving Lenin monuments” share the ideology of integral nationalism or Marxism-Leninism, or at least have a notion of what they are.  Even more problematically, the Ukrainian public sphere is still acutely lacking criticism of integral nationalism and its symbolism from democratic, pluralistic viewpoints, rather than from the perspective of the “Russian world” or the “Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people.” Similarly, we lack a critique of the communist narrative that doesn’t elicit suspicion of the author’s narrowly nationalist outlook.  So I think it is crucial for such criticism to refrain from totalitarian ideological connotations.  It is no less important, in my opinion, to abstain from coming across as arrogant and to avoid a didactic tone.  My hope is that doing so will make it easier for people to be receptive to arguments about the risks of neglecting the dark sides of the history of UPA (or the Red Army), or the “innocence” of symbols that directly harken back to the Nazi tradition – and that certainly aren’t the “Nobel family insignia.”4

That’s why responsible contextualization is so important. One painful example of irresponsible contextualization is the attempts to deny, minimize, or justify the Volhynian massacre of 1943.  The history of the Ukrainian nationalist underground can’t be reduced to Volhynia, but it’s impossible to tell that history responsibly without Volhynia. This is all the more true, given that the history of this planned ethnic cleansing can (and, in my opinion, should) be analyzed not through the categories of ethnic accusations, but in the context of serious research on how situations of violence arise and on the dynamics that govern them.  Not only does reducing the Volhynia question to collective ethnic accusations not have heuristic potential, but it can even lead to tragicomic political misunderstandings.

One such misunderstanding was the prize awarded to Ukrainian MP from Yanukovych`s Party of the Regions Vadym Kolesnichenko by Polish kresy organizations for his public pronouncement that the Volhynian massacre was genocide.  It’s unfortunate that before celebrating this odious figure the Polish kresy enthusiasts didn’t ask him about the Katyń massacre (I’m sure that they would have gotten quite an interesting answer).  In other words, it is extremely important for us to comprehend just how deep the risks of selective ethnicization are.  This is a phenomenon that is flourishing in the public sphere.  In the context of the victory over Nazism, the Kremlin emphasizes the deciding role played by the Russian nation, but when talking about the artificial famine of 1932-33, they point to the “multinational” makeup of the Politburo.  But selective ethnicization is by no means Putin’s sole prerogative.  To take a Ukrainian example: on the one hand, quite a few Ukrainian media outlets have portrayed Ukrainians serving in the Red Army as the liberators of Auschwitz, but on the other hand, the very same media reported on the mass rapes perpetrated by soldiers from the Red Army – who this time are identified as Russians.

Discussing the “decommunization” laws presents us all with a truly difficult question: How should we deal with the Soviet past?  In my opinion, above all, we need to come to fully understand its heterogeneity and inconsistencies, which in no way calls the criminal character of the Soviet regime into question.  It’s also important to think about the problem of the present-day ignorance and incomprehension when dealing with the Soviet past.  Currently, the question of renaming Dnipropetrovsk is being hotly debated.  Much less is being said about Dnipropetrovsk residents’ almost complete ignorance of who Petrovsky was.5 Is it important to know about Petrovsky (and a ton of other things) in order to condemn communist crimes?  How important is it to know that, on the one hand, it was precisely the Soviet authorities who erected a monument to the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko in Lviv and popularized his works, while on the other hand they actually censored Franko and adapted him to the demands of “constructing communism?” The interconnection of (not) knowing and condemning, the means and methods of disseminating knowledge, the phenomenon of aestheticizing political evil and the “forbidden fruit” – this is far from an exhaustive list of subjects that are practically absent from the current Ukrainian discussion.

Meanwhile, in the international discussion, there is much being written about whether or not history, memory, and identity are the main reasons for the Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in the Donbas.  “Identity” and “historical memory” are brought up much more frequently than a desire for political freedoms, corruption, economic problems, group pressure, the behavior of local elites, or the makeup of subversive groups.  This fact is succinctly mentioned by Natalia Humeniuk in her book Maidan Tahrir:

I was amazed that when Ukraine is being discussed, there is always a contrast made between the West and East, Brussels and Moscow, Russian and Ukrainian language; and in the case of the Middle East, it’s Islam and Christianity, Bin Laden and the White House, fundamentalists and liberals.  Meanwhile people are taking to the streets to protest corruption, the impunity of the police, poverty, and repressions of freedom…6

Are we capable of thinking about Ukraine beyond “identity,” “history,” and the “clash of civilizations?” The Maidan, among other things, became a way for society as a whole to reject constructed “divisions,” which had been presented to us as insurmountable and primordial.  It emphasized something that really wasn’t that sensational anymore: in contemporary Ukraine, the language used for everyday communication doesn’t automatically equal ethnic identification and political loyalty.  Nevertheless, instead of looking for adequate and dynamic methods of analyzing the realities of the Maidan and the post-Maidan era, a significant number of analysts remained loyal to the familiar, stereotypical paradigms of “two Ukraines” and “ethnic zones.” The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas are still more frequently described using the categories of “identity” and “historical rights” than through a careful analysis of the behavior of key actors (above all, the local elites and the Russian intervention).

The persistence of the ideologically colored language of “identity” can be felt acutely in the Ukrainian, Russian, English, Polish, or German language discussions of the Maidan and its consequences.  The social, economic, generational, educational, and gender-related aspects of Ukrainian society are frequently neglected, and Russian interference is explained through the “provocative,” “imprudent,” or simply “nationalist” policies of Kyiv, in keeping with “blame the victim” logic.  At the same time, the Ukrainian media sphere (not without the participation of renowned writers and journalists) periodically revives the discriminatory notions of a “hopelessly Sovietized” Donbas…

P.S.  With regards to the contents of the bills that were passed, I offered my thoughts and observations in a video blog at [1] (in Russian).  Since then, several sober-minded analyses of these documents from a legal perspective have appeared; their authors have emphasized the dangers posed by the arbitrary treatment of many key concepts (such as “propaganda” or “denying the criminal nature [of the Soviet regime]”); the illegitimate severity of the punishments prescribed by the laws for preparing and using Communist symbols; provisions that threaten serious limitations on freedom of expression and contradict the Constitution of Ukraine and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.7  It seems to me that the Ukrainian authorities can’t but take note of these commentaries and should introduce corresponding corrections and amendments.

Authorized translation from Ukrainian. KRYTYKA is deeply grateful to Kate Younger for her volunteer work on this translation.

  • 1.Dmytro Tabachyk, historian, minister of education of Ukraine in 2010-2014 infamous for highly discriminative remarks about Western Ukrainians and sympathy towards the Russian imperial and Soviet versions of history.
  • 2.Oleh Tyahnybok, politician, leader of the right-wing “Svoboda” (Liberty) Party which received 10.44% votes in the parliamentary elections in 2012.  During the pre-term elections held after the “Eurorevolution” in 2014, “Svoboda” received less than 5% of the votes and failed to enter Ukrainian Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.
  • 3.UPA, an acronym for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army [2], a nationalistic underground movement some of whose members and units were involved in anti-Polish and anti-Jewish actions during the war. UPA continued anti-Soviet resistance until the early 1950s. Its legacy remains highly contested in today’s Ukraine.
  • 4.Here I refer to the comment of the minister of interior Arsen Avakov concerning the emblem of the “Azov” volunteer battalion. Minister Avakov described the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel as a reference to the “Nobel family insignia.”
  • 5.Hryhorii Petrovsky, one of the leaders of Soviet Ukraine in 1920-30s. In 1926 the city of Ekaterinoslav was renamed after him into Dnipropetrovsk (Dnieper River + Petrovsky). Before 1917, Petrovsky worked at one of the biggest metallurgical plants in Ekaterinoslav and was even elected to the Russian State Duma. 
  • 6.Natalia Humeniuk. Maidan Tahrir: u poshukakh vtrachenoi revoliutsii. [Tahrir Place: In Search of a Lost Revolution.] Kyiv: Politychna Krytyka 2015, p. 15.
  • 7.See Volodymyr Yavorsky's detailed analysis of the "decommunization" laws [3], or Kateryna Dronova's article "The Fight Against the Spectre of Communism [4]."
Translated by: 
Kate Younger