May 2015

On Shoddy Laws and Insensitive Critics

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Not all Ukrainian citizens will agree with such a resolute demarcation, and the Russian government and its sympathizers in the West will not hesitate to use it to sow discord amongst Ukrainians and to discredit post-Maidan Ukraine in world public opinion.  The divisive consequences of the new laws are particularly emphasized by one of the signers of the letter, David Marples, in an article that defends the position expressed in the letter against Viatrovych’s accusations of bias.  In his opinion (I don’t know if it is shared by all the letter’s signers), “one can surely remove Lenin statues, which frankly are an eyesore,” but “one cannot force people to change long-held views overnight or ignore their opinions simply because we disagree with them.” I don’t understand how removing monuments to the founder of the Soviet regime differs from condemning the regime itself: neither action is supported by the entire population, but both are necessary as symbolic markers of state policy and as signposts for society’s future development.  At the same time, condemning the Communist regime is no more divisive than condemning Nazism, which German authorities after World War II only undertook under pressure from their occupiers and only to the degree that was demanded of them. Fuller and more decisive denazification was only undertaken two decades later, when a new generation had arisen, one which did not have personal memories of the well-being and might, as it were, during the times of the great Hitler.  Ukrainians have waited just as long – and now we are merely taking steps that other countries (less divided or more dependent on outside forces) took immediately after the collapse of totalitarian regimes. 

It is difficult to shake the feeling that the emphasis placed by the authors of the open letter on the divisive impact of condemning the Communist regime is at least in part connected to their rejection of a view that rests at the heart of the laws under discussion: that Communism and Nazism were equally criminal.  Marples says that, although he does not share this view, he considers it “logical that citizens often adopt such a perspective” in countries that endured Communist rule, including Ukraine.  I don’t know to what degree the letter’s signers share this logic, but it strikes me that they did not seem to protest publicly against the neo-Soviet tendencies of the Yanukovych period, or devote the same careful attention to Ukrainian neo-imperial Communists that they pay to more or less radical nationalists.  Moreover, during Yanukovych’s brutal assault on Ukrainian democracy, some of them believed that the main threat to that democracy was not Yanukovych, but nationalists from the “Svoboda” Party.  During the Euromaidan, responsible scholars of Ukrainian history and politics tried more or less actively to convince world public opinion of the opposite hierarchy of threats, but the current letter demonstrates that the phantom threat of rehabilitating Nazism in Ukraine continues to worry many Western scholars much more than the real danger of preserving the legacy of Communism.

In addition to their rejection of the equivalency of Communism and Nazism, the letter-writers’ reservations about proposed changes to the politics of memory are also caused, in my opinion, by a lack of understanding about the negative consequences of the status quo, which, too, runs contrary to the family reminiscences and ideological convictions of a significant number of citizens.  It is possible that keeping the old policy would have led to fewer public protests than changing it.  But it would hardly have prompted fewer private objections, disappointments, and suffering among people who think that the state has ignored them for a long time and who hope that the new regime will finally pay attention to their opinions.  I completely agree with Shevel that “simply calling for rejection of these laws does not leave Ukraine with a neutral or clearly morally preferable legal and public environment, but instead with a legal and institutional regime created in the Soviet period that has changed little since then.”  At the same time, any change should affect not only declarative evaluations of particular periods in the past, but also the ways it is represented in various domains – from monuments to the fallen heroes and victims to material provisions for the veterans who are still alive – and, of course, the manner in which the politics of memory are implemented.  So, for example, recognizing UPA soldiers as fighters for independence does not get rid of the policy approved in the early 1990s, which guarantees benefits to all Soviet veterans (including the secret police, who killed insurgents and – having changed into partisan uniforms – civilian residents of the Western provinces), while UPA veterans are granted these benefits only if they fought against the Nazi – but not Soviet – regime and “did not commit crimes against peace and humanity.” Meanwhile the law on condemning totalitarian regimes calls for the Soviet practice of the center dictating a model of memory for all parts of the country, a practice from which post-Soviet Ukraine had already partially moved away.  So what we need is not less demarcation from the Soviet regime, as the letter’s signers propose, but more, in essence rather than simply form.

As for the laws passed on April 9 – shoddy and to a large degree un-European – the President should, in my opinion, veto them, point out the articles that need to be revised and ask for new versions to be prepared as quickly as possible.  These new versions should take into account the points raised in public discussion.  Although a good number of Ukrainians will inevitably perceive this veto as a rejection of decommunization, it is better to carry out this important task a bit later, but more in line with the declared goal of moving closer to Europe.  At the very least because discrepancies will not only sabotage the laws, but will result in them being overturned in court – if not in our Constitutional Court, then in the European Court of Human Rights.

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

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