Is decommunization good for Ukraine?

How Ukraine is battling Russia in the present and the past

June 23, 2015 2:00AM ET

At 62 meters tall, Mother Homeland, a monument to the fallen troops of World War II, rises above the right bank of the Dnieper River in Kiev, Ukraine. During Soviet times, dissidents joked that the statue’s main value was that its sword and shield facing northeast protected the nation against possible aggression from Russia. Today the joke isn’t so funny: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko contends that Russia has sent 9,000 troops to the eastern border of the country and has warned that a full-scale invasion is imminent.

The shield portion of "Mother Homeland" monument in Kiev

As Ukraine faces down Russia in the present, it is still reckoning with its Soviet past. In April the Ukrainian parliament passed a series of decommunization laws in an effort to rid Ukraine of vestiges of this dark period.

The bills were partly intended to quell popular demands for decommunization after more than 500 monuments of Vladimir Lenin were torn down or destroyed during and after last year’s pro-European Maidan protests. The laws are the consequence of a new vision of Ukraine after Maidan as of a country that clearly and more objectively perceives its past and doesn’t want a return of the totalitarian regime.

The laws are wide-ranging. They will open former KGB archives, ban communist symbols and the public denial of the criminal nature of the communist regime and provide public recognition to those who fought for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century. But it’s still unclear exactly how they will be enforced.

Take, for instance, Mother Homeland’s shield, which is engraved with the Soviet emblem. It could, theoretically, be banned under the new legislation for glorifying the communist regime. But dismantling this 450-ton construction wouldn’t be an easy task, not least because of its popularity among visitors to Kiev.

Not all aspects of the new laws require such backbreaking efforts. One proposal involves opening the infamous KGB archives, putting a symbolic end to the Soviet practice of secrecy and subterfuge. Once declassified, these records can shed light on key decisions and crimes of the Soviet regime and allow researchers to reassess some of the most controversial aspects of World War II. The records will provide further evidence to contest the popular Russian narrative that the Soviet Union was an innocent victim of Nazi aggression. This tale, of course, ignores Joseph Stalin’s prewar alliance with Adolf Hitler and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and the Baltics. The laws have potential, but their hasty adoption is worrisome. The parliament’s rush to pass them may have come from the fear that a regular legislative process would have derailed or delayed the initiatives. There is, in fact, a real risk that the opposition — members of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s party — will take advantage of the bills to mobilize its base in some eastern regions of Ukraine during upcoming local elections this August. 

The new laws aren’t connected to the Russian military threat; they are a matter of Ukraine’s not wanting to follow Putin’s lead.

Three major amendments could help prevent any malicious misinterpretation and threats to freedom of speech and expression.

First, the laws are problematic because they vaguely and broadly prohibit denials of the “criminal nature” of the Soviet Union and Nazi German. Laws like these have the potential to block citizens’ freedom of association and censor scholars and artists who voice unpopular political views. Ukraine should instead criminalize the denials of specific crimes perpetuated by the Soviet Union — man-made famine, the deportation of ethnic groups, political repression and terrorism.

Second, instead of purge Ukraine of all Soviet symbols — whether they’re statues or mere statements glorifying Communist Party functionaries — the government should outlaw these symbols only in circumstances in which people use them to deny that Soviet regimes committed mass atrocities. For instance, some Soviet mosaics could contain banned elements, such as stylized red stars or flags in the Kiev metro or in Kharkiv, but as unique pieces of art they don’t exactly spread Soviet ideologies. It goes without saying that scholars and columnists should be able to quote Soviet thinkers without being accused of restoring a totalitarian regime. In fact, cracking down in this way would be a repetition of the past, not a break from it.

Third, the legislation mustn’t punish criticism of those who fought for Ukrainian independence. While Ukraine has the right to respect its heroes, the history of the Ukrainian liberation movement includes not only victorious battles for independence but also shameful episodes of ethnic cleansing. The country must examine the role of groups such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Rebel Army — groups known for fighting the Nazis and Red Army and trying to establish an independent Ukraine as well as for their massacre of Poles at Volhynia — and grapple with its own difficult past and its consequences today.

Many of Ukraine’s friends abroad, such as the well-known Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak, have wondered if now is really the right time to deal with the ghosts of the past. Shouldn’t the country focus instead on building a better future through economic reforms?

The reason is obvious: It’s Russia. President Vladimir Putin knows how much the past matters. His glorification of Russia’s bloody past has helped him roll back freedoms and sustain his authoritarian regime. The new laws aren’t connected to the Russian military threat; they are a matter of Ukraine’s not wanting to follow Putin’s example.

So far, some encouraging signs have emerged. Poroshenko has announced that some of the more controversial aspects of the laws will soon be amended. It is crucial that he follow through. Without the needed amendments, the laws contradict fundamental human rights — namely, freedom of expression and assembly — and, if enacted, could create an opportunity for critics to appeal against decommunization laws in the Constitutional Court or the European Court of Human Rights. The worst scenario would be for Poroshenko’s actions to play into the hands of representatives of Yanukovych’s former government. That would represent a great blow to Ukraine’s international reputation.

Ukraine has a chance to show that it doesn’t need to follow Russia’s example. It must begin with an honest public dialogue that won’t try to erase the country’s past but instead help people come to terms with it. 

Yegor Stadny is the executive director of Cedos, a think tank in Kiev, Ukraine. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the history department at the National University of Kiev’s Mohyla Academy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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