This past spring the Ukrainian Parliament passed four bills in an effort to decommunize the nation. On May 15th, President Petro Poroshenko signed these bills into law. They call for the removal of all communist era monuments in the country within six months. The bills were popular in the western and central parts of Ukraine while they were heavily criticized in the east. Due to the high percentage of ethnic Russians in the East and the fact that the Russian language is the region’s lingua franca, the attempt to move Ukraine away from its Soviet past and the symbolism that goes with it has been highly controversial.
Excess Baggage – A Long & Bloody Shadow
An entire generation of pensioners looks back nostalgically on the Soviet era. They selectively recall that life was stable, people were taken care of, Ukraine was part of an empire and most importantly, Ukraine’s ethnic Russians were living under the protection of a Russian dominated polity. Most of these people lived during the latter decades of the Soviet Union, when the system was at its most ossified and stagnant. Strangely enough, these were some of the best days of Soviet rule in Ukraine. Such a statement exposes just how horrific Soviet communism was in its first three decades for Ukraine. A study done by the Institute of Demography in Moscow quantified the human catastrophe of Soviet rule in Ukraine. The Institute estimated that Ukraine suffered 7.5 million “excess deaths” due to the policies of the Soviet Union. By comparison, the much more well-publicized genocidal policies of the Nazis resulted in 6.5 million deaths.
Whereas Ukraine was thoroughly denazified in the immediate years after World War II – no matter what the Putin regime and its cronies might say – the decommunization of Ukraine only occurred in fits and starts following the collapse of the Soviet Union, mainly in the western part of the country. What does it actually mean to “decommunize” in Ukraine? It is an arduous historical, civic and public works process. The historical and civic parts generally consist of expert commissions vetting people and events from the Soviet era that had places named after them. The vetting is done to see if the people or event in question was associated with murderous or anti-Ukrainian policies. The same is done for statues, sculptures, memorials and buildings raised to publicly commemorate a person or event. Statues are often the most prominent public monuments to come under scrutiny.
The Ghosts of Communism’s Past – Street Fights
The public works part of the process is most noticeable in the removal of monuments. Even more arduous, is the task of changing thousands of place names. The decisions on what to change and rename can often take months. This process, fraught with the politics of both present and past will be anything, but easy. In Ukraine these decisions have the potential to transform the way people not only memorialize the past, but whether or not the nation makes a decisive turn from the neo-Soviet ideas propagated by Russia’s current leadership and moves towards a more western orientation.
According to an article on the Radio Free Europe website, the southeastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk will have a 46 person commission reviewing the names of “about 80 streets, embankments, squares, and boulevards…five of the city’s eight regions, and the name of the city itself” for possible renaming. While this is a daunting task, as mentioned earlier Ukraine has 7.5 million reasons to proceed with decommunization. Incredibly, this process seems to be just a continuation of one that started twenty six years ago in the heart of Lviv, which for good reason is known as “the most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine.”
Bringing A Dictator Down – Lenin Leaves Lviv
Lviv’s Opera House stands at one end of Prospekt Svobody (Freedom Boulevard). This Austro-Hungarian era architectural wonder bookends the pulsing heart of Ukraine’s most Europeanized city. A large public space begins in front of the Opera House. This is an area where lovers embrace, old men spend entire afternoons in games of chess and heart shaped balloons are sold. In short, a place reserved for leisure and comfort. Near the beginning of this area, about 50 meters in front of the opera house stands a fountain. It was here from 1952 until 1990 that a fifty foot high statue of Vladimir Lenin stood. It was reputedly the only Lenin statue in Ukraine with his name written in the Ukrainian language. What this meant, was not that Lviv loved Lenin. On the contrary, western Ukrainians despised Lenin and the Soviet tyranny that placed a stranglehold on Ukrainian statehood.
The Lenin statue was imposed on Lviv just like communism was, from an unaccountable clique of Communist party bosses who had the blood of million on their hands. The charade came to an end on September 14, 1990 when over 50,000 Lvivians surrounded the space to watch as the statue was toppled and removed. It was a remarkable event that occurred over a year before the Soviet Union disintegrated. (Note: This was the second Lenin statue taken down in the Soviet Union. The first was toppled in Vilnius, Lithuania, by another nascent national movement that of the Lithuanians which had been suppressed by the Soviet Union after World War II.) This was just the beginning of a process that has been greatly accelerated by the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. Since the Maidan, over 500 Lenin statues have been taken down in Ukraine. And the end is nowhere in sight.
Taking A Stand – The Right & Wrong Sides of History
Lenin for the majority of Ukrainians is a symbol of oppression. Yet there are those who still revere what this man and these statues stood for. The fight to keep many of these up will continue. In the rebellious, anti-Maidan, pro-Russian region of Ukraine, the so called “Donetsk People’s Republic” a Lenin statue was actually restored. Lenin has long since ceased to be a man and more of a symbol, but what that symbol stands for: tyranny, mass murder and a failed ideology is what most Ukrainians have been standing against.