De-sovietization in Ukraine

The de-sovietization debate

Leading Ukraine experts discuss new Ukrainian laws designed to distance country from totalitarian Soviet past


The de-sovietization debate
Business Ukraine
Monday, 01 June 2015 12:49

Ukraine has recently introduced a series of laws which collectively attempt to draw a line under the ambiguous attitudes towards the Communist era which have lingered for the past 24 years in post-Soviet Ukrainian society. Supporters of this de-sovietization process have hailed the laws as a long overdue step in the right direction, while critics have warned that the legislation risks dividing Ukrainians at a time when national unity means national survival. Business Ukraine magazine invited Ukraine experts Taras Kuzio, Alexander Motyl and Bohdan Vitvitsky to address some of the key issues raised by Ukraine’s new de-sovietization laws.

QUESTION 1. Will Ukraine’s new de-sovietization laws serve to further unite or divide Ukrainian society? 

TARAS KUZIO: Re-writing history and changing identities are always contested in every country, whether Irish-UK reconciliation under Prime Minister Tony Blair or in South Africa after the collapse of apartheid, when not all Boers supported the move to majority rule and an end to racism. I am sure many older Germans and especially Japanese and Austrians did not want to de-Nazify or debunk the old imperial Japanese imperialism - but this was all necessary. The USSR was a totalitarian empire that murdered millions of Ukrainians and steps that work towards removing the vestiges of that criminal empire should be applauded. As President Petro Poroshenko said to those who are against the new laws, they should have joined him on Sunday, 17 May, in the commemorations of the over 100,000 murdered in the Bykivnya forest near Kyiv. Some conflict and opposition is inevitable, but I do not believe that the new laws will divide Ukrainian society to a greater degree than hitherto existed.

ALEXANDER MOTYL: This is the wrong question. The right question is: will the laws promote truth, justice, and freedom. The answer is a resounding yes. As we know from history, all such efforts to expand the good meet with resistance from entrenched forces. Yet no one would suggest that civil rights legislation in America or laws forbidding discrimination of women and gays not be passed because they would be - as indeed they were - divisive. Indeed, if divisiveness were the prime criterion for judging a law’s utility, then Ukraine should not be reforming its economy and imposing high costs on a resistant society. Stasis and stagnation would then be the only option for any country. Besides, Ukraine is a revolutionary society that is attempting to move toward the West as rapidly as possible. Everything the government does will elicit support and criticism.

BOHDAN VITVITSKY: That will depend, as the introduction of any new policy in any country depends, on how skillful a job the Ukrainian government does in explaining and providing a rationale for the four laws. But in Ukraine this is even more important given that Russia and its various agents continue to conduct an information war against Ukraine. Be that as it may, based on my informal survey of friends and acquaintances in Ukraine when I happened to have been there for a week and a half between the time the bills were passed and their being signed into law by President Poroshenko, almost all of the people with whom I spoke, whether they were from Kharkiv, Poltava, Kyiv or Lviv, thought that the time for such laws had come.

QUESTION 2: Are attempts to remove all public symbols of the Soviet era in Ukraine practical?

TARAS KUZIO: Would we argue that Nazi monuments and street names should remain in place in Germany and Austria? Of course not. Then why should Soviet monuments and place names remain in Ukraine? After all, the process has already begun in December 2013 when the first Lenin monument was removed in Kyiv, followed by 550 others in central, eastern and southern Ukraine, including the largest in Ukraine, which was toppled last September in Kharkiv. The Euromaidan movement was many things, one of which was an anti-Soviet revolution, because the Viktor Yanukovych administration was seen as neo-Soviet in its identity. Meanwhile, the pro-Russian separatist counter-revolutionaries are Soviet in their identity.

ALEXANDER MOTYL: Immediately, no - but, given the ineffectiveness of Ukraine’s government apparatus, there’s little chance of that taking place anyway. Over time, yes. If the Germans could succeed in removing Nazi symbols, surely Ukraine can succeed in removing Communist symbols.

BOHDAN VITVITSKY: As with most things, if good will and common sense are applied in the law’s implementation, the answer is that it should be possible to remove all or the overwhelming majority of such symbols.


QUESTION 3. What are the international consequences of laws criminalizing criticism of Ukrainian nationalist forces accused of complicity in Nazi atrocities?

TARAS KUZIO: This was the weakest section of the laws and no criminalization of criticism will ever take place. Let us recall that the 2006 law on the Holodomor (which was not supported by the Party of Regions or the Ukrainian Communist Party) also had a section on criminalization of those who rejected it had taken place or was a genocide. And yet, the Party of Regions and Communists from 2006-2014, and President Yanukovych in 2010-2014, did just that.

ALEXANDER MOTYL: For starters, the law in question does not criminalize criticism. It states that offensive commentary can be subject to the law. That’s a fine distinction, but not an unimportant one. That said, there is every indication that this (to my mind unnecessary) restriction will be revised radically in light of Western and Ukrainian criticism. Second, while Ukrainians were certainly involved in Nazi atrocities, the Ukrainian nationalists are not accused of being involved in Nazi atrocities. Rather, they are accused of engaging in their own atrocities during the war. The accusers were and are Soviet propagandists, Russian historians supporting a Putinite imperial narrative, and neo-Soviet Western historians who have succeeded only in demonstrating that Ukrainian nationalists, like all parties in WWII or, for that matter, in any war, engaged in excesses. These three groups have formed a “hegemonic” historical narrative that excludes Ukrainian voices and reduces Ukrainians to innate fascists and anti-Semites - the quintessential ‘Other’ of postcolonial studies. What the law effectively does, by recognizing that the nationalists were ‘fighters’ for Ukrainian independence (which of course they were - objectively, and by any measure), is to integrate the nationalists into Ukrainian history, undermine the above neo-Soviet hegemony, create a level intellectual playing field, and enable Ukrainians to debate their own history for the first time since the 1920s. This is a major breakthrough that promises to lead to a veritable flowering of the historical debate- provided, of course, that the above injunction on offensive commentary will be repealed, as I’m sure it will. Unsurprisingly, supporters of the hegemonic narrative find that giving equal voice to Ukrainian historians is a constriction of their right and privilege to determine the truth.

BOHDAN VITVITSKY: I’ve read the legislation signed into law by President Poroshenko, and I’m not sure that the law criminalizes criticism of Ukrainian nationalist forces during WWII. Article 6 of the law that was registered as bill 33690 provides that public exhibitions of disprespect towards any of the more than 50 different entities/groups involved in Ukraine’s struggle for independence during the 20th century will have legal exposure, but it’s not clear from the law whether such exposure would be civil, administrative or criminal. The law already contains an exception for free discussion and analysis by scholars and such, as well as a provision that directs the government to ensure an ‘all-sided’ analysis of the history of the Ukrainian struggle, so the quasi-hysterical response by some academics to the law is rather overblown. And there is also the issue of Russia’s openly existential challenge to Ukraine’s very being. A part of the decades-long Russo-Soviet narrative about Ukraine has consisted of misrepresentations and distortions about the activities, context and motivations on the part of anyone involved in opposing Soviet rule, so it’s not as though Ukraine’s attempt to limit ongoing attacks upon its history as part of Russia’s information wars is off the wall. Be that as it may, I agree with those who recommend that Article 6 be clarified. But there is another aspect to your question, namely, the propriety or authority of foreigners to instruct Ukraine’s elected representatives as to whom they wish to acknowledge or memorialize and why. I presume that all of us would agree that slavery and racism are horrible. Yet two of our most important American Founding Fathers, Washington and Jefferson, were slave owners and, thus, racists. Yet if a group of Canadian academics were to write an open letter urging us to stop visiting the Washington monument or the Jefferson memorial we would laugh or tell them to go fly a kite. And our reaction to their attempt to instruct us that by memorializing Washington and/or Jefferson we were, whether advertently or inadvertently, endorsing racism or slaveholding, would probably be more spirited. I also suspect that at the time they ran for office and were elected to Israel’s highest office, no one in Israel would have taken kindly to a foreign effort to discourage voters from electing either Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, two individuals involved in terrorist organizations that engaged in killings, kidnappings and extortion. The bottom line is that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to tell us Americans or the Israelis what they should do. Why then do any foreigners think it makes sense to try and instruct Ukraine’s elected representatives as to what they should do?


QUESTION 4. How do Ukraine’s new de-sovietization laws compare to similar legislation elsewhere in the former Eastern Bloc?

TARAS KUZIO: There are many examples, all with local nuances, such as in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, the Czech Republic, Croatia and elsewhere. Those countries that underwent de-sovietization were also the most successful in reform and European integration. As Andes Aslund writes in his new book, “Ukraine’s fundamental problem is that it did not experience any clear break from the communist system.”

ALEXANDER MOTYL: Most East European states have similar laws, some go further, others are less ambitious. But there’s absolutely nothing new about what Ukraine is doing. (Indeed, Ukraine is a late-comer.) And the reason is obvious. All post-communist states understand that abandoning the Communist legacy requires abandoning Communist thinking, thought patterns, and mentalities. There is, in this regard, no difference between East European attempts to rid themselves of the Communist legacy and German attempts to rid themselves of the Nazi legacy. (As a matter of fact, Germany has also been quite effective in removing symbols of the Communist past from much of the former GDR!) Both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia wreaked absolute havoc on these countries, and the legacies of both need to be viewed as equally noxious.

BOHDAN VITVITSKY: I would suggest that the more apt comparison is with de-Nazification laws and procedures employed by the United States and other allies in post-war Germany. I say this because the penetration of Sovietism in Ukraine in terms of depth and breadth is more akin to the penetration of Nazism in Germany rather than the penetration of Sovietism in, say, Poland or the Baltics. As part of de-Nazification, the removal of all physical symbols of Nazism was mandated and impmlemented. What is more, the US Army took control of German print and electronic media to ensure there would be no ideological deviation, i.e., that there would not be any expressions of any pro-Nazi sympathies. And, the US compiled a list of some 30,000 books, ranging from school textbooks to poetry books, that were banned. These titles were confiscated and physically destroyed. Possession of any of those titles was a punishable offense. What Ukraine is doing is rather limited and circumscribed by comparison.


QUESTION 5. Can Ukraine ever expect to achieve closure on its traumatic 20th century experience?

TARAS KUZIO: Closure takes decades and we should not therefore be surprised at the evolution of changes in identity in Ukraine during peacetime. This process has now gained new momentum since 2014 as Ukraine has been at war with Russia. It took the French until the late 1980s, 3-4 decades after the Algerian War of Independence, to come to terms with its involvement in massive war crimes. It took the British nearly a century to reconcile its relations with the Irish, who became a semi-independent state in the 1920s. From these points of view, Ukraine is doing quite well (just look at the reconciliation of Polish-Ukrainian relations) and certainly better than Russia, whose president still believes the Nazi-Soviet pact was a good thing and ignores Stalinist crimes against humanity. Ukraine is a country that honours the dead under the two totalitarian Nazi and Soviet states, while Russia focuses only on the former, because praise of criminal tyrant Joseph Stalin is the key to building an authoritarian great Russian power.


ALEXANDER MOTYL: Of course. But that can only happen if Ukrainians begin to debate their own history without being instructed by outsiders on who, what, and how to remember and not to remember. Naturally, outside scholars can and should and will contribute to the debate. But the debate in Ukraine must be free and it must be in Ukraine. Thanks to the de-communization laws, there’s a very good chance that that free debate in Ukraine will indeed take place.

BOHDAN VITVITSKY: Yes, if there is an honest and intelligent effort directed at understanding the events of that century. When I hear people speak about different ‘narratives’ possessed by people living in different regions of Ukraine and about how it is impossible to reconcile them, which one hears and reads regularly, I am dismayed. What needs to be addressed jointly is not narratives but the facts relating to the 20th century. What were the political circumstances and options encountered by Ukrainians? To what extent were Ukrainians able to shape those circumstances and options, and to what extent were they imposed upon Ukrainians? What were the goals and aims of the different individuals, groups and states acting in Ukraine? Who did what and when? And so on. To be sure, it may not be possible to arrive at factual answers to each question, but it should be possible to arrive at answers to many. Then, and only then, will it make sense to make moral and political judgments about who did what and, perhaps, why. There will probably be differences in such judgments, which is normal in any country, but at least the amount of shared information and knowledge will significantly narrow the differences in moral and political judgments.



Taras Kuzio is Senior Research Associate at the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies (University of Alberta), Senior Research Fellow at the Chair of Ukrainian Studies (University of Toronto), and Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations (Johns Hopkins University-SAIS).

Alexander Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

Bohdan Vitvitsky has written and lectured on legal, historical and philosophical topics. He served for over 20 years as an Assistant US Attorney prosecuting complex fraud cases. In 2007-09, he served for two and a half years as a Resident Legal Advisor at the US Embassy in Kyiv. He holds a law degree and a Ph.D. in philosophy, both from Columbia University in New York.


Business ukraine current issue

Business Ukraine magazine

Business ukraine reader survey

Which Ukrainian city is best placed to develop as an international tourism destination?
Which Ukrainian city is best placed to develop as an international tourism destination?
You must select at least one item to vote!

Social media