Decommunisation – An essential process needed to distance the new Ukraine from its Soviet past?

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A Lenin statue being driven to the scrap heap of history
A prime example that illustrates the active nation building attempts of the post Maidan government is that of the process of decommunization. In May 2015, President Poroshenko signed the Decommunization Laws, that had been passed through parliament a month earlier, into official decree. There were four laws included in total. However, for the purpose of this blog post only one will be focused upon in depth, that being the Law ‘On condemning the communist and National Socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes and prohibiting propaganda of their symbols.’ The purpose of focusing on such a particularity is due to this legislation and its subsequent impact being the most visible in society. This allows a more thorough analysis of its impact on ordinary people and subsequent effect on their national identity perceptions. Essentially, the law stipulates that propaganda, symbols and any legal entities linked to either the Communist and Nazi regimes are banned. Alongside this, the legislation also orders the changing of geographical names and the demolition of monuments in relations to the latter stated regimes and related symbols (Yavorsky, 2015). The government’s intentions with such legislation are concurrent with the need to distance the Ukrainian state and its citizens symbolically from that of its Soviet past and to reiterate the notion that Ukraine is separate from Russia. 

Decommunization can technically be recognized as having been begun by civil society during Euromaidan when the main Lenin statue in Kyiv was felled by protesters. Similar events occurred across the country in 2014, including in the East and South a year before the government legislation came into law. Therefore, the insinuation of ceasing ties with Ukraine’s soviet identity in favour of Ukrainian sovereignty had already been instigated by a bottom-up approach to a certain extent. However, it is important to note that this demolishing of Lenin statues popularized as “Leninopad” and the subsequent linked official government legislation was not met with universal jubilation across Ukraine. Plokhii (2017) notes that it has been largely successful in its operational aims, as by early 2017 close to 1,300 additional Lenin monuments and statues had been removed alongside the renaming of numerous geographical locations including two oblasts and their centres; Kirovohrad now Kropyvnytsky and Dnipropetrovsk now Dnipro. But whilst such actions were dramatic in photography and symbolism, due to their removal being long overdue; many ordinary people held contempt towards the changes (Gogo,2015).

These civilians argue that rather than drastically changing the perceptions of their own Soviet identity or their attitudes towards the Ukrainian nation, the statues and street names had long lost their Soviet undertones. They had been left by inertia, with the symbols being viewed as landmarks on a map rather than being tied down to political ideology or a town’s Soviet identification (Gogo,2015). Pomerantsev (2018) illustrates this rather thoroughly through his quoting of Eastern born Ms. Vakhovska, “The statue is their personal Lenin, it’s where they used to kiss, where they stole roses from the flowerbeds, where they went on pointless parades and equally pointless rallies.” What can be taken from such a reaction is that the intention of these laws and actions have been less to do with drastically enforcing new perceptions of common history, but rather safeguarding the future from being reliant on colonial influenced perceptions of the past through its visible removal in day to day life. Over time, the changed names and vacant spaces will themselves become the norm in communities as they become the necessary markers for the future development of a society that overwhelmingly identifies with the Ukrainian nation state (Kulyk, 2015)

As Plokhii (2017) notes, the West and Centre of Ukraine had already shed most of their Soviet remnants by the 2000s but the removal of the residual statues, geographical markers and art symbolizing the bygone era and its identity, solidified their acceptance of the new independent Ukrainian state. Supporters of the decommunization scheme view it as of high importance to the progression of Ukraine’s independence and its aspirations for democratization and integration with the West (Mälksoo, 2018). With Russia reinvigorating its own Soviet past in such a vivid manner as of late, it can be seen that Ukraine and its government are acting in the correct way in order to prevent these neighbouring developments from fermenting further afield than the occupied Donbas territories and Crimea. Whilst it is apparent that this particular policy is not supported by the entire population, the decommunization legislation is vital in signifying the symbolic breaking with previously inconsistent state nation building policy. Such policy that refused to address and actively tackle the incompatible dual historical narratives, in favour of a coherent and inclusive independent Ukrainian state narrative (Kulyk, 2015).  

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