How to bid goodbye to Lenin in Ukraine


When talking about present day Ukraine and its new 'historical' laws, we need to think beyond ‘identity’ and ‘history’.


Andrii Portnov
26 May 2015

During Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, Ukraine was systematically presented with an ideological choice between two Ts: Tabachnyk (Dmytro) and Tyahnybok (Oleh). That is to say, between Ukrainophobia thinly masked by Soviet nostalgia on the one hand, and parochial ethnic nationalism on the other. The space for a third way of thinking was consciously limited, and society was mechanically divided along linguistic lines and symbols, which were, in turn, routinely instrumentalised during election campaigns. 

In this sense, the discussion about the ‘historical’ laws recently passed by the Verkhovna Rada has given me a strong sense of déjà vu. It’s as if we’re being forced back into this logic of ‘choice without a choice’.

What has the Ukrainian Parliament voted for? 

On 9 April 2015, the Verkhovna Rada voted for four ‘historical’ or ‘de-Communising’ laws: 

1) on recognising members of various Ukrainian political organisations (including members of the war-time and post-war nationalist underground) as ‘fighters for Ukrainian independence’;

2) on celebrating victory over Nazism in the Second World War (1939–1945), establishing 8 May as Day of Memory and Reconciliation, and maintaining 9 May as Victory Day;

3) on creating open access to archives of the Communist regime (1917–1991) and the transfer of all relevant documents to a new archive based at the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory;

4) on condemning the Communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes, banning the propaganda of their symbols (with potential criminal prosecution for preparing and using these symbols; re-naming of towns and streets carrying the names of high-ranking Soviet officials). 

The politics of these new laws is clear: they draw a symbolic dividing line between post-Maidan Ukraine and Putin’s Russia. This division is supposedly drawn not in terms of language or religious identification, but an attitude to the Soviet past – glorified in Russia, condemned in Ukraine.

Goodbye Lenin 

Traditionally, in post-Soviet Ukraine, it is the local authorities who take the lead (and have the appropriate powers) when dealing with questions of history such as erecting (or dismantling) monuments and re-naming streets.

This has led to serious differences in the country’s symbolic landscape. Back in the early 1990s, Lenin monuments and street names were replaced with figures from the national (and nationalistic canon) in eastern Galicia (often mistaken for the entire West Ukraine). The rest of Ukraine experienced much less change in this regard. In the center of Kyiv, one Lenin monument on the Maidan was dismantled in 1991, the other – in front of the Bessarabs’kyi market – survived until 8 December 2013.

Indeed, it was this Lenin monument in Kyiv which became the first victim of the ‘Leninopad’ movement – the destruction of Lenin monuments all over Ukraine (usually perfomed at night by unidentified activists using right-wing symbols).


Slovyansk, Ukraine: this monument to Lenin is covered in the national colours of Ukraine. (c) Olga Ivashchenko / Demotix.

During the ‘Leninopad’, more than 500 monuments to Lenin were dismantled in Ukraine. Seventeen hundred monuments to the leader of the October revolution remain. One could say that the newly adopted laws are designed to legitimise the ongoing process of dismantling Lenin. 

Insurgent army 

With a history including anti-Jewish violence and the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Volhynia in 1943, the legal status of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) underground is no less difficult.

The local memory of eastern Galicia, as well as the national historical narrative, concentrates on the struggle of the UPA against Soviet rule (continuing into the 1950s), and the severe Soviet repressions in response. More than once, the Ukrainian parliament has failed to grant the status of war veterans to the nationalist combatants (the last attempt came after EuroMaidan).

One could argue that the newly adopted law proposes a kind of ‘compromise’ by granting UPA veterans the special status of ‘fighters for Ukrainian independence’, but refusing to give them the same social privileges as Soviet veterans.


October 2014: supporters of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) rally in downtown Kyiv. (c) Oleg Pereverzev / Demotix.

Aside from political considerations and historiographic battles, it is hard to overlook numerous legal problems with the adopted laws. In particular, the lack of clarity over the concept of ‘propaganda’ and its potential for abuse; the absence of a clear list of symbols which should be banned; the unjustifiably harsh punishment for preparation and use of banned symbols (up to five years in prison) and so on. 

Legal experts have claimed that these ‘historical’ laws could lead to serious limitations on the freedom of expression. Moreover, they violated the Constitution of Ukraine and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Regardless, President Poroshenko signed all the laws, and then announced their further improvement. 

Déjà vu 

In the debate over the adopted laws, there was a tendency to over-emphasise the dangers of ‘de-Communisation’ in Western publications, and to minimise or even neglect it in the domestic Ukrainian debate. Among historians, two clear camps have formed, and they (to paraphrase Mikhail Zoshchenko) have ‘expressed their ideology to the fullest.'

At times, as people condemn whichever ideological project they see fit depending on party affiliation, the discussion between those who support and those who oppose ‘de-Communisation’ (a term used to mean both the laws passed and a broader – yet indistinct – ideological project) recalls parallel Komsomol meetings. Indeed, there was something oddly familiar in both sides’ approach to this issue: the notion of the historian as doctor who has to prescribe society medicine against Communism or nationalism.


With the ban on the KPU in the background, May Day in Kyiv was tense. (c) Stas Kozlyuk / Demotix.

What’s more, both sides of the ideological barricade depend on one another. They need each other so they can put their opponent into a clearly defined ideological box, using that pigeon-holing as leverage for moral superiority and social capital. 

In Western academia, this can still be accomplished easily by exploiting the stereotypical image of Eastern Europe as a territory riven by political anarchy, economic backwardness and ethnic nationalism. In Ukraine, you can play off a feeling of insufficient empathy on the part of the ‘Western world’ – their numerous prejudices and defensive reactions.

By echoing these sentiments, it is not particularly hard to earn the reputation of a patriot and a person of firm convictions. These two seemingly antagonistic ideological positions co-exist perfectly. By unmasking each other, they mutually support and fuel each other.

For instance, in the heat of the moment, a striking similarity between ‘anti-Donetsk’ or ‘anti-Galician’ logic often goes unnoticed. Both narratives posit a ruined ideal (either European or Orthodox, depending on your ideological position) and a crudely simplified image of the imagined opposing group (‘Galicians’, ‘residents of the Donbas’). Likewise, each group is separated by ‘identity’ or ‘values’, which it supposedly imposes on the rest of Ukraine aggressively, thereby preventing the country from ‘normalising’.

To me, this image of Ukraine seems not only discriminatory and destructive, but unattractive and far removed from social and cultural realities. Asserting that all those who support the ‘rehabilitation of UPA’ or the ‘preservation of Lenin monuments’ share the ideology of integral nationalism or Marxism-Leninism (or at least have a notion of what they are) seriously simplifies the unique pluralism of contemporary Ukraine.

What is even more problematic, though, is that the Ukrainian public sphere still lacks criticism of integral nationalism and its symbolism seen from democratic, pluralistic viewpoints, rather than from the perspective of the ‘Russian world’ or the ‘Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people’.

Ukraine lacks a critique of the Communist narrative, which doesn’t elicit suspicion of the author’s narrowly nationalist outlook. It is crucial for such criticism to refrain from totalitarian ideological connotations. It is no less important, in my opinion, to abstain as historian from coming across as arrogant and to avoid a patronising and self-righteous tone. 


Hence the need for responsible contextualisation. The attempts to deny, minimise, or justify the massacres of Poles in Volhynia (a territory on the current Polish-Ukrainian border) in 1943 is but one painful example of the necessity for good history

The history of the Ukrainian nationalist underground cannot be reduced to Volhynia, but it’s impossible to tell that history responsibly without it. This is all the more true given that the history of this planned ethnic cleansing can (and, in my opinion, should) be analysed not through the categories of ethnic accusations, but in the context of serious research on how situations of violence arise, the dynamics that govern them. 

Not only does reducing the Volhynia question to collective ethnic accusations lack heuristic potential, but it can even lead to political misunderstandings, which are tragicomic at best. 

Take, for example, Vadym Kolesnichenko (a Rada deputy from the Party of Regions). In 2013, Polish kresy [borderlands] organisations awarded a prize to Kolesnichenko after he publicly declared the Volhynian massacre ‘genocide’. It’s unfortunate that, before celebrating this odious figure, the Polish kresy enthusiasts did not ask him about the perpetrators of the Katyń massacre – the organised shooting of Polish officers by the NKVD in 1941. (They would have gotten quite an interesting answer.) 


April 2015: people march in central Warsaw in memory of the Polish officers killed at Katyn. (c) Celestino Arce / Demotix.

We need to realise just how fraught the risks of selective ethnicisation are. This is a phenomenon that is flourishing in the public sphere currently. In the context of the victory over Nazism, the Kremlin emphasises the ‘deciding role’ played by the Russian nation, but when talking about the artificial famine of 1932–33, they point to the ‘multinational’ makeup of the Politburo. 

Selective ethnicisation is by no means the sole prerogative of Vladimir Putin. To take a Ukrainian example: on the one hand, several Ukrainian media outlets have portrayed Ukrainians serving in the Red Army as the liberators of Auschwitz, but, on the other, the very same media identified the Red Army soldiers involved in the mass rapes perpetrated during the war as Russians. 

How to deal with the Soviet past?

Discussing the ‘de-Communisation’ laws presents us all with a truly difficult question: How should we deal with the Soviet past?

In my opinion, we need to come to understand the heterogeneity and inconsistencies of the past – which in no way calls the criminal character of the Soviet regime into question. Here, it’s also important to think about the problem of contemporary ignorance and incomprehension. 

Currently, the question of renaming Dnipropetrovsk (after Grigory Petrovsky, a leading Bolshevik and the head of the Soviet Ukrainian government during the 1930s) is being hotly debated. Much less is being said about Dnipropetrovsk residents’ almost complete ignorance of who Petrovsky was. Is it important to know about Petrovsky in order to condemn Communist crimes? How important is it to know that, by contrast, it was the Soviet authorities who erected a monument to the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko in L’viv and popularised his works, while, on the other hand, censoring Franko and adapting him to the demands of ‘constructing Communism’?

The interconnection of (not) knowing and condemning, the means and methods of disseminating knowledge, the phenomenon of aestheticising political evil and the ‘forbidden fruit’ – this is far from an exhaustive list of subjects, which are practically absent from the current discussion in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in the international discussion, there is much being written about whether ‘history’, ‘memory’ and ‘identity’ are the main causes of Maidan, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. Identity and history are brought up much more frequently than the desire for political freedoms, corruption, economic problems, group pressure, the behavior of local elites, or the makeup of subversive groups.

Are we capable of thinking about Ukraine beyond identity, historical memory and the clash of civilisations? Maidan, among other things, became a way for society as a whole to reject constructed divisions, previously presented to us as insurmountable and primordial. In this sense, Maidan emphasised something far from sensational: in contemporary Ukraine, the language used for everyday communication does not automatically equal ethnic identification and political loyalty.

Nevertheless, instead of looking for appropriate and dynamic methods for analysing the realities of Maidan and the post-Maidan era, a significant number of analysts remained loyal to the familiar, stereotypical paradigms of ‘two Ukraines’ and ‘ethnic zones’. 

The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas are still more frequently described using the categories of identity and historical rights rather than through a careful analysis of the behaviour of key actors (above all, local elites and the Russian intervention).

Beyond identity

The persistence of the ideologically coloured language of identity can be felt acutely in the Ukrainian, Russian, English, Polish and German language discussions of Maidan and its consequences. The social, economic, generational, educational and gender-related aspects of Ukrainian society are frequently neglected, and Russian interference is explained through the ‘provocative’,‘imprudent’, or simply ‘nationalist’ policies of Kyiv, in keeping with the logic of ‘blame the victim’. 

At the same time, the Ukrainian public sphere (not without the participation of renowned writers and journalists) continues to revive the discriminatory notions of a ‘hopelessly Sovietised’ Donbas.

Ukraine needs a new analytical language to describe itself and to be described. The existing schemes are too narrow for such a complex society. In our search for this new language, we should remember an important point by Rory Finnin: ‘heterogeneity and contestation are not necessarily a sign of weakness, nor are homogeneity and consensus always a sign of strength.’

Finally, we also need to analyse ‘identity-talk’ by various social actors rather than positing ‘identity’ as the main reason for social action. Proper contextualisation, as well as cross-regional and transnational perspectives, could bring important insights.

Editor’s note: The first version of this piece was originally published by Krytyka.

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