KYIV – Ukraine’s Parliament approved several historic bills on April 9 that take unprecedentedly decisive steps to part with the country’s Soviet legacy, which is widely blamed for the inability to reform and strengthen Ukraine despite more than two decades of independence.
One of the bills recognizes on the state level all those who fought for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century, most notably the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) that was launched in 1943 to fight both the Germans Nazis and the Soviet Red Army.
Another bill requires the removal of all public Soviet symbols and monuments, and the renaming of all cities, towns and villages bearing Soviet names. The largest to be affected is Dnipropetrovsk, the city of 993,000 residents named after Grigory Petrovsky, a leader in the Red Terror of 1918-1923 and the Holodomor of 1932-1933.
“From now on, children won’t ride on carousels in parks named after executioners, students won’t study in institutes named after terrorists, and lovers won’t arrange their dates on squares named after killers,” National Deputy Yuriy Lutsenko, head of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc parliamentary faction, wrote on his Facebook page.
“Goodbye Lenin, USSR and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. So long, Dnipropetrovsk and Kirovohrad. Die off, streets named after the red devils. Eternal glory to those who fought for, and are fighting for, Ukraine’s will,” he wrote.
Never had Ukraine’s Parliament had attempted such radical de-Sovietization, which was constantly undermined by the Party of the Regions and the Communist Party, both aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Verkhovna Rada was only able to approve such measures after both parties were swept out by the October 2014 elections.
Former President Viktor Yushchenko was the first to begin de-Sovietization efforts on the national level, issuing decrees that ordered the removal of Soviet monuments from public spaces. It was Mr. Yushchenko who granted posthumous Hero of Ukraine status to UPA Commander-in-Chief Roman Shukhevych in 2007.
He gave the same status in early 2010 to Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) leader Stepan Bandera, in what was widely acknowledged as a cynical gambit to boost voter turnout for Viktor Yanukovych, then running in the presidential election against Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Mr. Yushchenko considered his nemesis. But Mr. Yushchenko never led an effort to grant state recognition to the UPA as a force fighting for Ukrainian independence.
The bill approved on April 9, “On the Legal Status and Honoring the Memory of Fighters for Ukrainian Independence in the 20th Century,” recognizes all those who fought for Ukraine’s independence in armed, paramilitary, underground or political organizations – as well as those who fought individually – including the UPA, the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, the Ukrainian National Republic, government bodies of Carpatho-Ukraine, the Ukrainian Helsinki Union and dozens of others. The measure drew 271 votes – 45 more than was necessary for the bill’s passage.
Adding to the poetic justice of this moment – during which Ukrainians are yet again waging a war for their independence – was the fact that the bill’s sponsor and author was National Deputy Yurii Shukhevych, the 82-year-old son of the legendary UPA commander.
“The main goal of this bill is fulfilling the testament of the fighters for Ukraine’s will in the 20th century regarding the Ukrainian state’s official recognition and honoring of all fighters for Ukraine’s independence,” according to the bill’s explanatory note authored by Mr. Shukhevych, a member of Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party.
“Those heroes who gave their lives for Ukraine’s independence don’t need any benefits, certificates, public transport passes, and so forth. The heroes who fought for Ukrainian independence died with the hope that one day, in the independent Ukraine that they won, they would be remembered, prayed over in molebens, and everything would be done to honor the memory of their holy fight for the freedom of their native land,” Mr. Shukhevych noted.
Also recognized by the legislation are the Western Ukrainian National Republic of 1918-1919, the Poliska Sich insurgent army led by Taras Bulba-Borovets, the Eastern Lemko and Hutsul republics, the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council, the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations, and the National Rukh for Perebudova, among many others.
Mr. Shukhevych said more groups could be added to the list if research discovers them.
Besides offering benefits to those recognized as having fought for Ukraine’s independence, the law requires the state to raise public awareness of the history of liberation struggle, to develop and improve school textbooks on the struggle, and to organize programs and events commemorating the struggle.
“One can have different attitudes towards Bandera, as in the east and the west, but one can’t not recognize the right of Ukrainians to defend their freedoms, which were justly and legally used to the fullest extent by Ukrainian fighters, from the Sich Riflemen to today’s volunteer battalions,” Mr. Lutsenko told the Verkhovna Rada on the day of the vote.
Another legislative item that day, the bill “On Condemning the Communist and National-Socialist (Nazi) Totalitarian Regimes on Ukraine and Forbidding the Propaganda of their Symbols,” drew 254 votes in favor. It was sponsored by 13 national deputies.
The measure condemns the Communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes in Ukraine as criminal, forbids the public denial of the criminal nature of these totalitarian regimes, and forbids the public display and propaganda of their symbolism. Yet the punishment for violating these prohibitions is not outlined.
“This bill doesn’t forbid ideology, because that’s unacceptable for any democratic country,” Mr. Lutsenko said in Parliament that day, practically acting as the president’s spokesman. “This bill bans totalitarian regimes, no matter what color they paint themselves – Communist, fascist or any other. The totalitarian regime is banned and condemned by Ukraine.”
“So we are fighting not against ideas, philosophies and academics, but against executioners and killers who tormented the country. And we won’t allow any more of that in Ukraine for as long as democracy is here,” he added.
The bill stipulates that all Communist symbols be removed from the public sphere within six months of the president’s signing of the legislation, which is fully expected. That includes hammer and sickle flags and bas-reliefs, as well as monuments to Soviet heroes. It also includes the Soviet names of state institutions, streets and population centers.
Dnipropetrovsk will likely become Dnipro, as it’s now commonly referred to, or Sicheslav, the name proposed in 1918 by the Ukrainian National Republic, observers said.
Kirovohrad – the oblast center of 233,000 residents named for the Russian Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov, who never lived in Ukraine – is likely to return to its previous name of Yelysavethrad, named in honor of the Christian saint who informed Mary of her Immaculate Conception.
As always happens when de-Sovietization is pursued, Ukraine’s Russophile forces have already begun to complain about the hassles it will cause, such as standing in lines for new residency stamps, as well as the costs involved in removing monuments and symbols and changing street signs.
Economist Oleksandr Okhrymenko, known for his pro-Russian leanings, estimated those costs at 5 billion hrv (about $232 million), or 1 percent of the state budget, reported the segodnya.ua news site.
The Russian government also has raised its voice in protest.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov alleged the Verkhovna Rada had engaged in making heroes of Nazis, referring to the state recognition of the contributions of the OUN and the UPA to the liberation struggle.
“I think they understand just how ruinous for the peace process such activity of the Verkhovna Rada is,” he said during peace talks in Berlin on April 13. “So far, we haven’t heard any assurances from the EU and our German and French partners that some steps will be taken. But it seems to me that they all understand well, particularly that continuing the path of making heroes of Nazis and removing hero status from the true heroes of the second world war and the Great Patriotic War risks undermining the Minsk process.”
In response to such criticism, historian Volodymyr Viatrovych – who performed research at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute in 2010-2011 and currently serves as the head of the Institute of National Memory – pointed out that most of the post-Communist countries that are currently European Union member-states passed similar laws long ago.
Mr. Viatrovych was one of the main authors of the legislation.
“Our main task is for the ‘sovok’ [Soviet man] not to be recreated in future generations,” he told the Ukrayinska Pravda news site in an interview published on April 10. “In general, all our work is oriented towards the young generation, which they tried to inoculate with ‘sovok’ practices and traditions, masking them as ‘respect for veterans.’ But the cult of war, and the honoring of veterans and victims, are absolutely different things.”
Yet even some of Ukraine’s pro-Western advocates criticized the legislation that he helped draft. Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group said the measures seem designed to strangle any attempts at real historical study of World War II.
“Viatrovych undoubtedly has the right to his own view, but neither he nor the Institute he now heads has the right to determine what parts of history are remembered and how,” she said.
The timing of the bills is also questionable, critics said, giving Mr. Putin even more fodder to demonize Ukrainians ahead of the May 9 Victory Day commemoration. It can also serve his goal of dividing Western-oriented and Russian-oriented Ukrainians, with the latter largely residing in the southeastern oblasts that Mr. Putin wants to split from Ukraine in order to create a loyal Novorossiya state.
Critics also argued that the law is “seriously destructive” given such geographical divides, the current war being waged by the Russian government, and the relentless attempt to sow division and enmity among Ukrainians.
A third bill establishes May 8 as the national Day of Memory and Reconciliation, bringing Ukraine into line with the rest of the world in recognizing that day as the conclusion of World War II.
The bill, “On Remembering the Victory over Nazism in the World War II,” avoids canceling May 9 as a national Victory Day holiday, but does eliminate the official use of the term “Great Patriotic War.”
It also prohibits the falsification of the Second World War in academic studies, teaching, methodical literature, textbooks, the media, public addresses by authorities, and local government officials and bodies.
A fourth bill approved that day, “On Access to the Archives of the Repressive Bodies of the Communist Totalitarian Regime,” reinforces public access to Soviet documents and places the state archives under the control of the Institute for National Memory.