Kathryn McDonald wrote “Leninfall, Identity, and the Role of Government in post-Maidan National Discourse” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.
Nowhere is this quote more true than in present day Ukraine, whose 2015 legislative ban on the display of Communist symbols has facilitated the phenomenon of “Leninfall.”
“Politics in post-communist societies is in large measure a politics of identity.” (1) This is the conclusion of Arthur H. Miller et al., whose analysis of successor states in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union concluded that the construction of new identities depended largely on the ability to prevent both nostalgia for the past, and the idea that identity is defined in exclusive, rather than inclusive, terms (2). Nowhere is this quote more true than in present day Ukraine, whose 2015 legislative ban on the display of Communist symbols has facilitated the phenomenon of “Leninfall,” in which statues of the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known as Vladimir Lenin) have been toppled across the country.
This legislation has vast implications for international peace and security because it stifles the ability of Ukraine’s people to determine their own political future through an honest assessment of their past. Prior to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Ukrainian nationals were denied the opportunity to develop a Ukrainian-centric narrative, and instead operated under a history largely written for them by the Soviet hegemony. In its 25 years of statehood since independence, Ukraine has embraced an eclectic way of dealing with its Soviet past, a process which remains in flux and is influenced by the differing perspectives of Ukrainian nationals socioeconomically and regionally.
The Ukrainian government has now stepped in to similarly limit the free-flow of identity discourse (3).
In 2015, this process was met with a seemingly new wrinkle. Whereas the ability to define the narrative lay previously with the Soviet government (at least until independence in 1991), the Ukrainian government has now stepped in to similarly limit the free-flow of identity discourse (3). This is especially concerning as the country’s political climate evolves and as integration of pro-European Union (EU) and pro-Russian viewpoints continue to be a struggle within the country.
Decommunization in Ukraine
The first of these laws “on the condemnation of the communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes” (“Communist Symbol Ban”) forbids the use or display of Soviet and Nazi symbols and other propaganda, providing for penalties of up to 10 years in prison for acts such as selling a USSR souvenir or singing the Soviet national hymn.
In May 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a set of “decommunization laws” intended to rid the country of communist elements, including through a ban on communist symbols and the criminalization of publicly questioning the legitimacy of acts taken by certain Ukrainian nationalist groups during World War II. (4) The first of these laws “on the condemnation of the communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes” (“Communist Symbol Ban”) forbids the use or display of Soviet and Nazi symbols and other propaganda, providing for penalties of up to 10 years in prison for acts such as selling a USSR souvenir or singing the Soviet national hymn. The ban applies to all monuments, places and street names, with the exception of World War II monuments and symbols in cemeteries. While the wholesale expression of pro-communist views was not made illegal, denial of the “criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine” is indeed a crime.
Politically and practically, they also worry the government’s actions will further fragment the country in an attempt to step out from underneath its Soviet past.
The decommunization laws have raised concerns with human rights and civil liberties advocates alike. Theoretically, many decry Ukraine’s actions as stepping toward democracy at the expense of two of its most beloved tenets: free speech and political freedom. Politically and practically, they also worry the government’s actions will further fragment the country in an attempt to step out from underneath its Soviet past and its current conflict with the Russian Federation. The inherent paradox of a government utilizing identity politics with strong authoritarian elements to facilitate democratization is a core tension that cannot be ignored.
Nearly 900 Lenin monuments have been removed since December 8, 2013
The Communist Symbol Ban required the removal of hundreds of Soviet statues, the replacement of millions of street signs, and the renaming of cities and oblasts (5). This ban has thus facilitated “Leninfall,” the phenomenon of activists tearing down monuments to Vladimir Lenin which were erected throughout the country during the existence of the Soviet Union. Nearly 900 Lenin monuments have been removed since December 8, 2013, when Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, saw its own statute to the Soviet leader toppled by Euromaidan protestors (6).
Geographically, Leninfall has manifested in the way one would expect given Ukraine’s current crisis with Russia. In Western Ukraine, where Soviet ideology was historically embraced less enthusiastically, the majority of monuments were removed in 1991 and 1992 after independence from the USSR. In Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, however, many considered themselves “Russian” despite living within Ukraine’s newly-independent borders. Not surprisingly, Leninfall has not reached as many statutes in this region (7). The majority of monuments, then, have been removed in Northern and Southern Ukraine, where Ukrainian journalists have noted the most transformative activity has occurred – that is, where the majority of Ukraine mobilized at the Maidan protests to reject the hold that Soviet ideology continued to have on Ukrainian life and politics even after independence (8).
Lenin monuments have become a battleground for memory.
Regardless of their location, but particularly in Kiev, Lenin monuments have become a battleground for memory: that of pro-Western nationalists that despise Russian interference with Ukrainian affairs, and that of pro-Russians typically found in the east of the country. To many, Lenin personified generations of Soviet rule, which deprived Ukrainians of earned wealth, forced them to move onto collective farms (“kolkhozy”), and sent them to forced labor camps. For seniors whose experienced these horrors either first hand or through relatives, Leninfall has become a hope for transition to a more democratic way of life, and the downfall of a Soviet regime whose effects still loom large in many parts of daily life. For many younger Ukrainians, Lenin is the symbol of all current things pro-Russian, including Ukraine’s Former President Viktor Yanukovych and his sudden change of an EU-centric policy to align with—and some argue reunify with—the Russian Federation and its President Vladimir Putin. And yet, another side of the debate is that, for others, Lenin statutes advocate for memory of a Soviet regime that brought opportunity and a good life to the Ukrainian citizenry. Education was no longer a privilege just for the rich, adequate housing was provided for, and hospital care was free. Everyone had a job and life was good, albeit simple.
That Leninfall represents more than mere vandalism or a smattering of protest is not lost on either side of the pro-Western/pro-Russia divide. As Adam Taylor of the Washington Post noted, “[t]he moment when Euromaidan protesters toppled Kiev’s most prominent statute of Lenin…now seems like a key point in Ukraine’s political crisis. It was when the world began to realize that this wasn’t just about domestic politics and a potential [EU] membership: the protests were about a broader Ukraine narrative of Russian influence and post-Soviet history.” (9)
History of Ukraine: Memory as Written By Others
Arthur H. Miller’s determination of a direct link between post-communist societies and identity rests upon the idea that construction of new identities depends largely on a State’s ability to both prevent nostalgia for the past and advocate for identity to be defined in inclusive, rather than exclusive, terms. In Ukraine, it is also important to understand precisely from where Ukrainians are coming in their own development of national identity and national memory.
What states possessing political and military prowess take for granted—a self-defined national history—is something Ukrainians have had the opportunity to develop for themselves only since 1991.
As a people, Ukrainians lacked the opportunity to develop their own narrative and understanding of their place in history for most of the 20th and preceding centuries. What states possessing political and military prowess take for granted—a self-defined national history—is something Ukrainians have had the opportunity to develop for themselves only since 1991. Before this point, journalist Alexander J. Moytl notes, Ukrainian history was subsumed under the history of whichever power ruled the territory at the time – until 1917, this meant the Russian Empire, the Austrian (and later Austro-Hungarian) Empire, and Poland (10).
Ukrainians suffered millions of deaths due to war, famine, and repression at the hands of the Communists.
From 1918 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian history was simply part of the narrative of the Russian-led class struggle against capitalism. This history, as told by the Communist Party, was the only “valid” narrative accepted and taught, as an explicitly Ukrainian national project was banned by the USSR. Notable episodes of what would be “Ukrainian history” were either ignored or, worse, actively covered up and revised. For example, between 1914 and Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, ethnic Ukrainians suffered millions of deaths due to war, famine, and repression at the hands of the Communists. This includes the infamous 1932-33 Holomodor, in which four million Ukrainians died in a famine personally orchestrated by Stalin, and which is today considered by some to be a genocide (11). Soviet authorities banned discussion of the famine, and even ordered Ukrainian historian Stanislav Kulchytsky to falsify his findings and depict the famine as an unavoidable natural disaster so as to absolve the Communists of any liability (12).
Since 1991, two competing narratives have dominated the Ukrainian peoples’ development of identity. The first is an overwhelmingly Soviet narrative, and the second is the “infinitely weaker” nationalist story. The problem with these approaches lies in their simplicity and their mutual exclusivity. For example, the dominant Soviet narrative characterizes all nationally conscious Ukrainians with being “nationalist demons” or “fascists.” Indeed, this is how the Putin regime has characterized the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests and the post-Yanukovych government. Under this narrative Ukrainians are reduced to nameless, faceless hooligans interested only in vodka and fighting (13). The current Ukrainian government reinforces this binary view, where any link to the Soviet past or the intertwined history and culture of Ukraine and Russia is seen as aggressive Russian influence in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Little room is left for the perspective of everyday citizens whose beliefs lie somewhere in between.
Put together, one sees that Ukrainians have not had the power to craft their own narrative—or, in the more inclusive sense, narratives—an element necessary to address the harms of the past and move the country forward. Without a space in which memory, identity, and experience may be processed openly and without condemnation, the story of Ukraine and its people will continue to be subsumed by other interests and powers. When it comes to having an open discourse around the myriad elements at play as the country exists in a sort of “political flux,” we see that perspectives differ depending on the region of the country citizens are from and possibly the generation under which they grew up. Something as seemingly innocuous as statues in parks and names of streets becomes ground zero for a discussion of the Ukrainian experience going back 100 years.
How will Ukraine honor the memory of those who suffered at the hands of the USSR?
The Euromaidan protests created space for this discussion. How will Ukraine honor the memory of those who suffered at the hands of the USSR? How will it honor those who identify with the Soviet period? Will it integrate both perspectives into a dialogue about national identity? This will be key to moving forward in whichever direction Ukraine goes – be it toward democracy or another form of governance.
Recent polls show his approval rating at a dire 17% (less than that of Yanukovych at the time he was removed from power), and nearly 95% of Ukrainians feel the Poroshenko administration has done too little to reduce corruption within government and the private sector (14).
In the face of such a broad task, is it advisable that a government play a role in identity formation, particularly when it flies in the face of democratic ideals such as free speech? Theoretically put, do we want governments stepping in to decide what history matters and how memorialization of that history should manifest? Practically asked, do we want Petro Poroshenko and his ilk to be at the helm? Consider that Ukraine’s current president is neither well-liked nor viewed as representative of the wishes of the country. Recent polls show his approval rating at a dire 17% (less than that of Yanukovych at the time he was removed from power), and nearly 95% of Ukrainians feel the Poroshenko administration has done too little to reduce corruption within government and the private sector (14). Ukrainians are growing tired of this democracy “a la Ukraine,” where the perception is that everyone can do what they want, nobody follows the law, and money and status solve most problems.
The Communist Symbol Ban was not an organic law drafted in response to the will of the people. Rather, it was drafted by the Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory, an executive body perceived by many to prioritize advancement of its own political interests at the expense of the population (15). It misappropriates agency from civil society activists working to establish freedom of speech and expression on one hand, and victims and advocates seeking recognition, memorialization, and redress of past conflicts under totalitarian regimes on the other. Ukrainians once again are deprived of the ability to come to their own version of their history, and once again are victims of leadership that baldly is using the legislative process to affect politics, identity, and otherwise, within and outside Ukraine’s borders.
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- Arthur H. Miller et al., “Social Identities in Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania,” Post-Soviet Affairs (1998): 248.
- Miller, et al., “Social Identities,” 248.
- The author wishes to stress that she does not assume wholesale that citizens of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic were mere “victims” of Socialism and a Socialist agenda. To be sure, many had direct and influential roles in shaping the lived-in experience of Socialism throughout the USSR. For example, Ukrainians were present at all levels of government, up to the Central Party Committee (Brezhnev was Ukrainian for instance), and as such they had a big role in shaping and implementing marxist-leninism all across the Soviet state. That said, the fact of an official Soviet policy denying historians and academics the opportunity to document and frame the history of Ukraine independent from the larger Soviet history cannot be ignored.
- УКРАЇНСЬКИЙ ІНСТИТУТ НАЦІОНАЛЬНОЇ ПАМ’ЯТІ (“Ukrainian National Memory Institute”), LAW OF UKRAINE. On the condemnation of the communist and national socialist (Nazi) regimes, and prohibition of propaganda of their symbols, accessed January 12, 2017, http://www.memory.gov.ua/laws/law-ukraine-condemnation-communist-and-national-socialist-nazi-regimes-and-prohibition-propagan.
- Vitaly Shevchenko, “Goodbye, Lenin: Ukraine moves to ban communist symbols”. BBC News, April 14, 2015, accessed May 17, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32267075.
- “Out of Sight: Decommunisation as a way to decolonise the visual space of Ukrainian cities,” The Ukrainian Week, December 28, 2015, accessed http://ukrainianweek.com/Society/154195.
- Anna Abakunova, “Leninfalls in Ukraine: Symbolism and Regional Identities,” Russkii Vopros, No-2014/1, accessed January 6, 2016, http://www.russkiivopros.com/print.php?id=564.
- Abakunova, “Leninfalls.”
- Adam Taylor, “Ukrainians keep pulling down Soviet statues. Now Russia is getting angry,” The Washington Post, February 25, 2014, accessed September 12, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/02/25/ukrainians-keep-pulling-down-soviet-statues-now-russia-is-getting-angry.
- Some scholars and historians disagree with this characterization because, they argue, the famine affected parts of the Belarussian and Russian Soviet Socialist Republics as well—not just the Ukrainian SSR—a fact which negates a charge of genocide aimed specifically at the Ukrainian people.
- Alexander J. Moytl, “National Memory in Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs, August 4, 2016, accessed August 8, 2016, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/print/1117982.
- Clifford Levy, “A New View of a Famine That Killed Millions,” The New York Times, March 15, 2009, accessed August 8, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/16/world/europe/16kiev.html.
- Moytl. “National Memory.”
- Taras Kuzio, “Euromaidan Dreams Deferred,” Foreign Affairs, January 7, 2016, accessed August 28, 2016, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2016-01-07/euromaidan-dreams-deferred.
- Interview with Teyana Girenko, September 9, 2016.