Ukrainian workers began in mid-March the process of dismantling the country’s largest statue of communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. It took them two days to complete the removal of the monument, which had stood tall in the southeastern city of Zaporizhia since 1964. While over 70 percent of local residents opposed its removal and protested by dressing their Lenin in traditional Ukrainian garb, the statue joined a list of 900 monuments to Soviet leaders uprooted in Ukraine since May 2015.
The controversy in Zaporizhia isn’t the first concern raised about historical revisionism in Ukraine since President Petro Poroshenko signed a set of “decommunization” laws last May. The legislation criminalizes Nazi and communist symbols, and outlaws “public denial of the criminal nature of the Communist totalitarian regime 1917–1991.” Many Ukrainians condemn the laws. Last April, 58 international scholars wrote an open letter to Poroshenko warning that the measures’ “content and spirit contradict one of the most fundamental political rights: the right to freedom of speech.”
The decommunization laws show that today, perhaps more vocally than ever, Ukrainians are fighting for their national identity, one that distinguishes them from their historical adversary, Russia. Ukraine gained independence only 25 years ago and needs time to rediscover its national culture. But ironically, the new laws limit free speech and distort history in a manner that veers dangerously into a Soviet pattern of behavior. After World War II, official Soviet history enforced a narrative of anti-fascism and Soviet heroism in Ukraine. This account erased other histories, from the 1941 massacre of 33,000 Jews by German SS officers at Babi Yar to the activities of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists led by Stepan Bandera and their collaboration with the Nazis.
The decommunization laws are part of an ongoing campaign to restore Ukrainian national heritage. After centuries of attempts by Russia to assert ideological and physical dominance over Ukraine, nationalist fervor only began to resurface in Ukraine with the 2014 Maidan Revolution, which led to the ousting of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. The Director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, Volodymyr Viatroyvch believe that the legislation is necessary to reconstruct a national consciousness quelled for nearly a century of totalitarian rule. “The lack of a decommunization policy in Ukraine after its declaration of independence in 1991 was in part responsible for the revanchist neo-Soviet regime of Yanukovych,” he wrote in an article published by Krytyka Magazine. “The persistent totalitarian past still stands in the way of Ukraine’s development as a European, democratic state.”
Still, the decommunization laws are not only whitewashing Ukraine’s landscape, but diluting its complicated past. Divided multiple ways during World War II, Ukraine was home to Red Army soldiers, Ukrainian nationalists and Nazi collaborators alike. Comfortable in its role as victim, the Ukrainian government is promoting a limited version of history that conveniently excludes anti-Semitic and pro-Soviet narratives and fails to respect dissenting voices such as those in Zaporizhia.
Unchecked nationalism leads to violence and human rights abuses. We saw how Putin disseminated a vision of a great Russia to win support for the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and are seeing today how Ukrainian nationalists inflict brutality in the Donbas. In Eastern Ukraine, about 15,000 pro-Ukrainian volunteers serve in battalions, in addition to official Ukrainian troops. Back in September 2014, Amnesty International issued a report incriminating the volunteer Aidar battalion, which accused four miners from Novodruzhesk of collaborating with pro-Russian separatists. The report states that members of Aidar took the miners to a makeshift detention center to beat and interrogate them.
Ukraine’s problems dealing with its past have not been helped by the West, which continues to portray Ukraine as the victim to justify an anti-Russian foreign policy. Growing tension between Russia and the West is not an excuse to blindly support the politicization of history in Ukraine, which will only barricade the country from developing the democratic values necessary to join the EU. Western efforts would be better directed toward helping the country address rampant internal corruption and meet the requirements for EU membership.
Ukraine’s leaders should focus on rebuilding their national identity by battling corruption and fostering the democracy they fought for in Maidan, welcoming a diverse set of perspectives rather than promoting a single voice. Decommunization will not unravel Ukraine from Russia’s grip, but replicate the patterns of the country’s Eastern neighbor by rewriting history. Hungary, another country wracked with an oppressive communist dictatorship, built Memento Park, finding a place for Soviet monuments and Soviet history. Even South Carolina memorializes four Confederate heroes of the American Civil War in a Mount Rushmore-like stone carving. These spots are controversial, but they acknowledge a fuller and more truthful history. Ukraine should save what relics are left of the Soviet era – at the very least as a reminder of Ukrainian suffering. Otherwise, the country will suffocate its own future.