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Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk Digs In To Complex Decommunization Process

  • Yulia Ratsybarska

Scores of Dnipropetrovsk streets and boulevards, not to mention monuments like this one, will be affected by Ukraine's new decommunization law.

Scores of Dnipropetrovsk streets and boulevards, not to mention monuments like this one, will be affected by Ukraine's new decommunization law.

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- As Ukraine pushes forward with the controversial process of decommunization, the east-central city of Dnipropetrovsk has its work cut out.

The huge Petrovsky Metallurgical Plant -- to take one example -- is named after Bolshevik revolutionary Grigory Petrovsky, who oversaw the state security agency in the early years of the revolution, advocated a state policy of terror, and suppressed Ukrainian nationalism. The plant is in the city's Leninsky Raion. And the city itself is named in honor of -- you guessed it -- Grigory Petrovsky.

Prospekt Gazeta Pravdy. Vulytsia Dzerzhinskogo. Prospekt Kirova. That's just a sample of what needs to be addressed to comply with a recently adopted law to eliminate place names honoring the Soviet past. A quick survey indicates that about 80 streets, embankments, squares, and boulevards fall under the provisions of the law. As do five of the city's eight regions. And the name of the city itself.

"We've been given a maximum of two months for everything," Vadim Shebanov, acting chief of staff of the Dnipropetrovsk City Council and a member of the newly formed commission overseeing the name-changing process, said at the commission's first meeting on June 8. "To make a list of the places that need to be renamed and a list of what the new names will be. And there is a third task -- dealing with Lenin monuments. And obviously, we have a lot of Lenin monuments."

On May 15, President Petro Poroshenko signed the laws mandating that within six months Soviet monuments -- except for those relating to World War II -- must be dismantled and public places with communist-related names need to be rechristened. More than 20 Ukrainian cities across the country will have to be renamed, as well as thousands of other locations.

During its first session this week, the 46-member Dnipropetrovsk commission began the onerous task and quickly ran into controversy. Some members argued that, for instance, Vulytsia Chekistov, named to honor members of the Soviet security agencies, might not fall within the scope of the decommunization law, although all agreed it needs to be renamed. On the other hand, opinions were divided over places named in honor of ambiguous historical figures such as Red Army General Grigory Kotovsky (who died in 1925) and Ukrainian Communist Party boss Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, who took some steps to support the Ukrainian language and resist the Russification of Ukraine in the 1970s and 1980s.

Case By Case?

It already became clear at the first session that many commission members want to conduct case-by-case assessments of the historical figures involved. Commission member Serhiy Svitlenko, head of the history department of Dnipropetrovsk National University, resisted suggestions by other members that the body's work be divided up in order to make the tight deadline.

"We must approach the renaming as a whole -- the renaming of cities, streets, squares, and other places is one whole," he said during the commission meeting. "It must be settled systematically."

He added that it is important to have a single, agreed-upon conception of decommunization in order to avoid "half-baked decisions."

Local commissions such as the one in Dnipropetrovsk must also wrestle with the question of how to take public opinion into consideration. There is no national legislation on local referendums and little time to hold them in any case.

In Dnipropetrovsk, committee members discussed organizing opinion polls or conducting an online survey, but no conclusions were reached.

"What can be considered public opinion?" asked acting city executive Halyna Bulavka during the commission meeting. "Relying on the ideas we find on the Internet or social media is obviously not enough."

"We need to determine what the public's opinion is on each question," she added.

Decommunization was one of the key demands of the Euromaidan movement that ousted the government of former President Viktor Yanukovych. However, Russia is against the effort and particularly resents the fact that Ukraine's decommunization laws expressly equate Soviet Communism and German Nazism as criminal regimes. Moscow has argued that Kyiv is trying to rewrite history and that decommunization is part of an effort to oppress Ukraine's ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.

Yet advocates insist Ukraine must pass through the process, just as other former Soviet bloc countries have.

"All postcommunist states understand that abandoning the communist legacy requires abandoning communist thinking, thought patterns, and mentalities," Rutgers University political science professor Alexander Motyl said in a recent interview with Business Ukraine magazine [LINK: http://issuu.com/businessukrainemagazine/docs/businessukraine_may2015/26]. "There is, in this regard, no difference between East European attempts to rid themselves of the communist legacy and German attempts to rid themselves of the Nazi legacy.... Both Nazi Germany and communist Russia wreaked absolute havoc on these countries, and the legacies of both need to be viewed as equally noxious."

Meanwhile in Russia, RIA-Novosti reported on June 8 that communist lawmakers in the Duma have introduced a bill making the equation of communism and Nazism a criminal offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague
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