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The Future Of The Past: Ukraine Pushes De-Communization, Amid Russian Protests

  • Robert Coalson

A toppled statue of Vladimir Lenin in the Ukrainian city of Krivoy Roh

A toppled statue of Vladimir Lenin in the Ukrainian city of Krivoy Roh

In late September 2014, a cheering crowd waving Ukrainian flags and shouting "Glory to Ukraine!" pulled down a massive statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin. On his Facebook page, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov expressed no remorse for the fallen idol.

"Let him fall," he wrote. "As long as this bloody communist idol does not take any more victims when it goes."

The dramatic destruction of Lenin statues across Ukraine during the height of the Euromaidan events was more than just a moving visual. It was a return to a crucial psycho-cultural process that the country began but never finished with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- a process that Vladimir Putin's Russia considers just as threatening as the prospect of Ukraine joining the European Union or NATO.

On April 9, Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed four sweeping laws on de-communization that, among other things, ban Soviet symbols and equate the Soviet and Nazi regimes. The laws' initiators hope they will bring about a final and irrevocable break with Ukraine's Soviet past -- and by extension, with Putin's Russia.

"Any reform comes with costs," says Volodymyr Vyatrovych, director of Ukraine's Institute of National Memory. "But I think those costs will be justified because this is precisely how a country begins to change. We again are looking at the experience of the countries of Eastern Europe (the former Soviet-bloc countries and the Baltic states), which passed through de-communization -- see how far they have moved as normal, democratic states."

"On the other hand," he adds, "we can look at countries like Russia or Belarus, where there has been no process of de-communization. On the contrary, there we see the rehabilitation of the Soviet past. And these states are moving increasingly toward authoritarianism."

WATCH: A giant statue of Lenin is toppled in Kharkiv in September:

Moscow's reaction to Ukraine's de-communization initiative has been as harshly negative as was its reaction to past calls in Ukraine to join the European Union or NATO. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement on April 10 described the new laws as part of "an accelerating struggle against the heroic past of the people of Ukraine."

"By labeling the period from 1917-1991 as a period of struggle for the independence of Ukraine and declaring the 'communist totalitarian regime" of that period to be 'criminal' and 'waging a policy of state terror,' the present Ukrainian authorities are trying to erase from the memory of millions of Ukrainians the pages of the real history of Ukraine in the 20th century and its steady development as part of the Soviet Union," the statement adds.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 14 that the new laws are "fatal" for the Minsk process to regulate the war in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists.

In the view of Putin's Kremlin, the communist past is a time of economic progress, social order, and -- most importantly -- victory over Nazi Germany. For a growing number of Ukrainians, it is a time of famine, terror, and the repression of Ukrainian national ambitions.

The broad package of laws include provisions for centralizing and opening all archives of Soviet-era security organs, the equal condemnation of communist and Nazis totalitarianism in Ukraine, a ban on Nazi and communist symbols, the honoring of "those who struggled for Ukraine's independence in the 20th century," the elimination of communist-inspired names for streets, squares, and other places, and guidance on the commemoration of World War II.

"The main motivation of lawmakers in passing these laws," says Ukrainian sociologist Viktor Nebozhenko, "was to give a certain ideological response to Russian aggression, as it is understood by the present political class in Ukraine."

Nebozhenko adds that public opinion in Ukraine clearly supports greater de-communization. He says his polling agency "long ago" stopped conducting surveys on Ukrainian attitudes toward Lenin and Stalin and "even our Communists themselves no longer parrot Soviet ideology."

A supporter of the Russian Communist Party holds portraits of Vladimir Lenin (left) and Josef Stalin during a procession to mark Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23.

A supporter of the Russian Communist Party holds portraits of Vladimir Lenin (left) and Josef Stalin during a procession to mark Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23.

It is a completely different story across the border in Russia, says Lev Gudkov, head of Russia's Levada Center polling agency. In Russia, positive and neutral views of Stalin have been rising steadily since shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, Gudkov notes, Stalin is widely considered the greatest figure in Russian history, surpassing even historical giants like Peter the Great and Aleksander Nevsky.

State media have been conducting "an unrelenting, gradual, and systematic intoxication of public opinion" in favor of Stalin and the communist system.

"I would say that together with the growth in the positive assessment of Stalin, we are also seeing a growth in indifference toward him," Gudkov says. "Most of all, the number of people with negative associations -- those who are clearly anti-Stalin and anticommunist -- is becoming smaller, and this is a goal of [state] propaganda."

According to a Levada poll in March, 37 percent of Russians viewed Stalin either entirely or mostly favorably; 29 percent were indifferent to him; and only 25 percent viewed him mostly or entirely negatively. Thirty-seven percent said they either respected or sympathized with him, while 30 percent said they have no emotional reaction to him, and only 9 percent said they dislike or despise him.

The celebration of a positive narrative of the Soviet experience is a means of coping with the trauma of Stalinism, analysts say. It is also a step toward reestablishing the primacy of the repressive state that could have been destroyed if the true extent of its crimes against the Soviet people were ever fully exposed.

WATCH: Locals look on as a Lenin statue is toppled in Kramatorsk, which has become the de facto regional capital since pro-Russian rebels took the city of Donetsk:

British historian Orlando Figes writes in his 2008 book The Whisperers that "the idea of a common Soviet purpose…helped people to come to terms with their suffering by giving them a sense that their lives were validated by the part they had played in the struggle for the Soviet ideal." Likewise, it provided psychological justification for those who perpetrated Stalinist crimes or were complicit in them.

The Soviet role in World War II -- or, the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets came to call it -- is particularly "potent" in this respect, the historian writes.

Figes notes that Victory Day, May 9, was not even a holiday in the Soviet Union until 1965, when Leonid Brezhnev reestablished firm control after the partial de-Stalinization of Nikita Khrushchev's Thaw.

It was during this period that, along with pompous military parades on Red Square, the idea that collectivization, massive industrialization, terror, and political repression were the necessary foundation of the Soviet war victory became the official government narrative.

Ihor Kulik, director of the state archive of the SBU, Ukraine's security service, emphasizes that Ukraine's new laws do not outlaw any ideology or ban any political parties.

"We are talking about the understanding of the past," he says. "Some are saying that we are throwing away 70 years. But really no one is throwing away 70 years. It is our history and we have to research it and learn it. But we cannot hand over the entire history of those 70 years to those old Soviet clichés that are nothing but praise."

Ukraine has attempted various forms of de-communization several times since independence -- without success. The latest effort -- bolstered by the demands of an energized post-Euromaidan public and by the effects of the conflict with Russia -- could be a different story

"I want to emphasize that these laws do not put an end to this question," says Volodymyr Tilishchak, deputy director of Ukraine's Institute of National Memory. "They only open the door to a final transcendence of the consequences of totalitarianism, to the opening up of a history that is not muddled with myths, so that we can understand the past and so that we can create our own future."

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Russian services and by Current Time television
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to