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Dispute Rages Over Soviet General's Grave In Ukraine

The Soviet-era monument to General NIkolai Vatutin in Kyiv.
The Soviet-era monument to General NIkolai Vatutin in Kyiv.

More than 70 years after his death, Soviet military commander Nikolai Vatutin is at the heart of a bitter spat between Russia and Ukraine.

There have been rumors in the Russian press about Ukraine's alleged plans to dismantle the monument to Vatutin in central Kyiv, a stone's throw from parliament.

According to the reports, Ukrainian authorities intend to cremate Vatutin's remains, buried under the monument, unless his relatives collect them.

Kyiv, however, firmly denies the claims.

A Just Russia, a Russian political party seen as loyal to the Kremlin, ratcheted up tensions this week by stating that Vatutin's daughter had requested that her father's body be repatriated to Russia after authorities in Kyiv personally informed her of their plans.

Party leader Sergei Mironov was quick to throw his weight behind the reburial initiative.

"Our duty is to shield the grave and the monument from the danger they face today," he wrote in the April 8 press release. "Reburying the general and transferring the monument to his homeland would be a correct and timely act."

With relations between Russia and Ukraine at their lowest since the demise of the Soviet regime, Vatutin has become a polarizing figure.

The Russian general commanded Red Army operations in Ukraine during World War II.

Despite liberating Kyiv from Nazi German forces, he was attacked by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a partisan unit that fought both Nazi troops and the Red Army, and died of his wounds in April 1944.

The UPA was organized by supporters of controversial Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, branded a neo-Nazi by Russian state media.

Since Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted following mass protests in Kyiv, Russia has repeatedly accused the new Western-leaning government in Kyiv of being followers of Bandera, or "Banderovtsy."

A Just Russia is no exception.

"General Vatutin died after being attacked by nationalists, Banderovtsy from the so-called Ukrainian Insurgent Army," Mironov wrote in the press release. "Today, their heirs and successors are in power in Ukraine. And they don't hide their hatred for heroes of the Great Patriotic War such as Nikolai Vatutin."

Mixed Feelings

Vatutin's daughter, too, has only harsh words for the Ukrainian leadership.

Yelena Vatunina, who lives in Prague, confirms writing to Russian President Vladimir Putin last month to petition for her father's reburial in Moscow.

She has yet to receive an answer.

"My father's grave is located where they stirred all this trouble, near the Verkhovna Rada," she told RFE/RL. "And who are they? They are all Banderovtsy. My father also died because of Banderovtsy."

But she says her request was inspired solely by her distaste for Ukraine's new government and denies being contacted by Ukrainian authorities about plans to dismantle the memorial.

"We don't know anything yet," she says.

Vatutina is also unlikely to back proposals to transfer the entire monument, which she describes as an architectural "monster," to Russia.

Meanwhile, Ukraine insists the monument will remain in place, together with Vatutin's ashes.

Lawmaker Oleksandr Brygynets, the former head of the Kyiv City Council's commission on culture, admits that feelings are mixed in Ukraine about Vatutin's legacy.

But he says the general's final resting place should still be in Ukraine, not Russia.

"I'm not in favor of people who symbolize Soviet rule being actively represented in the streets of Kyiv," he says. "On the other hand, I strongly believe we need to preserve monuments to people who are part of Kyiv's history, and Vatutin is unquestionably one of them.

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    Oleksandra Vagner

    Oleksandra Vagner is an editor for RFE/RL's Russian Service, based in Prague since 2006. Born in Kyiv in 1979, she graduated from the Kyiv Institute of Journalism with a master's degree. She studied English at City College Brighton and Hove in the United Kingdom. She has worked for Ukrainian newspapers and been published in the analytical weekly Zerkalo nedeli and several European publications. She was an employee of the Czech Republic's foreign broadcasting service, Radio Prague.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.