Goodbye Lenin

The city of Donetsk has a Lenin district, a Kalinin district, and a Budyonny district. It has a Lenin Avenue, Ilich Avenue, Alexander Ulyanov Street, Mariia Ulyanova Street, Kalinin Street, Kiubyshev Street, Frunze Street, Kirov Street, 18th Party Congress Street, Red Guards Street, Budyonny Street, Budyonny Partisan Street, Proletarian Street, Red Proletarian Street, Engels Street, and many, many more commemorating the Soviet Union, the Communist Party, and communist heroes past. A law passed by the Ukrainian Parliament this week prohibits all of these. The law bans the promotion of communism, the use of communist symbols (such as the hammer and sickle), and ‘names of streets, squares, enterprises, institutions and organizations who used the names of leaders of the communist regime, the names of the USSR, Soviet Republics, USSR, names associated with the Communist Party congresses, etc.’ Communist symbols, it says, ‘may be used only in the museum, works of art, for the purposes of research and/or as a description of historical events.’

Under the new law, were Donetsk ever to be reintegrated with the rest of Ukraine, all of the place names above would have to change, as would countless others like them in Donetsk and many other towns and villages. As the price of reconciliation, the inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine would have to accept a wholesale rewriting of their history.

What lies behind this sweeping piece of legislation? A couple of reasons come to mind. One has to do with values, another to do with identity. First, some Ukrainians see the survival of a so-called ‘Soviet mentality’ among a significant part of the population (disparagingly referred to as ‘Sovoks’) as a serious obstacle standing in the way of their country becoming a liberal, democratic, Western society. The prevalence of Soviet values in Eastern Ukraine is seen as a major cause of the insurrection there. Supposedly, Ukraine can only achieve its goal of becoming a European country by adopting a new set of values and turning its back decisively on its Soviet past. Second, some other Ukrainians, especially in Western Ukraine, regard communism as an alien, foreign, primarily Russian, ideology, which suppressed and even attempted to exterminate Ukrainian identity. To promote that identity in independent Ukraine, Soviet symbols must be eradicated.

These positions are not completely unreasonable. As I wrote in a previous post, ‘I cannot think of anything positive to say about Lenin, consider communism wrong in theory and disastrous in practice, and view the continuing Soviet mentality as something which Ukraine would be better off without.’ But, as I also wrote, ‘I understand that other people see things differently.’ Attempting to force upon such people a vision of history which they do not share is bound to cause conflict.

In that previous post, I was talking solely about the destruction of Lenin statues. The new law goes far beyond that. It is an assault on the historical identity of a sizeable part of the Ukrainian population. More importantly, it is an assault on the identity of those who are currently in rebellion against the Ukrainian government, many of whom view the Soviet Union as having had some positive characteristics (such as guaranteed employment and social welfare) and as having saved the people of Ukraine from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. By outlawing this version of history, the new law places yet another obstacle in the way of national reconciliation. How can we expect the people of Donetsk to agree to end their rebellion if this means that they must agree to the suppression of their history? Even if the makers of the law are correct that communist symbols are undesirable, the way they have chosen to deal with them is entirely counterproductive.

Moreover, it would be ill-advised even without the ideological element, if only because it is likely to result in injured local pride. Imagine that you live on 18th Party Congress Street. Its name might mean nothing to you, and in principle you might be willing to change it. But if the government in Kiev, 700 kilometres away, which you already dislike, orders you to change it, there is a good chance that you might bristle at the idea. And imagine how you would feel if Kiev then tells you that you have to change every other street name in your neighbourhood as well. From the start of the current crisis, the people of Donbass have been demanding a greater say over local affairs. It’s hard to see how they would tolerate intrusion of this sort.

In his book Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa contrasts two visions of Ukraine: the ‘monist’ and the ‘pluralist’. The first seeks to create a country with a homogenous identity. The second believes that Ukraine would be better off celebrating diversity. Sakwa argues that the war in Donbass is largely a product of attempts to impose the first vision at the expense of the second. One might have hoped that the war would have taught those in authority in Kiev that a new approach was needed. Instead, the law outlawing communist symbols suggests that they have decided to double down, and to exploit the emotions created by the war as an opportunity to advance their agenda with extra zeal. They have a choice: either they can continue to pursue their monist agenda, or they can seek reconciliation with Donbass in order to reunite the country. They cannot do both. It seems that they have chosen the former.

10 thoughts on “Goodbye Lenin”

  1. Paul, the current financial crisis in Ukraine, and the differing attitudes to it, remind me much of what it was like in Moscow in 1992. At the time, in March, my wife and I went on a ‘test visit’ to see if we would accept a placement as development workers in Belarus or Russia for World Vision. My soon-to-be boss put us up in the Slavyanskaya at Kievski Vokzal in Moscow, and I remember being appalled at the vast difference between the utter destitute chaos at Kiev Vokzal where babuska’s were selling mended socks, and the opulence in the hotel at a price I had never paid for a hotel room before. My wife was in tears, and I thought we had to say goodbye to the fascinating posting because my boss wanted me to be based in Moscow to manage Belarusian projects. But we decided to also visit Gomel, Belarus, and after a 13-hour train ride we arrived in a city as yet untouched by shock-therapy capitalism. The people we met were wonderful, the city had a surprising cleanliness and order, and within 10 minutes my wife said ‘I can live here’.
    I wanted to share this to somewhat temper our juxtaposition of communism versus capitalism, and also create more understanding for the hunkering back to some of this order and predictability which is part of Donbass’s rejection of the Kiev shock-therapy political and economic chaos. I agree with your article, and also think the complete change of names, mandated by the state, is yet another departure of Kiev from any foreseeable dialogue with those that favor a different approach to nation building. Personally although I do not see myself as a communist, I have tried to distinguish between totalitarian communism, and hard-core socialism. Totalitarianism tends to destroy community, and it is telling that such can happen both under communist ideology as well as under shock-therapy, extreme capitalism.


    1. That’s an interesting story, Josh, thanks. Belarus is something of an outlier, which confounds all the models of the relationship between economic and political reform and economic development, and certainly it has done a better of job of things post-communism than Ukraine.


  2. The conflict in Ukraine is primarily about identity, what is “Ukraine” and what does it mean to be “Ukrainian” is being decided on the battlefields of Donetsk and Luhansk. These questions of Ukrainian identity had remained unanswered since Ukraine’s independence from the USSR, Western Ukrainians and Eastern Ukrainian despite differing in languages, churches and politics both subscribed to the Ukrainian identity and Ukrainian state. The questions and issues of Ukrainian identity can no longer be avoided and prevaricated. A Galician Western Ukrainian idea of Ukrainian identity has taken the ascendency; let us not forget that President Poroshenko recently praised Galicians for being the foundation of Ukrainian statehood.

    This Galician Western Ukrainian interpretation of Ukrainian identity leaves no room for what people in Eastern Ukraine, and especially people of the Donbas value and respect. The Donbas version of history, their heroes, historical figures, symbols and monuments have no place in the new Ukraine and Ukrainian identity. On the contrary the people of Donbas are held in contempt by Galicians who not only deride the “Sovok” mentality of the people of Donbas, some Galicians even go so far as to say the Russophone “katsap” population of Donbas are recent migrants who are living on land of true Ukrainians that died in the famine of the early 30s.

    Though I have not read Sakwa’s book, it is clear that Kiev is pursuing a “monist” policy. Kiev does not seek reconciliation with the people of Donbas, rather their submission and capitulation. The Ukraine Yatsenyuk, Yarosh, Parubiy and Tyahnybok envision is a mono-cultural, mono-lingual unitary state. A Ukrainian identity that defines itself against Russia, such a state and identity cannot accommodate the people of Donbas. Tyahnybok has hailed Japan, and its homogenous demography, culture, mono-lingualism and unitary form of governance as an example Ukraine should aspire to. That is not an example Ukraine should aspire to rather Canada, Switzerland and Belgium would be more pertinent examples.

    Kiev’s pursuit of a “monist” policy towards Donbas and its people I believe will be fatal for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.


  3. It is ironic that the West, especially the EU, is supporting the ‘monist’ vision of Ukraine while at the same time forcing ‘diversity’ on their own subjects in their own countries, through uncontrolled mass immigration and screams of ‘racist’ whenever someone wants to query that policy.
    So yet again we have a ‘do as we say, not as we do’-situation: monist visions are fine if directed against Russians, but must be suppressed with all means when directed against populations in EU states.
    This hypocrisy is truly painful.


  4. Dear Paul:
    My main quibble with your piece is not in what you say, but in what you don’t say, about this “war of civiilizations” going on in Ukraine. The only time you mention the Nazis is by noting that the Soviet Union “saved the people of Ukraine” from Nazis. But you don’t mention either Jews (who were also saved from extermination by Soviet army), nor Banderites (Ukrainians who worked alongside Nazis to exterminate communists and Jews alike, not to mention Poles).

    I assume you are maybe avoiding these hot-button words or maybe even just dumbing down the history, or maybe just trying to narrow the focus of your readers to the relatively minor issue of street names.

    What I am trying to say is that the vast cultural/identity divide between the Western and Eastern Ukrainians is more than about just “Sovok” vs. non-Sovok identity. By posing it in those terms while emitting a little slap in the general direction of the “totalitarian communists”, you show a slight bias in favor of the “Galicians”.

    The general flavor of your argument sounds to me something like, “Well, we know that commies are bad, and European culture is way better, but we should be sensitive in the way we impose our culture on people who still like the old ways.”

    I obviously don’t agree with that, I personally believe Soviet culture was superior to “European” culture in many ways. But it’s okay for us to disagree in our value systems, and that’s not my point. My point is that you omitted to mention a big part of what “European” culture/history is all about, namely the Nazis and their deeds! And that this chunk of history is being played out all over again in the Ukraine civil war.


    1. Yalensis, I know you may not be looking for a reply from me, but I like your points as well as Paul’s. Your putting Soviet culture above European is puzzling to me, because it is insufficiently defined. It would be interesting to see what you mean with ‘Soviet culture’.
      As to Ukraine, I transferred from NGO management into business management, and as such spent a fair amount of time negotiating also with Ukrainians between 1998 and 2012. I always had an eery sense of danger when hearing Ukrainians – primarily women, but also men – go on what I would call ‘ideological tangents’. There was a steady thread of victimization, vindication. This was with people anywhere from Dnepro and westward. The east – and then it was primarily Donetsk – was always, ‘get to the point, pragmatic, let’s get it done’. This sense did translate into company credit being awarded almost never west of the Dnepr.
      Although there is ‘neo-nazi’ content, Ukrainian nationalism has its own recipe which has predetermined most of last year’s events, with the US and a passive EU being more of a catalyst than the primary source. The monist attitude to nation-building is therefore mostly Ukrainian, and has hooked their wagon onto the past (neo-nazi ideology) as well as the present (the US-Nato option) which would allow Ukraine to become the bastion of anti-Russianism in a new cold war, kind of like being a cold war Israel against Russia, eternally funded by a terrified West.
      We deserve those we have elected in most cases, and in the case of Ukraine, that I believe is the case. I blame primarily the Ukrainians, and less so the US, or EU, and even less the Russians. For a nation to keep a grudge for 25 years and blame all on the Soviets for so long is simply preposterous. Yet this is what is happening, and the street name changes (showing that outlawing Russian wasn’t a fluke) are but a small outgrowth of a possibly lethal growth inside western Ukraine’s societal make and a death-wish for it’s future.


      1. Dear Josh,
        You make some very good points about Ukrainian nationalism. I do think you are going too easy on the U.S. or EU, they played a huge role in instigating this civil war. However, I get it, that their attempts would not have been successful, had there not been a kinderbox to begin with. But on the other hand, just about every society on this planet is a kinderbox to begin with. Only irresponsible people play with matches and accelerants in a house full of flammable objects.

        I am trying to think of some analogy, what would happen in the U.S. if some other power (say, China — I realize this is a preposterous analogy) decided to incite a race war in U.S. Say, after Ferguson. It’s not like there isn’t a lot of flammable material there, but, as Lenin used to say, “It takes a spark to light a fire.” Without that intruding spark, the different races muddle by and continue to get along most of the time.

        All the evidence and history show, that U.S. (to a lesser extent, EU) deliberately tossed a Molotov cocktail into the failed state that is Ukraine. Having their own geo-political goals in mind (NATO expansion, Black Sea naval base, shale-fracking contracts, controlling the gas pipelines, etc. – this has all been very well documented.)

        Americans have also shown, in their various adventures around the world (Iraq, Libya, Syria, just to mention such recent ones) that they try to use any existing divisions within the target society — and usually there are plenty of cracks in these societies, which have basically been just pasted together – ethnic, religious, etc. The rulers of those societies try to paper over the cracks and keep everybody from each others throats; whereas Americans always just go rushing in and set people at each other, like some kind of cock fight.
        They don’t do this out of naivete, they do it deliberately.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Deutsche Welle notes that in addition to the cultural whitewashing decrees, Kiev has decided to throw more salt into the wound by officially lionizing Bendarists and similar Nazi collaborators:

    In a second law, all people and organizations who fought, either politically or with weapons, for an independent Ukraine in the 20th century, have now been officially recognized. That also goes for Ukrainian nationalists who fought against the Soviet Union during World War II, some of whom also collaborated with Nazi Germany.

    Til now phrases like “the Kiev fascist junta” have generally made me wince. But now….

    At least the Poroshenko government seems to have accepted reality and given up on retaking Donbas and Crimea. I hope so, anyway. Right now ending the war is the single most important thing for ordinary people in and near Ukraine.


  6. I don’t know if you understand Russian, but here’s a list of what’s now forbidden (the left column) and what’s (temporary?) exempted from the ban (the right column):

    Funny (well, funny? really? I dunno), one of the exemptions is Soviet symbols in textbooks and museums under the condition that they are accompanied by negative comments. Really. Can we say: North Korea?


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