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.