KIEV, Ukraine - As the whole country is celebrating the 25th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, the national guard keeps vigil near the monument to the Red Army commander Mykola Shchors. The symbol of the Soviet past is now under siege by the national yellow-blue flag cover. Right wing activists that present themselves as descendants of a Ukrainian hero Stepan Bandera are coming to demolish the statue, while a group of the cultural heritage protectors is trying to stop them.
“They call me a scofflaw, but I am not. By organizing such rallies, these people are vandalizing the whole process of decommunization,” says Lidiya Honcharenko, 44, who has come to defend the monument with a dozen of other activists. “We must get rid of the communist past, but not in the way of destroying everything and building nothing in return.”
Ukraine began shedding symbols of its communist past when it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but a more thorough “decommunization” process was triggered during Euromaidan by the so called Leninfall, the mass dismantling of the statues of Vladimir Lenin all over the country. Ukraine started legal purges after four decommunization laws were passed in April, 2015 and included a wide-scale campaign to rename towns, streets and buildings and dismantle monuments of various Communist leaders. According to the National Memory Institute of Ukraine, which contributed to the development of decommunization laws, 962 towns and villages in the country have already been renamed.
Suсh changes sparked a great debate between those who are for decommunization and those who are against it. Some Ukrainians argue the state should not turn a blind eye to the symbols of the past because they bear a negative ballast, whereas others claim that decommunization is a way to distract Ukrainians’ attention from more important economic and social problems in the country.
Activist Honcharenko says she wants to live in a democratic Ukraine that has no vestiges of the dark Soviet period. However, she still feels dissatisfied with the decommunization process. Rather than just destroying the statues, she suggests the government should organize a museum of Soviet life that will be the memory keeper of bitter events in the history of Ukraine and at the same time provide a flow of visitors from abroad that will enrich the state budget. “The Ukrainian model of decommunization is often absurd and goes to extremes,” she said.
For instance, in July, 2016, Moscow Avenue, a major street in the near-center Kiev, was renamed in honor of Stepan Bandera, a rather controversial figure in the world history context. In Ukraine, Bandera is mostly portrayed as a leader of the independence movement and a fighter against the Soviet Union. This version of history, however, is not shared by everyone.
Poland, for example, doesn’t see Bandera as a war hero, but rather a nationalist war criminal. According to the Polish history textbooks, the Volyn massacre of Poles, the mass killings done to purge all non-Ukrainians from the future Ukrainian state, was a genocide. The massacre is believed to have beeen organized by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1943 and inspired by Stepan Bandera.
Ukraine sees it differently. According to the new law “On the Legal Status and Commemoration of Fighters for Ukraine’s Independence in the Twentieth Century” the Ukrainian Insurgent Army with its chief Bandera is considered as one of the main contributors to the country’s independence.
Those randomly asked in the streets of the former Moscow Avenue mostly say they do not understand the reason for renaming it so radically.
“Why hop from Moscow to Stepan Bandera? What did he do for Kiev? He is more welcomed in the Western Ukraine, and while choosing the name for the central avenue in Kiev they could come up with another personality that really contributed to the development of the city,” says Anna Koshman.
Andriy Bykovets, the citizen of Kiev, on the contrary, believes that Soviet symbols in the streets negatively influence Ukrainians on a subconscious level and do not let the people move into the democratic future.
Other people said they do not mind decommunization but wish it was not “so chaotic and half-baked.”
Vladyslav Kutsenko, 38, works for the National Memory Institute of Ukraine. He explains that the renaming of the avenue was the citizens’ initiative and it did not stem from the decommunization law. According to Kutsenko, more than 50 per cent of Kiev residents supported renaming of the street after Stepan Bandera through an online-voting survey.
“We proposed a number of names and people chose Bandera. I emphasize that the change of the avenue’s name has nothing to do with decommunization,” he said, “The war in the East is ongoing and people might have thought – why is there an avenue named in honor of aggressor?”
Time will Tell
When digging deeply into the history of Kiev street names, one might see that the street-renaming trend has always reflected political changes that happened in both the Soviet republic of Ukraine, as well as in the independent state. In 1961, the narrow street on the right bank of the Dnieper river got its first Soviet name. Decade later, due to infrastructural developments the place was widened and renamed Red Cossacks Avenue, in honor of military divisions that helped establish the Soviet regime in 1917.
Ten years after Ukraine solemnly proclaimed its independence the avenue got another name, this time celebrating the capital of Russia - Moscow. And now, as a result of post-revolution euphoria, people voted for renaming the four-kilometer long street after Bandera.
Victor Hrysa, 50, a historian working for the NGO “Creative Ukraine”, says Bandera is Ukraine’s symbol of struggling for independence. Consequently he is now associated with the Ukrainian will to become free.
“Sometimes they think only about deadlines and forget the real nature of decommunization. They do it with the same methods that were used by communists 70 years ago,” he said.
The mayor of Kiev, Vitaliy Klichko, says he could not influence the decision because the change was not his idea or direct order. At the same time the mayor assures that all the problems with decommunization are exaggerated.
“Some people make hysteria about it, they say it doesn’t work,” he told, “Step by step, day by day we implement decommunization in Kiev. Time will give a good feedback for every decision.”
In Kiev, 150 streets have already been renamed, according to the National Memory Institute. Nine are still under question. As for the communist monuments waiting to be taken down, it’s even more complicated.
The monument of the Red Army Commander Shchors has become a stumbling-stone of the entire decommunization process in the capital of Ukraine. Despite Kiev’s government’s promises to get rid of it before the 25th anniversary of independence, Shchors is still standing. Better yet, he is still overlooking the street named in honor of his opponent Symon Petlyura, the former Comintern street.
The right-wing activists say they intend to demolish the statue themselves, if the government doesn’t. During the latest protest, they promised to bring professional tools to make it happen.
While the politicians and activists are discussing the conditions for a peaceful agreement, a group of guard men is already approaching the bus, having been given an order to leave the spot. They are talking about the just experienced. And here amid bustling crowd a man who is scarcely dragging one foot after another, having spent the whole day keeping vigil, is saying to his companion, “That’s a sheer PR, my friend! We can rename hundreds of towns, villages and streets, we can destroy all the monuments to Lenin, but if we fail to build something new, we’ll be stuck in the middle of nowhere”.