Ukraine recasts its communist past in new light
War-torn state breaks with Russia and joins West in marking end of second World War
Ukrainian cadets in full voice as they participate in a patriotic forum “Two Generations – Two Wars” at the Museum of Great Patriotic War in Kiev, Ukraine. Photograph: Reuters
As warplanes roared over Red Square in rehearsal for tomorrow’s Russian celebration of 70 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany, Ukrainians in Kiev were yesterday preparing a determinedly different commemoration.
A long-shared history has become a battlefield, with the neighbours bitterly at odds over Kiev’s westward turn, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s Victory Day events tomorrow will culminate in tanks, missiles and troops rumbling past the Kremlin, as fighter jets scream overhead, the flags and symbols of Soviet might mingling with those of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In Ukraine, however, no grandiose public displays are planned, and ceremonies for war veterans are likely to be overshadowed by events today, when the country for the first time celebrates the end of the war on May 8th – aligning itself with western Europe and scrapping decades of Soviet tradition.
The new Day of Reconciliation and Remembrance is part of Ukraine’s dramatic westward pivot since last year’s revolution and comes amid a sweeping reassessment of history that some fear will only deepen the nation’s divisions.
With laws focused on the “de-communisation” of Ukraine, parliament last month voted to ban communist and Nazi symbols, and to outlaw denial of the “criminal nature” of the Soviet communist regime and of the role played by Ukrainian nationalists in fighting for the country’s independence.
The legislation also demands monuments to communist officials be removed, and town and street names honouring them be changed.
The laws, which have yet to be signed by president Petro Poroshenko, cut to the heart of bitter differences of opinion and identity in Ukraine that have shaped its post-Soviet politics and now help fuel the eastern insurgency.
Kiev’s new official view is that while the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s forces should be celebrated, it must also be recognised that the upshot for Ukrainian territory was that the Soviet Union replaced Nazi Germany as the occupying power.
While millions of Ukrainians hold such a view, such an interpretation of history is little short of sacrilege for many people in eastern and southern areas – which for centuries were part of Russia’s empire – and for some war veterans.
“We will celebrate our great Victory Day as always,” says Mikola Martinov (81), head of Kiev’s Organisation of Veterans of Ukraine.
“That’s when we remember how the fatherland was liberated and Europe freed from fascism. No one can take that away from us, by turning history around 180 degrees and saying Ukraine was occupied by the Soviet Union or Russia.”
As well as downgrading Victory Day, Ukraine is now using the term “second World War” instead of the Soviet-style “Great Patriotic War”. It has also adopted the poppy symbol in place of the orange and black St George’s ribbon that serves as the main emblem of the eastern separatists and is a patriotic motif in Russia.
“This falsification of history in Ukraine really hurts and offends veterans,” says Martinov, a Russian-born former Red Army fighter pilot who, as a child, secretly took food to the anti-Nazi guerrilla unit in which his father fought.
“How can the government ban the symbols of our victory – the red flag, the star, the hammer and sickle?”
For their many supporters, “de-communisation” measures are vital to take Ukraine decisively away from Russia and towards central Europe, which introduced similar laws after 1989.
“In the post-communist countries of central Europe and the Baltic states, their evolution as democracies is irreversible,” said Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory and one of the authors of the new laws.
“In countries without such laws, like Ukraine and especially Russia, we see persistent attempts to return to the totalitarian past.”
For Viatrovych, last year’s prowestern uprising was the latest stage in Ukraine’s halting bid to break with its Soviet history and with Russia, following independence in 1991 and the 2004 “Orange Revolution”.
Critics say the laws will stifle Ukraine’s political left; silence debate on the wartime role of nationalists who are implicated in massacres of Poles and Jews; and could be challenged in international courts.
Viatrovych dismisses such fears and insists discussion of “the dark and light pages of our history will continue”.
“The new Ukrainian identity is an anti-Soviet identity,” he said.
“It is a pro-European, pluralistic, and democratic identity – this is what has been denied to Ukraine until now.”