| De-Sovietisation of Ukraine - a case study
expert (League "DIPCORPUS" political science and international relations expert community)
Ukraine, as a consequence of its colonial history for over 300 years, in 1991 was not prepared to adopt a new "European” system of values, state-society interactions and an unambiguous vision of its colonial past. Former Soviet citizens did not have a proper knowledge of the principles of democracy, accountability and market economy, moreover the majority was shocked and destitute after the collapse of the USSR and could not comprehend the situation rationally. In the political sphere the former Communist elites, grasping the opportunities created by man-made chaos, converted their political capital into economic power. The nomenklatura thus became a major agenda setter, policy maker and an actor of privatisation.
So, in 1991 the Soviet Union was not destroyed by popular pressure but by nomenklatura that saw its interests better protected through the abolition of the USSR. In the presidential election in December 1991, Leonid Kravchuk, who was responsible for ideology in the Communist Party in Ukraine but later turned nationalist, was elected president.
While in the beginning of transformation the idea of independence sounded very romantic, later, after the economic crisis even those people with patriotic national feelings became disappointed and confused. They have understood the transformation as an "elite’s game” and lost their confidence, at the same time accumulating their distrust for any change while trying to survive economically.
As a result, the present day Ukrainian political elite largely consists of the "new bourgeoisie” and red nomenklatura – the so called Creolian elite – the legacy of colonial past. For the latter the main tasks after declaration of the Ukrainian independence was further holding of their dominant positions which gave them an opportunity to control, manage and eventually "privatize” state property. The majority of the former understood the Ukrainian statehood as a mere "business-project”.
Against this backdrop the ideology of a new Ukrainian state was largely deficient, as it tried to balance between the Soviet visions of the past and post-colonial pro-Ukrainian projects. Besides, the half-hearted attempts by such politicians as Victor Yushchenko, who served as a president from 2005 till 2010, to reinvigorate "Ukrainian identity among Ukrainians in Ukraine”, were not thoroughly understood by those who matured with Communist dogmas. Even the post-"Orange Revolution” "democratisation-normalisation-Europeanisation” policies seem to have changed little in the heads of intellectually-affected post-Homo Sovieticus.
The Soviet colonial regime sought to cleanse Ukraine of all Ukrainian. Thus every second writer killed in 1930s, as well as every second dissident in the 1970s were of Ukrainian origin. These traumatic experiences left deep scars in public consciousness. Communist-time collective injustices were followed by decades of ideological distortion, whereby the open wounds of the past had not been properly dealt with, let alone, healed. Twenty years after, the Russian and Ukrainian nations are gradually becoming the dominant foci for social and political identification and suppressed memories stay in the way of reconciliation, which would finally close the chapter of totalitarian past and would open a window on Europeanization and societal modernization. In many cases, Ukrainians internalized not only communist/totalitarian ideology with all the respective symbols and narratives, but also a largely negative, inferior self-image, which was imposed by the colonizers with their imperial narratives.
Coming to terms with a painful past is crucial for the socio-psychological reconstruction of the Ukrainian society after the decades of totalitarian rule and the legacy of large-scale injustice, suffered collectively. Colonizers often try to erase historical memory by manipulation of national identity and assimilation into the imperial core. The monopoly on the interpretation of the past provides a possibility to influence the present and future. Therefore distortion of the history of suppressed nations was an important aspect of the Soviet colonial policy. Ukraine is not just a post-communist but also a postcolonial country. Not surprisingly, the current revival of the Ukrainian nation is closely linked to the reassertion of its identity vis-à-vis Russia also along the most controversial lines – those of the OUN and the UPA.
The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was established 1929 in Vienna and its military arm - the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during the Nazi occupation. The Ukrainian UPA units, which counted up to 200.000 and also fought against the USSR in a guerrilla war till mid-1950s, were criminalised at the official level during the Soviet times. It is only after Ukrainian Independence that their activities came into official scientific discourses and thus, public eye and debate.
Ukraine, which gained independence in 1991, is still coming to terms with its history and interpretation thereof. The historical account of national liberation movement in Ukraine is more confined to Western Ukraine, where the Soviets are seen as colonisers and the OUN / UPA as a liberation movement, which fought against the Polish, German and Soviet oppressors. Other parts of Ukraine have different historical memory, as their population was indoctrinated with simple, black-and-white Communist Soviet truisms or sometimes displaced, so that they were detached from their places of historical memory.
Nowadays many monuments and streets in Western Ukraine are named after the OUN politicians and the UPA commanders. In the sovietisized Eastern and South Ukraine, on the other hand, OUN and UPA are still often seen as "brutal armed nationalist bandit groups”, who fought against the "People’s Soviet Union” and "the glorious Red Army”, which "liberated the beloved Soviet homeland from the Nazis”. The fact that the leader of the Ukrainian nationalists Stepan Bandera, "the fascist” according to the Soviet propaganda and reactionary pro-Soviet politicians, many of whom originated from the Communist party nomenklatura, spent almost all of WWII as a prisoner in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp doesn’t seem to influence those, who for generations were conditioned by the Soviet propaganda and "Homo Sovieticus values”. Even now, twenty years after the re-emergence of independent Ukraine the political pressure from the leftist electorate and the general opinion of the misinformed public cannot allow full rehabilitation of the UPA independence fighters even formally. They are still not equal in their legal status to those who fought within the Red Army.
Ukraine under Yushchenko tried to complete transition and to reinvent itself as truly European by distancing itself from Communism symbolically by externalization of the Communist past and nationalization of memory. Indeed, historical memory, together with the language are the most substantial sociocultural attributes of national identity. Therefore the Ukraine´s national consolidation necessitated an effective state policy of identity-promoting representation of history and collective memory.
The politics of memory under Yushchenko resulted in a grand narrative, which presented Ukraine as a victim of totalitarian neighbours, but also as an active shaper of one´s own history through the integration of important historical events of the twentieth century. From the first days of his presidency Yushchenko demonstrated a new standard of public policy on memory. Thus a new quality was given to the process of the country´s "normalization” by the decision of the Ukrainian Cabinet in May 2006, inspired by the Polish model, to establish the Institute for National Memory.
Bandera was not the first radical nationalist to be reassessed by the Ukrainian state and given honours by Yushchenko. Already in 2007 some further leaders of the national cause Roman Shukhevych was conferred the title of Hero of Ukraine and Yaroslav Stetsko was mentioned in the presidential edict, honouring his memory through renaming of streets and creation of a museum in Kyiv.
Since its very independence Ukraine is faced with two conflicting options. The first is to break any ties with the Soviet past and to consider it as imposed by the occupants, while the second is to reconcile the Soviet-time experience, which is full with Communist narratives and stereotypes with new, post-colonial realities. But these both conflicting options are mutually incompatible since there is no realistic way to reconcile the contradiction of both Soviet and anti-Soviet discourses, imperial and anti-imperial legacies. As a result, Ukraine still offers a fertile ground for two rival narratives of the past and the future.
Many social scientists wonder whether there is patriotism without nationalism and vice versa, as both are apparently two sides of the same coin. Thus, it is sometimes hard to keep civil, liberal nationalism and closed, ethnic nationalism apart. As national historical narratives are closely connected to group identities and a sense of injustice can be shared by whole ethnic groups, finding an appropriate balance of the opposing understandings of the past is especially important for successful state building.
Depending on the chosen perspective Bandera could be a victim, a terrorist or a fighter for independence. The controversy about this political figure would certainly remain on the Ukrainian agenda irrespective of the decisions adopted by the European Parliament or adversarial measures undertaken by the regime of Yanukovych. Because Bandera´s case is not only about politics, but also about individual and collective identity and, essentially, memory.