History Revisited: Criminalizing Communist Symbols and Sympathies in Ukraine

Ukraine’s new laws criminalizing communist symbols and perceived sympathies distort the country’s history and discourage critical thought. The view from Odessa.

“In the Soviet Union we had égalité and fraternité without liberté. I prefer the USSR to what we have today,” Andrey told me in a dark bar near Odessa’s Black Sea port back in October. Then he added: “I could get arrested for talking about these things.”

Several months ago, Andrey’s caution about disclosing his preference for life in the Soviet Union seemed like paranoia. In retrospect, it seems prescient. On May 21st, two controversial new laws came into effect banning all Soviet symbols and criminalizing any questioning of the “criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine”. Breaking the so-called “anti-Communist law” carries a maximum five-year prison sentence for individuals, and a ten-year prison sentence for members of an organization.

A second law makes it a crime to question the legitimacy of actions undertaken by contentious nationalist groups accused of war crimes, like the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during “the struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the 20th century”. A letter signed by 70 academics from Ukraine and around the world is unambiguous in its criticism of the law:

“Not only would it be a crime to question the legitimacy of an organization (UPA) that slaughtered tens of thousands of Poles in one of the most heinous acts of ethnic cleansing in the history of Ukraine, but also it would exempt from criticism the OUN, one of the most extreme political groups in Western Ukraine between the wars, and one which collaborated with Nazi Germany at the outset of the Soviet invasion in 1941. It also took part in anti-Jewish pogroms in Ukraine and… remained allied with the occupation regime throughout the war.”

The laws are undoubtedly a response to Russia’s abuse of Soviet history for propaganda purposes in its perpetration of the war in eastern Ukraine. But Western preoccupation with the supposed power of “Kremlin propaganda” seems to have frightened officials and media into conforming to the Kremlin’s rules and mirroring its tactics, including the occasional distortion of history and suppression of critical thought.

Monument to Catherine the Great, Odessa, Ukraine (Photo credit: Balkanist)
Monument to Catherine the Great, Odessa, Ukraine (Photo credit: Balkanist)

History Revisited: Odessa

At some point shortly before dawn on November 4th, 2014, vandals attacked the bronze monument to Catherine the Great in Odessa with bright green paint. It was National Unity Day in Russia. “Pro-federalist” (elsewhere described as “anti-Maidan” or “pro-Russian”) activists in the city had planned a provocative “Catherine march” from Cathedral Square to the monument of the Russian Empress, the founder of Odessa. The new law in Ukraine outlaws symbols from the Soviet era, but leaves Russia’s czarist period entirely untouched, even though Kremlin propagandists have also drawn heavily upon the period of imperial expansion under Catherine the Great, particularly her annexation of Crimea in 1783. And while the “Leninfall” has become a familiar site in Ukraine since the beginning of last year, the statue of the German-born czarina was placed under immediate police protection following the paint attack.

The czarist and Soviet periods were characterized by similar dynamics according to most Ukrainians I’ve spoken with: “oppressor and oppressed”, “hero and villain”, “master and servant”. When the monument to Catherine the Great was installed at its current location in Odessa’s city center in July of 2007, the action was met with vehement opposition and violent protests from a group of Ukrainian nationalists and self-described “Cossacks”. They burned an effigy of the Empress, declared her an “executioner of the Ukrainian people”, attempted to tear down the foundations of the monument, and clashed with police.

It’s clear there are choices being made about which historical periods and ideologies require interpretations regulated by the law, and they aren’t decisions being made on the basis of any existing collective memory. Rather, a state-sponsored rewriting of history is in the works, and the anti-Communist laws are intended to help guide that process.

Of course, ideological affinities that deviate from the Kyiv line will not disappear with the new legislation. Instead, they will be forced underground, where they run the risk of acquiring a mythic currency. In a city like Odessa, which enjoyed the status of a free port for nearly 30 years and where residents take pride in their independence from (and occasional disdain for) both Moscow and Kyiv, any imposed version of history from “the center” is likely to be met with skepticism.

However controlled the public discourse about the Soviet past will be in Ukraine, knocking down busts of Lenin — more than 100 have gone tumbling down across the country in the last year — and banning stylized Soviet propaganda posters will probably not be enough to bury the mythologized memory of revolution and rebellion in Odessa. Still, many younger Ukrainians find Soviet nostalgia more ridiculous than anything, and say the new laws are unnecessary. “People who want to live in USSR just want to build the most powerful tanks, the longest flying rockets, have Putin as a president and always defeat Canadians in hockey,” Evgeny, an Odessan friend of mine, joked recently. But Odessa is still best known for having ignited a spontaneous mutiny aboard a battleship and as the setting of the most famous Soviet film ever made.

Soviet History Revisited: Odessa

In June of 1905, many of the 800 crew members of the Black Sea Fleet’s new Battleship Potemkin were aching to rebel. The sadistic mistreatment meted out by their imperial superiors had decimated all morale. Then one day the mariners were served a batch of borscht made with maggot-infested meat for dinner, which their commanding officers insisted was perfectly edible. A crew member who dared to complain about it was shot dead. In retaliation, the mariners threw their notoriously cruel captain overboard and seized control of the vessel. They hastily assembled a People’s Committee, raised a red flag above the ship, and steered it straight toward the port of Odessa. The entire episode was immortalized 20 years later in Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a heavily fictionalized account of the rebellion and probably one of the most celebrated propaganda films of all time.

One warm day early last fall, I saw the Soviet monument to the mutineers of the Battleship Potemkin while on a walk through Odessa. Busts of Lenin were tumbling down across Ukraine at about the same rate as the national currency, but the statue built for the mariners of the Battleship Potemkin remained very much intact in the city’s Tamozhennaya Square, adjacent to a major entrance to the Port of Odessa. Amorous teenagers sat holding hands on the surrounding park benches under the purposeful gaze of the idealized Soviet man. The monument had been moved in July 2007 from the most prominent position in the city to make room for the towering figure of Catherine the Great. The bronze czarina had been dismantled by the communist authorities on May Day, 1920 and kept in the Natural History Museum, where part of the original statue remains to this day. (The current monument to Catherine the Great is a replica). The statue of Catherine the Great was taken down during Labor Day festivities in 1920 because the Communist authorities saw her as a symbol of imperialist oppression.

In 1965, the Soviet memorial to the mutineers of the Battleship Potemkin was moved to the same place at the center of town previously occupied by Catherine the Great.

Now it’s the other way around again: Catherine the Great has been resurrected and the monument to the mariners aboard Battleship Potemkin may very well be deemed criminal and dismantled in accordance with Ukraine’s new anti-Communist laws. If so, the city will be losing a piece of what has made it famous the world over.

Russia’s main propagandistic talent is identifying and amplifying weak spots in its opponents, and Ukraine’s draconian new laws have left it vulnerable to ample criticism. In an effort to demonstrate its distinctiveness from its neighbor in history and culture, Ukraine may have ended up resembling Russia more closely than it did before.


Cover photo: Monument to the Mutineers aboard the Battleship Potemkin, Odessa, Ukraine by Balkanist.

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