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Ukraine’s Post-Soviet Identity Through the Murky Lens of Its Statues

The Ukrainian government announced this week a new statue dedicated to a controversial nationalist. Elsewhere, scores of Lenin monuments are being torn down. But Soviet nostalgia remains ubiquitous.

Vladislav Davidzon
October 27, 2016
Stanislas Vedmid/AFP/Getty Images
Ukrainian Nationalists, supported by a cheering crowd, preparing to torn down the statue of early Communist leader Grigory Petrovsky in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, January 29, 2016.Stanislas Vedmid/AFP/Getty Images
Stanislas Vedmid/AFP/Getty Images
Ukrainian Nationalists, supported by a cheering crowd, preparing to torn down the statue of early Communist leader Grigory Petrovsky in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, January 29, 2016.Stanislas Vedmid/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian cabinet of ministers announced it would be erecting a statue in the coming years dedicated to Symon Petliura, a Ukrainian soldier and statesman who fought for the country’s independence from Russia, Poland, and Germany. The politics of the construction—and destruction—of Soviet-era monuments in Ukraine continues to rage unabated as the nation carries on with the process of decommunization and the building of a truly post-Soviet identity. The construction of Ukrainian statehood outside of the parameters of the Soviet legacy require a historical foundation in a country whose historical legacy of freedom fighting is firmly bounded up with unsavory political identities.

The nationalist Petliura was assassinated in Paris in 1926 by Jewish anarchist Sholom Schwartzbard. Petliura is an infamously complex character in terms of Jewish-Ukrainian relations and his historical legacy remains contested. That legacy is marked by his having been unable to control elements of his army from committing anti-Jewish pogroms as well as numerous instances of his personal kindness to Jews in the midst of a truly horrific, multi-sided conflict.

The Minister of Culture Eugene Yevhen Nyshchuk drew parallels between the forthcoming anniversary events marking the celebration of the existence of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic “with activities related to the events of the Ukrainian revolution of 1917-1921.” The passing of decommunization legislation in May of 2015 by the Ukrainian parliament adopted a package of laws which condemned equally both the Communist and Nazi regimes, and stipulated that the statues of Russian revlutionary leader Vladimir Lenin be brought down. Earlier this week, multiple Ukrainian media reported that the dismantling of the statue of Lenin in the Ukrainian city of Novgorod-Seversky constituted the fall of the last statue to the revolutionary within unoccupied Ukrainian territory.

An estimated 1000 statues of Lenin have been pulled down across Ukraine over the last two years. Meanwhile, Russian-backed separatists and Russian occupation forces in the so-called “breakaway republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk have gone in the other direction and revived a cult of Soviet nostalgia.

Ukraine is not alone in its newfound appetite for the erection of politicized historical monuments however. Signaling it’s renewed revanchist conservative stance towards the West, Russia has also recently inaugurated its first statue to Ivan The Terrible in the city of Oryol, some 200 hundred miles south of Moscow.

A month after the nation’s impressive show of seriousness in organizing extensive commemorations of the 75th anniversary of Babi Yar massacres, renewed bouts of criticism of Ukraine’s handling of it’s exceedingly complex wartime past have emerged. Recently, the Kiev city council had renamed the Moscow highway in Kiev after the OUN wartime leader Stepan Bandera, a move which was met with glee on Russian television and concerted outrage in the Polish parliament. That move was taken by Kiev city authorities several days before an important NATO summit in Warsaw and created prolonged diplomatic fiasco with the Poles, who are Ukraine’s closest ally in Europe.

Yesterday, Andreas Umland, a preeminent German expert on Ukrainian politics and identity issues published the latest in a wave of articles signaling that the patience of Ukraine’e Western partners would not be unlimited. Writing in Foreign Policy he pointed out that the embrace of nationalist historical figures runs exactly counter to the founding principles of the European Union and thus served as a countermeasure to future integration. Of this “dilemma,” he writes:

[W]hile many of the OUN-B’s leaders and ordinary members gave their lives in Ukraine’s fight for independence, most were also virulent nationalists, to the point of outright xenophobia. Some were even complicit in the Holocaust and other mass crimes against civilians. As a result, though the group enjoys considerable sympathy among Ukraine’s governing class and large parts of the intellectual elite, it is highly controversial among the country’s Russian-leaning population, its Jews, its liberal intelligentsia, and its foreign partners. The question of how Ukrainians should interpret this wartime history requires nuance and restraint.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.