Experts: Decommunization process is in-depth rethinking of collective history, collective and individual memory and identity


Kyiv, February 24, 2016. The process of decommunization that randomly started during the Revolution of Dignity and officially continued following passing of the corresponding law is rather painful process posing a challenge to the society. “A huge époque is passing away, painfully and hard. We understand these changes are inevitable, and in no way do we oppose the necessity to implement these laws. Nevertheless, we would like to emphasize that sometimes haste is dangerous, as there are some deeper things which don’t come to light,” said Vladyslava Osmak, head of the Center for Urban Studies at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, opening a public discussion entitled “Decommunization: the War of Monuments” at Ukraine Crisis Media Center. The issues of collective history, collective and individual memory and identity are among such in-depth issues causing arguments regarding decommunization.

The first challenge modern Ukraine faced is what monuments should be erected (if at all) on pedestals of the communist leaders. Svitlana Shlipchenko, science programs manager of the Center for Urban Studies at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, emphasized that “the war of the monuments” indispensably accompanies any historical changes, as monuments were the instruments of propaganda, promoted certain values system and served as symbolic mark on the territory at all times. Change of the ruling ideology definitely provoked “destruction of idols” of the previous time. The European Square in Kyiv is a good illustration of this statement. There were monuments to Alexander II, Red Army soldier, Stalin and stairs, replacing one another swiftly within a 100-year period. The latter were eventually removed, with no other monument erected in its place. Ukraine’s gaining independence also caused replacement of monuments in its time. This process progressing in the entire country was eloquent of self-identification of inhabitants of these territories. Western Ukraine got rid of Soviet monuments as early as in the 90th, Central Ukraine did it in during Viktor Yushchenko presidency, and in the rest of the territories it started only in 2014 “done by active minority with passive disregard/disapproval of the majority”. “If we superimpose a map of electoral preferences and results of local elections, we can see that these were the regions voting for pro-Russian opposition forces. […] It was very symbolic that the monuments were taken down almost on the same day as in Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, […] Dnipropetrovsk and Kherson. It created the plane of sovereignty and demolished electoral boundary of 2004,” said Oleksiy Kurinnyi, professor of the International Law Department at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, expert of Center for International Human Rights Protection. Apparently, this process was fighting the identity marker, not fighting the culture.  […] It symbolizes mental departure from Soviet way of thinking and the possibility to drag it into “russkiy mir”, said the expert. “I would describe the present situation as twilight of the idols, borrowing it from Nietzsche, “twilight of the gods” or “fall of the idols”, said Shlipchenko. She believes discussions around the process of decommunization as a matter of fact reflect “memory in the state of war” – the war on the way the society wishes to support the memory of the past.

Experts believe that the biggest problem lies in the ability of the Ukrainian society is able to implement decommunization “within itself”, not repeating monumentality of imperial past or traditions of socialist realism in new monuments. We can see from many projects of the monuments of the independence period that “it is supposedly new ideology and new contents, but the authors are trying to squeeze them in absolutely old forms,” emphasized Vladyslava Osmak. The most remarkable examples of such imitation are an unrealized project at Maidan along the Independence Stela, а massive monument to Andriy Sheptytskyi in Lviv, erected in the place of the trees he himself planted, against the will of the community; ill-shaped monument to the Hundred of Heaven in Lutsk. “Have we overcome this template thinking, if we take the liberty of replicating sculptural forms, when dealing with the newest and the most painful history of our motherland?” asked Osmak. “The present-day society cannot speak of the monuments in the same forms as they used to be. The ways to eternalize the memory must be relevant to the modern society. […] Democratic society suggests more dynamic, not frozen forms,” emphasized Oksana Barshynova, art critic and researcher at  the Research Department of the Art of the XX-early XXI century at the National Art Museum of Ukraine.

The second challenge lies in the ability to draw a line between a monument (with the symbolic implication described above) and a heritage – an object of legacy possessing a complex of artistic qualities, peculiar for certain time. We must accurately classify what is to be dismounted and what must be left for the approval of community and experts,” said Barshynova. Irresponsible implementation of the law through “total cleansing” is absolutely Soviet in itself and poses a threat of destruction of artistic heritage which only partially come within the statute, and danger of ruining urban culture. Moreover, such monuments like the one to a Red Army commander Mykola Shchors in the on Shevchenko Boulevard in Kyiv are not only a valuable work of art, but an important component of architectural ensemble. “In this case it is important to shift the accent from who is represented to how is represented,” said Barshynova.

Another debating point is what to do with memorials honoring the fallen in the World War II: they do not fall under the law, but “these monuments visually are not always what they are supposed to honour. They do not honour people’s sacrifice, but a victorious war,” said Alina Shpak, first deputy head of the Ukrainian Institute of the National Memory. So far the issue remains open.

Rethinking and new use of Soviet legacy – mosaics, objects of art and buildings – can become one of the ways of decommunization. “We decided to state that decommunization is creation and possibility to explore history of your own family through opening archives and the possibility to participate in forming new image of your own town,” said Olha Honchar, art critic, assistant of the Arts Department at Ukrainian Crisis Media Center. She reminded that artists succeeded applying such artistic rethinking in practice at cultural residences in Vinnytsia, Sloviansk, Severodonetsk and Mariupol. These “artistic landing forces” provided a possibility for a wide public debate and confirmed the artists’ presumptions that regional peculiarity is extremely important during implementation of the law. “Decommunization on near-front and liberated territories is an extremely painful issue,” emphasized Honchar. “It is necessary to elaborate methodology in detail to prevent decommunization processes from causing new conflict”.

At the same time, experts said there is a tendency of being nostalgic about the past as a part of individual memory, together with desire to leave Soviet heritage in the past. Small markers-symbols, like “Soviet Champagne”, “Drinking House No.1” and “Katiusha” restaurant are the evidence of the fact that Soviet time is still dear to a big part of the society, so the process of “departing” from it on conscious level will be quite lengthy.

The experts reminded that there were about 2500 monuments to Lenin in Ukraine as of the autumn 2013. About 600 of them were dismounted during the Revolution of Dignity and another thousand after decommunization laws were passed. Moreover, about 1000 inhabited localities must be renamed as a part of the law implementation. Final decisions on renaming were made for 175 inhabited localities. Shpak said that mostly the choice was being made between a historic name of each town and other variants suggested by local communities.