After Ukrainian independence, the documents of the Communist dictatorship were kept secret for almost a quarter of a century. It was not until 2015, following the Euromaidan protests, that a law called for the files to be opened. A separate archive was established for this purpose at the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance. Other institutions have also made documents accessible.
Lenin Street 54 in Kherson: Just a few years ago, Soviet propaganda was omnipresent in Ukraine. In 2015, parliament passed a law banning Nazi and Communist symbols. Not only do the names of many streets and villages have to be changed, monuments and symbols also had to be removed. This process of “decommunization” also serves to create a new Ukrainian national consciousness – with some problematic excesses.
The law “On condemning Communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes in Ukraine and prohibiting the propaganda of their symbols” is the most radical of its kind in the former Soviet sphere of influence. Article 1 lists everything that falls under the category of symbols: any depiction of state flags, coat of arms and other symbols of the USSR, but also all symbols of the Communist Party including any joint portrayal of the hammer and sickle or five-pointed star. The ban covers production and circulation as well as public use, and also applies to foreign Communist symbols, such as the GDR state flag.
The law also prohibits all pictures, monuments, commemorative signs and inscriptions dedicated to leading Communist functionaries or activities of the Communist Party unless they concern resistance against the Nazi occupation. The same applies to all place and street names and the names of institutions. Slogans and quotes by Communist functionaries are also prohibited as are Nazi symbols – which had already been banned in Ukraine during Soviet times. Exemptions from the ban include documents and awards from the Soviet era as well as libraries, science, textbooks, museums and the trade of antiques.
According to Article 3(1), propagating Communist and/or Nazi totalitarian regimes and their symbols is considered a “desecration of the memory of millions of victims” and is “prohibited by law.” Criticism of the law, including from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, addressed its potentially far-reaching restrictions on freedom of expression and organization. According to Article 1(2), propaganda includes the “public denial” of the criminal nature of the Communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes, as well as the “dissemination of information” to justify them. The “establishment of Soviet power on the territory of Ukraine” and the “persecution of participants in Ukraine’s struggle for independence in the 20th century” are recognized. Associations, including parties, that violate the law, risk being banned.
The law itself does not provide for penalties however. Only the use of the symbols is punishable by Article 436-1 of the Criminal Code and is punishable in Ukraine with up to ten years’ imprisonment. The law requiring authorities to remove totalitarian symbols led to the renaming of 32 cities, 955 towns, 25 rajons (districts) and 51,493 streets, parks and similar places by the end of 2016. In addition, 2,389 monuments and memorial plaques were dismantled, including 1,320 statues of Lenin. Article 5 also requires the state to comprehensively address Communist and Nazi crimes.
Using the example of the central Ukrainian city of Poltava, political scientist Lina Klymenko has investigated which street names were replaced by new ones. According to her research, many of the 110 renamed streets, squares and parks reflect the central government’s efforts to strengthen a Ukrainian national consciousness. Some smaller streets or those outside the center were also named after members of nationalist organizations that were involved in atrocities during World War II. The proposal to name a street after Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), was rejected by the oblast administration, but its other members have been honored.
The text of the law can be found here (automated translation).
Law on access to the archives of agencies of repression (automated translation)
Guide to the archives of Ukraine
Digital archive of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement
Documents on the Holodomor in Ukraine
After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems – An International Comparison
A project at the Department of Modern History at the University of Würzburg
Instagram: After the dictatorship
With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development