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The Center Rules: The Decommunization Laws

The “Southeastern” chapter in the history of the Leninfall began in earnest in May 2015, when President Poroshenko signed the decommunization laws. Adopted by parliament in the previous month, those laws decreed the removal not only of Lenin monuments but also of all forms of commemoration of historical figures and events associated with the communist regime. One of the laws bestowed on UPA soldiers the symbolic status of fighters for Ukrainian independence.[1]

As the local authorities began to implement the new laws, they put to shame the activists of the original Leninfall, removing 1,320 monuments and statues by January 2017, more than double the number of those eliminated in 2013–14. With the Center already cleansed of most of its Lenin monuments and statues, the brunt of the new policies was borne largely by the Southeast, where support for such demolition was significantly lower than in the Center. The data from the March 2015 survey, taken only a month before parliament’s adoption of the laws, highlights the differences between the two macro-regions. If in Kyiv and Poltava oblasts of the Center support for demolition was about 42 percent, in Kharkiv oblast of the Southeast it stood at only 11 percent, not significantly lower than in Odesa, where 18 percent of respondents supported demolition. Even in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, the center of Ukrainian mobilization at the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014, support for the removal of Lenin monuments did not exceed 23 percent.

Map 6 combines data on attitudes toward the demolition of Lenin monuments (shown, as on previous maps, in shades) with data on the number of monuments and plaques to communist leaders removed as a result of the decommunization laws (represented by blue columns). The map leaves little doubt that with the curious exception of Poltava oblast, most of the remaining monuments and plaques were demolished or removed in 2015 and 2016 in the Southeast of the country, where support for demolition had been lowest before the adoption of the laws.

MAP 6map 6

Why did the parliament pass and the authorities in the Southeast accept and duly implement laws not favored by the majority of the local electorate? The main explanation lies not in the EuroMaidan, which triggered the original Leninfall, but in the outcome of Russia’s aggression, which dramatically changed the political map of Ukraine. Here it is useful to return to the map of the 2010 presidential elections. According to it, the Ukrainian electorate was split down the middle, with the blue areas electing Viktor Yanukovych with approximately 49 percent of the overall vote, while the orange areas supplied the lion’s share of the 46 percent of the overall vote received by Tymoshenko. Thus the voting power of the two halves of Ukraine, West and Center against Southeast and East, was approximately equal. But the annexation of the Crimea and the hybrid war in the Donbas removed the East—the Crimea and the most populous parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts—from Ukrainian political space, dramatically reducing the voting power of the “blue” areas of the country.

Electoral politics were soon translated into the politics of memory. In the October 2014 parliamentary elections, parties based mainly in the West and Center received 68 percent of the national vote, reducing the Opposition Bloc, based exclusively in the Southeast, to a mere 10 percent of the vote. Map 7, which shows the results of those elections, reflects the new political reality. It represents the oblasts that elected candidates of the pro-presidential bloc (dominated by local administrators, business elites, and center-right pragmatists) in red; Prime Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk’s Popular Front (dominated by national liberals) in dark red; and the Opposition Bloc, led by former members of President Yanukovych’s administration, in blue.[2]

MAP 7map 7

In the crucial vote on the decommunization laws in April 2014, the Opposition Bloc deputies refused to support the legislation. But their support was not needed, and their opposition could be ignored, as 69 of the 82 Popular Front deputies voted in favor, as did 106 of the 146 members of Petro Poroshenko’s bloc. The greater number of defections in the president’s camp than in the prime minister’s might be explained by the fact that, unlike in the Popular Front, many of the president’s allies came from the Southeast, including the Odesa region, where support for demolition did not exceed 18 percent of those polled in March 2015. If the Leninfall in the Center was prompted from below, in the Southeast it proceeded from above.

While the population of the Southeast was not eager to get rid of Lenin, it also had no desire to fight in order to preserve him. One possible reason is that the demolition was carried out by the local authorities in a lawful and orderly manner. Another reason was that, as indicated by Map 4, which shows the change of attitudes toward the Holodomor, the Euromaidan helped move the Southeast closer to the historical narrative accepted in the Center, a tendency reinforced and solidified by the decommunization laws. The most striking decline of skepticism toward the interpretation of the Holodomor as an act of genocide was registered in Odesa oblast, where the number of naysayers fell from 45.0 percent in March 2013 to 38.0 percent in March 2015 and then to 14.0 percent in December 2015.

The “Lenin-free space” dramatically expanded by the decommunization laws has been defined in memory terms by a growing rejection of the Soviet-era historical narrative, but there is no consensus on the narrative that should replace it. While the Southeast partakes in the national interpretation of the Holodomor with the Center and the West, it is reluctant to accept the heroization of the UPA fighters emanating from the West, which has made significant inroads in the Center. Between 2013 and 2015 there was growing recognition throughout Ukraine of the UPA soldiers as fighters for Ukrainian independence, but the numbers in the Southeast are minuscule as compared with those in the other two other macro-regions (see Map 5). If in Kyiv oblast such recognition increased from 47 percent to 57 percent, in Odesa oblast the increase was more modest, growing from 10 percent to 15 percent of the respondents. In Kharkiv oblast the level of support remained at 15 percent, and in Dnipropetrovsk oblast the number actually decreased from 28 percent to 25 percent of those polled. Decreased support was also registered in Kirovohrad oblast in the Center.

[1] The decommunization laws provoked debate among Ukraine-watchers and produced a significant literature, including the following: Volodymyr Viatrovych, “Dekomunizatsiia i akademichna dyskusiia,” Krytyka, May 2015; David Marples, “Decommunisation in Ukraine: Implementation, Pros and Cons,” New Eastern Europe, September 16, 2016; Oxana Shevel, “Decommunization in Post-Euromaidan Ukraine: Law and Practice,” PONARS Eurasia, January 2016.

[2] Lists of deputies who voted for and against the Law of Ukraine on the Condemnation of the Communist and Nazi Regimes, see the records of the Ukrainian parliament.

© 2017 President and Fellows of Harvard College