On the 70th anniversary of the Great Terror Yushchenko signs a decree to honor the memory of the victims of communist repressions
By Ilya Khineyko
In the midst of his continuing standoff with the Verkhovna Rada, President Viktor Yushchenko took a step that supersedes the current political crisis. In a presidential decree signed on May 21 the president proposed to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Great Terror of 1937-1938 by making the third Sunday of May an annual Day of Remembrance for the victims of political repressions by the Soviet regime. The announcement was made the next day when Yushchenko visited the Bykivnia memorial site on the outskirts of Kyiv where those executed by NKVD were buried between 1936 and 1941. It was during the Perestroika era when the information regarding mass burials of the victims of Stalinist terror such as Kurapaty in Belarus or Levashovo near Leningrad was made public, which ultimately played an important role in the unraveling of the Soviet system.
However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union the process of dealing with the Communist past has faced a tide of Soviet nostalgia that has affected most of the newly independent states, with the notable exception of the Baltic States. In Russia, this nostalgia has manifested itself not only in the popularity of CCCP t-shirts and Soviet-era songs but also in the re-installment of the Soviet national anthem under Putin in 2000, the erection of a Stalin’s statue in the city of Mirnyi in the Republic of Sakha in 2005, and similar (albeit unsuccessful) attempts to do the same in several other Russian cities.
In Ukraine the issue of attitudes towards Soviet past has always had a political dimension. On the one hand, Ukrainian independence itself became possible as a result of the fall of Communism. On the other, it would have been naïve to expect an unequivocal condemnation of the Soviet past in a country ruled by a high-ranking representative of the Soviet nomenklatura as was the case of Ukraine during the presidencies of Leonid Kuchma and Leonid Kravchuk. Following the events of the Orange Revolution the new Ukrainian leadership has attempted to follow the path of the Baltic States in honoring the victims of the Communist regime at the state level. In 2006 the Verkhovna Rada passed a law on the Famine of 1932-33, which recognized it as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. However, only 233 deputies voted in favor of the law, whereas the Communists and the Party of Regions factions that had submitted an alternative draft, abstained with the notable exception of two PofR deputies, Taras Chornovil and Hanna Herman.
The latest presidential initiative was met with a similar reaction. Predictably, the Communists were adamantly against the new law, warning of a possible break-up of Ukraine because “for many citizens Communist rule cannot be reduced to executions and famines only.” The Party of Regions has come up with an idiosyncratic position on the issue. Renat Akhmetov’s mouthpiece, the newspaper Segodnia, quoted PofR deputy Elena Bondarenko who opined that “it would be better to establish a Remembrance Day for victims of all totalitarian regimes and pro-fascist organizations who serve them…including the victims of the OUN-UPA terror.” Whether the claims of moral equivalency are historically valid is something that should not be an instrument in political wrangling. However, it is still true that Ukrainian society as a whole is not fully prepared to accept the national-democratic camp’s version of history which includes a firm denouncement of the crimes committed during the Stalin era. This reluctance cannot be blamed on the continuous influence of Communist ideology. Ukrainians’ attitudes to the past are informed by their perception of the present, and in the eyes of many people in the eastern and southern regions of the country Ukrainian statehood, which is based upon this narrative, has not become fully legitimate. One of the provisions of the Yushchenko ukaz stipulates that heads of local administrations in all oblasts of Ukraine, including the Crimea, are expected to hold commemorative rallies on November 3-4 to honor the memory of the Great Terror victims. It will be interesting to observe the public’s response to such actions in those regions of Ukraine that have expressed disapproval of Yushchenko’s decree. Contrary to Communist assertions, Yushchenko’s “divisive” decree may prove less controversial than initially surmised.