On April 9, Rada deputy Yurii Shukhevych (Radical Party) introduced a new law to the Ukrainian Parliament “Concerning the legal status and commemorating the memory of the fighters for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century. It also introduced a “Remembrance and Reconciliation Day” on May 8 for the victims of the Second World War, as well as other laws opening access to former Soviet archives and banning Communist and Nazi symbols, all of which were accepted by a majority of deputies.
The period for the registering of the bills, authored by historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory and others was astonishingly short given the bills’ import. Less than six days were given for discussion over issues that affect almost every facet of Ukrainian history of the 20th century. The impact may solidify national support for the current Parliament, which has been wavering, but it is unlikely to placate Ukraine’s critics abroad, either in the Russian government or in Europe.
The law consists of six articles, which deal without differentiation with all so-called “fighters for the independence of Ukraine in the 20th century” starting with the Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1918 and ending with the People’s Movement for Perestroika (better known as Rukh) prior to August 24, 1991, the date of the declaration of independence. Most controversial are the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO), the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA.
These “fighters” (“strugglers” is the another possible translation of this unsatisfactory noun), according to Article 2, played the chief role in the restoration of Ukrainian statehood in 1991 and are to be guaranteed social benefits, recognition, and military awards (Articles 3 and 4). Article 5 is concerned with publicizing the activities of the various groups and the creation of new gravesites and memorials. Finally, Article 6 makes it a criminal offense to deny the legitimacy of “the struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the 20th century.” Public denial is to be regarded as an insult to the memory of the fighters.
To discuss briefly the possible reactions to this bill, one can take three angles: firstly, my own, which is that of an historian; second, that of Russia, a country with which Ukraine has been at loggerheads for the past eighteen months; and third that of the democratic West, principally the European Union and North America.
From the angle of an historian, the new law is too simplistic to be taken seriously. The various organizations are vastly different. How can one compare, for example, the intellectual leaders of the UNR with the young hotheads of the OUN(b) in the 1930s or the ruthless insurgents of UPA? Even more basic, is one supposed to assume that the state that emerged in August 1991 was a direct result of the activities of the fighters for independence? Ironically it owed much more to reforms in Moscow begun by Mikhail Gorbachev, and the former leader’s reluctance to use force to prevent a groundswell of independence movements in the former Soviet republics.
Second, the all-encompassing rejection of any facets of the Soviet legacy is troublesome. The Red Army after all removed the Nazi occupation regime from Ukraine in alliance with the Western Powers. Soviet leaders such as Khrushchev and Brezhnev were (respectively) raised or born in Ukraine, and there were other leaders who supported Ukrainian cultural development while maintaining a devotion to Communism, such as Petro Shelest. There were also serious Marxists who rejected Russification, such as Ivan Dziuba. Essentially this law attempts to erase from history their contributions to modern Ukraine.
Moving back further to the 1920s in Western Ukraine, perhaps a majority of politically active Ukrainians supported or joined the Ukrainian National Democratic Union (UNDO), which cooperated with the Polish Sejm and took part in its activities.
From the perspective of the Russian leadership and more militant activists in Russia, the law at one stroke provides credibility to some of their most outrageous and outlandish claims. What better evidence could there be that extreme nationalists are now running the Ukrainian legislature? Practically overnight, the issues that caused so much trouble for former president Viktor Yushchenko have been encapsulated in law.
The question that stymied the proposed Holodomor Law of Yushchenko—making denial (in this case of Genocide) a criminal offence—has simply been overridden in the current bill. Presumably now historians can be arrested for denying the heroism of a Stepan Bandera or the father of the introducer of the bill, Roman Shukheyvch. Russian trolls operating on social networks, very prominently featured in Western media over the past week, have now acquired new and authentic ammunition for their verbal arsenals.
For the Europeans and North Americans some serious dilemmas arise, particularly in Poland, a country that has been especially supportive of Ukraine, but has long agonized over the massacre of its countrymen in Volhynia at the hands of UPA in the spring and summer of 1943 in one of the most graphic examples of ethnic cleansing of the Second World War. The veneration by Yushchenko of Bandera as a hero of Ukraine was the subject of particular venom in Polish society, as well as in the European Parliament.
In the West as a whole, friends of Ukraine will have a difficult time accepting both the wisdom and timing of such a facile and asinine decree that avoids complex problems by lumping together disparate organizations of different periods and seeks to legitimize controversial organizations (OUN and UPA) by cloaking them within general rhetoric of fighting for independence in the 20th century.
No doubt this Law has its origins in the aftermath of Euromaidan, the loss of Crimea, and separatist control of large swathes of the Donbas. It may also be linked to the dissatisfaction with the new government among some of the more radical elements in society, such as the voluntary formations fighting in the east. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that its acceptance into law is a major error, even akin to a death wish vis-à-vis the Donbas, where a quite different version of the 20th century prevails.
Was this crude distortion of the past really necessary? Can one legislate historical events and formations in such a fashion? The Law seems inimical to the values embraced at the peak of Euromaidan.