Solomiya Shpak is PhD Student at George Mason University School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs. Her primary areas of research include transition economics, labor policy and political economy. Prior to coming to George Mason University, Solomiya received her MA in Economic Analysis from Kyiv School of Economics and MA in International Economics from Ivan Franko National University in Lviv. Currently she works on the wide range of projects on Ukraine including firm productivity, oligarch ownership and political connections, and the impact of internal displacement on labor markets in receiving regions. She has recently co-authored a paper “The motherhood wage penalty in times of transition” published in Journal of Comparative Economics and worked as a consultant at the World Bank and IFPRI.
The Eastern Donbas and Crimea recently joined a growing list of contested territories in the former Soviet space that are no longer controlled by the de jure sovereign state of which they are part. In Ukraine, the human costs of the conflict are already severe, with at least 9,800 people killed and more than 1.6 million persons displaced since the conflict began in 2014.1,2 The war mobilized government efforts to build national identity policy in the divided Ukrainian society where 27% of Ukrainians still consider themselves as citizens of the former Soviet Union.3 The most prominent element of these reforms is de-communization or national memory policy aimed at overcoming the country’s historical totalitarian past.
Despite the fact that the majority of Ukrainians see themselves as part of Western culture, communist past encountered in everyday life dilutes their national identity. The goal of the de-communization laws is to eradicate Soviet myths of the war, which became particularly important after the Russian aggression in early 2014, when Russian propaganda tried to mobilize terrorists against Ukrainian authorities using Soviet myths about the Second World War. Most of the post-communist states abolished the symbols of the totalitarian regime in the early 1990s. In contrast, there were still more than a thousand of Lenin’s monuments in Ukraine in 2015. One provision of de-communization legislation includes the demolition of the monuments with Soviet-era names and the communist monuments. As of 2017, more than 1,000 monuments were taken down and another 700, mostly located in separatists controlled territories, are still left to destroy. Another provision mandates the renaming of thousands of localities and streets named after the leaders of the Communist Party, senior administration and government officials of the USSR, among others. Since the legislation was adopted, 1,012 cities and towns have been renamed, and most of them were located eastern or southern Ukraine.4
Although necessary, these laws are likely to aggravate divisions in the Ukrainian society. Polls show that while 48% of Ukrainians support de-communization, 31% are against it. More educated and younger respondents tend to support the reform while older and less educated oppose it significantly.5 There are also drastic regional differences showing a direct relationship between support for de-communization and the share of Russian-speaking population. This evidence proves that one should be very careful in deciding about new characters to be shown in monuments and new names for cities: the goal is to choose common heroes and not create more division by using the names of the controversial figures who were on the other side of the front line.
The question remains whether cultural measures should precede economic reforms in time of war? Opponents of the laws argue that de-communization should be implemented only after effective economic and political reforms are achieved. However, experiences of other Eastern European post-communist countries demonstrate that establishment of national cultural policy should take place as quickly as possible along with economic and political reforms. The sooner we eliminate the symbols of colonial past, the stronger we are to oppose aggressive propaganda at the time of the present war.
“Ukrainian civilian death toll on the rise in rebel east: UN”. AFP. 13 June 2017.
“Ukraine”. OCHA. August 2015.
Razumkov Center. National Security and Defense 3-4(2016): 9.
Korolenko B., Ihor Karetnikov, and Maksym Majorov. De-communization of settlements and rayons in Ukraine: Reasons, Process, and Consequences. City, History and Culture (2): 134-141.
Sociological Group “Ranking”. Attitudes towards certain political figures and de-communization process in Ukraine. Retrieved from: http://ratinggroup.ua/en/research/ukraine/otnoshenie_k_otdelnym_istoricheskim_lichnostyam_i_processu_dekommunizacii_v_ukraine.html