I’m sick of Lenin. After nearly two years in Ukraine I have grown accustomed to seeing statues of the deified Bolshevikleader and founder of the Soviet system looming over city centers. As he is less ubiquitous in western Ukraine, I am reminded that these once-mandatory monoliths are now defunct. Western Ukraine has begun the removal of these statutes, erasing his legacy from their collective psyche. I’ve found that the cities who were forerunners in taking down Lenin are more progressive and prosperous communities in modern Ukraine. These communities are getting a head start in reaping the benefits of rejecting the Communist legacy.
Take for example the process of obtaining a business license- a weeks-long bureaucratic nightmare in most locales. However in the town of Kolomyya, the second city in Ukraine to remove Lenin’s physical presence, this process can be accomplished in less than one hour, with a modest one-time fee. Residents take pride in their progressive community; a refreshing feeling to experience.
Of course there are reasons for the willingness of Kolomyyans to move on from the Soviet-run past; the west has fewer ethnic Russians and as a whole, western Ukrainians were less receptive to the Soviet Union. When the Iron Curtain fell, the tourism industry provided them with an easy avenue for the transition to a free market capitalistic economy. The question remains: if their post-Communism reformation (practical and ideological) has led to relative prosperity, why hasn’t it been used as a model throughout the country? In other words, why do so many Ukrainians cling to the old was of the USSR? Why do so many Lenins still stand?
The answer, in short, is that many Ukrainians harbor feelings of nostalgia and lingering patriotism for the bygone regime. These are understandable feelings, but they don’t hold up to scrutiny.
First among these feelings is the loss of global superpower status. For decades the USSR was considered the only power that could rival the United States, and to from that that to “just another country” is a blow to national ego. However, this status was for the most part an illusion, as it stemmed not from economic might or a preponderance of conventional forces, but from their massive nuclear arsenal- the use of which would assure their own destruction (the MAD policy). The USSR’s global influence could be better described as blackmail.
Because so many of Ukraine’s people died fighting for the Red Army, some say that to denounce the USSR would be a betrayal of their sacrifice. But it is possible to honor the memory without glorifying the USSR. Many soldiers were forced to fight against their volition, sent into un-winnable battles as cannon fodder, and shot by their own officers if retreated. Soldiers deserve honor, not the nation behind them, especially one that treated its soldiers with such callousness. Kolomyya has a monumental WWII memorial, but it’s dedicated to those who found to defend Ukraine, and carries no Red Army overtones.
The most common excuse for nostalgia is that “life was better” under the old regime. They say everyone had something to eat back them, nobody littered, and there were no bums. While this may be true, keep in mind that along with daily meals and clean streets, citizens of the USSR also had strict censorship, restrictions on travel, and neighbors that disappeared in the middle of the night. And while present-day Ukraine does have its share of societal ills, the country is still in a transitional period, and transitions tend to be painful.
The irony of this situation is that as life worsens during the painful shift to democracy, people become less receptive to democratic reform and the transitional crisis worsens. The tighter they cling to the old ways, the more drawn out and incomplete this transition will be. If Ukrainians continue to reach for reform with one hand and hold firm to the old ways with the other, they will remain in transitional crisis indefinitely, or perhaps be torn in two.
Paired with these feelings of misplaced patriotism and nostalgia is the belief that Ukraine’s best hope is to hitch their wagon to Russian’s apparently rising star rather than do what they see as “selling out” to the west. Though Russia’s star is apparently rising (where else was it to go after the nadir of complete government implosion?), it is still a country fraught with instability, corruption, repression, and flagrant human rights abuses. In contrast with the success and relative stability of EU nations, the choice- if one must be made- seems obvious. But this requires letting go of the past, a rejection of their ingrained identity as a vassal state of Russia.
Further hampering Ukraine’s transition away from Russia is many Ukrainians either don’t realize the extent of the damage done to them by the Soviet Union, or they refuse to believe what they hear. If they were to fully realize the extent, I think a break would be imminent.
I could list all the disastrous effects of communist rule in Ukraine, but I couldn’t do justice in a few paragraphs. Most already know of the brutality, and of the terror campaigns. There was famine and Chernobyl. As volunteers, we witness the lasting psychological impact every day, be it the reliance on bureaucracy at school or poor service at the ticket window of the train station. And there is further invisible damage we don’t see. There is corrosion a the foundations of their civic selves resulting from years of living under a government which, through violence and intimidation, tried to force its people to turn their backs on humanity and become cogs in a machine.
The damage done by communist rule is terrible, and I’m amazed there isn’t more indignation over it, public or private. When I meet a Ukrainian who speaks fondly of communist times I want to read him the litany of violations. I want to grab him by the shoulders and scream “THEY MURDERED YOUR PEOPLE! THEY DEVASTATED YOUR COUNTRY! WHY CAN’T YOU LET IT GO?”
But I don’t. I’m a Peace Corps volunteer, and I realize that would violate the “political neutrality” clause. Regardless, it’s not my place to lecture Ukrainians on their own history. As much as I would like to see it done, I’m not going to start a petition for the removal of all the Lenins. This change can only come from within. In the end, I guess I’m just sick of the ghosts of this outdated ideology haunting Ukraine’s people and institutions. I hope more cities and villages follow Kolomyya’s example.