Nachricht | Europa - Ukraine Politicizing History: Ukraine’s Laws on «Historical Truth»

On April 9 Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada adopted four laws pertaining to Ukraine’s recent history, two of which at least are highly contentious. Not only Leftists oppose these «laws on historical memory». Very critical remarks are also made by Liberals, professional historians, experts on nationalism and the far right.

▪ Anton Shekhovtsov 

Visiting Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute (UK) and Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (Ukraine)

Today, the Ukrainian parliament has adopted two controversial laws. One is «condemning the communist and National Socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes and prohibiting propaganda of their symbols». The other is addressing «the legal status and honour of the memory of fighters for Ukraine's independence in the twentieth century».

Both laws have been adopted without proper academic, public and legal discussions, and are extremely unprofessional. The contents of these laws suggest broad interpretations of communism, Nazism and national liberation struggle, and open the way for arbitrary and undemocratic political persecution and repressions.

These laws contribute neither to the building of a strong Ukrainian civic-republican nation nor to the strengthening of liberal democracy in Ukraine, and create tangible problems for Ukraine on the international level.


Andreas Umland

National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

REGARDING THE LAWS ON HISTORICAL MEMORY ADOPTED BY UKRAINE'S PARLIAMENT ON 9 APRIL 2015: If it is not yet too late, I would (as a member of the Verkhovna Rada European Integration Committee's advisory expert council) strongly advise [Petro Poroshenko] to not sign the 9th of April laws on Nazi/Communist symbols and on the commemoration of Ukrainian independence fighters. Such laws are in principle possible, but the texts of the acts adopted by the [Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine] were not properly discussed among experts, and thus contain serious flaws. They will lead to problems in, among other fields, Ukraine's relations to the EU and its member countries, not the least with Ukraine's most important European ally Poland (in connection with the commemoration law's sheltering of the OUN/UPA from critique). Some provisions of these laws are gifts to Moscow's international anti-Ukrainian defamation campaign, and will surely be utilized to the fullest possible degree, by the Kremlin.

Relevant scholars and other experts will probably publish their critique of the laws soon. See some first critical remarks by Halya Coynash here and here, or of leading experts David R. Marples and Christopher Gilley, here, as well as more critique on the Facebook pages of Yuri Radchenko, Anton Shekhovtsov, Per Rudling, Ivan Katchanovski and other specialists. Some general points were raised by [Oleksandr Zaytsev] before here. […]


▪ Halya Coynash

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KhPG)

Politicizing History: Parliament adopts Dangerously Divisive Laws

On April 9 Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada adopted four laws pertaining to Ukraine’s recent history, two of which at least are highly contentious, with the manner in which they were presented to parliament and voted on also grounds for concern.  At a time when Russia is waging undeclared war against Ukraine, the need for unity is paramount.  Instead, a majority in the Verkhovna Rada passed laws which will be used in propaganda against Ukraine with some of that propaganda, unfortunately, being difficult to refute.  

The four laws were only tabled in parliament on April 3, with no public debate despite subject matter arousing very strong opinions and emotions in a significant number of Ukrainians.  The most controversial law has a different title and broader scope, but basically does something that was talked about under the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko but never carried through precisely because it was so contentious.  The law now is entitled «On the Legal Status and Honouring of Fighters for Ukraine’s Independence in the Twentieth Century», and carries with it entitlement to social benefits and full military status.  This, among other things, recognizes the UPA, or Ukrainian Insurgent Army, as veterans of the Second World War.  The whole law essentially lumps vastly different military formations, political or human rights movements together as having all struggled for Ukrainian independence, and then states, in Article 6, that «public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukraine’s independence in the XX century is deemed desecration of the memory of fighters for Ukraine’s independence in the XX century, denigration of the dignity of the Ukrainian people and is unlawful».

No legal consequences are mentioned, however the very statement is of concern.  There is an enormous list of such entities, and it would take time to verify how many of them were implicated in, for example, acts of terrorism viewed by their perpetrators as legitimate forms of struggle.  Would suggesting that it was terrorism to kill Polish politicians in the 1930s (and sometimes also Ukrainians who held different views)  fall under Article 6?

There will be inevitable fallout from full recognition of UPA (and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, or OUN).  This is likely to be viewed very negatively by a considerable number of Ukrainians, especially in eastern parts of Ukraine.  It is also guaranteed to anger Poles, in particular because of the Volyn Massacre of 1943 in which UPA members were directly implicated.  Authoritative historians such as Grzegorz Motyka provide evidence showing that the ethnic cleansing policy then applied by the Volyn UPA in October 1943 received the tacit approval of Roman Shukhevych, UPA commander and father of the author of the 2015 bill, Yury Shukhevych.  

Again, would mentioning these facts be considered to be «showing disrespect» for independence fighters? 

This is a contentious area which needed to be introduced properly with widespread discussion and respect for conflicting views.  It could not be achieved before the end of Yushchenko’s presidency, and it is disturbing that it was slipped in now at a time when such debate is rendered impossible because of the conflict with Russia. 

There is no reason to expect Russia’s well-paid and manned propaganda machine to stay silent when such obvious opportunities to fuel resentment and anger are handed to them on a platter.

The second bill which gained a lot of publicity is «On condemning the communist and National Socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes and prohibiting propaganda of their symbols». 

Whatever one’s attitude to the Soviet regime is, a blanket ban on «public denial of the criminal nature of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917 – 1991 in Ukraine» seems designed to strangle any attempts at real historical study of the period.  Once again, the bill requires careful analysis, to see what symbols are actually prohibited, and what totally fascist ideologies have unwarrantedly been omitted from the ban.  There are also absurdities since even military awards could be regarded as prohibited symbols of Ukraine's communist totalitarian past. Dmitry Tymchuk, military commentator and now MP has already promised to rectify this specific issue, however there are many.  Proper study and consultation with historians, etc. should have been carried out and made public before the bill was adopted, not now. 

The package of bills was presented in parliament and largely drawn up by the head of the Institute for National Remembrance Volodymyr Viatrovych.  The latter was head of the SBU [Security Service] archives under Yushchenko and became widely known for his strong support for nationalist leaders Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, and OUN-UPA.  His works as a historian, for example, his attempts to present the Volyn Massacre «in a wider context» as part of an alleged Polish-Ukrainian war from 1942-1947 have prompted criticism, both from historians and from the wider public.  Concern has often been expressed, including by the author of these words, over historical manipulation of facts or downright inaccuracies

Viatrovych undoubtedly has the right to his own views.  Neither he nor the Institute he now heads has the right to determine what parts of history are remembered and how.  Under Yushchenko, he strongly defended controversial decisions to declare Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych «heroes of Ukraine», claiming in Bandera’s case that all the «evidence» proved him to be worthy of the title.  This is a judgment based on a person’s ideological position, and should not be foisted on others.

The other two bills are contentious mainly because of concerns about the possible politicization of the Institute for National Remembrance. 

«On remembering the victory over Nazism in the Second World War» does not cancel Victory Day on May 9, but establishes May 8 as Day of Memory and Reconciliation. It also removes use of the Soviet term Great Patriotic War. 

Item 3 prohibits «falsification of the history of the Second World War 1939-1945 in academic studies, teaching and methodological literature, textbooks, the media, public addresses by representatives of the authorities, bodies of local self-government and officials».

This should be uncontentious, but is not, as any glance at material, including by Viatrovych, on UPA, Bandera, the events in Volyn, etc. will make clear.   Who is to decide what constitutes «falsification»?

The final law «On access to the archives of repressive bodies of the communist totalitarian regime from 1917-1991» places the state archives concerning repression during the Soviet period under the jurisdiction of the Institute for National Remembrance. 

Open access to archives is indeed vital and it is quite likely true, as stated in the explanatory note, that this is standard for democratic countries.  What is not necessarily standard is the degree of politicization of the country’s Institute for National Remembrance.  Put very bluntly, if you are convinced that a person is a hero, then you are unlikely to wish material suggesting the contrary to be on public display. 

The laws passed on Thursday go a step further, prohibiting «falsification» of history and «disrespect» for independence fighters.  Russia has gone much further still in recent years and, for example, is currently seeing a huge increase in support for the bloody Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.  The antidote is found not in counter-propaganda, but in rejection of political interference in historical memory and total freedom for historical investigation. 



Parliament ignores public opinion on Ukraine’s history. Will the President?

Ukrainians are divided in how they view their country’s history.  This is confirmed by surveys, but has just been ignored by Ukraine’s parliament which decided it knows how the country’s history should be viewed.  If President Petro Poroshenko does not veto laws just passed, it will become illegal to express other views on certain aspects of Ukraine’s recent history.

Criticism of the law «On the Legal Status and Honouring of Fighters for Ukraine’s Independence in the Twentieth Century», which the Verkhovna Rada adopted on April 9, has been met with demands that critics prove their credentials.  If they are not historians, the line goes, they should not venture an opinion.  Only historians with «substantive historical works» published can comment on a law that gives full legal status to members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army [UPA] or Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists [OUN] and prohibits disrespect or denial of their role in fighting for Ukraine’s independence. There are many reasons for questioning the validity of this argument, but for the moment we will confine ourselves to one.  The majority of parliamentarians are not historians, nor do they need to be.  They are elected to represent the people and here there is a major problem. 

Judging by the results of a recent survey, the historical views set in legislative stone through the above law and at least one other on «decommunization» do not correspond to those held by the voters.  What is worse, there is a clear geographic divide with some Ukrainians’ position really not taken into consideration at all. 

From 25 Dec 2014 to 15 Jan 2015, the authoritative Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Ukrainian Sociology Service endeavoured to establish What Unites and Divides Ukrainians.  The survey could not be carried out in the Luhansk oblast and Crimea but otherwise was representative of the population of the country which was divided into 11 historic regions.


In their attitude to historical events, Ukrainians were most united in their positive view of the Victory of the USSR in the war from 1941-1945 against Nazi Germany (84%); the Christening of Kyivan Rus in 988 (74%); and Ukraine’s declaration of independence (71%). 

Most regions view the collapse of the Soviet Union positively (with the largest number in Halychyna – 88%) however the opposite is true in three regions.  In Donbas 70% were negative against 12% in favour; Kharkiv oblast – 52% against 31%; and in the Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhya oblasts 49% against 39%).  A relative majority (47% against 20%) viewed the creation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic positively.

Such results raise serious questions about one of the laws just passed without any public discussion, namely «On condemning the communist and National Socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes and prohibiting propaganda of their symbols».  This prohibits «public denial of the criminal nature of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917 – 1991 in Ukraine».

Viewed statistically, a relative majority were positive about the creation of UPA in 1942 (40% against 31%), and about the formation of OUN in 1929 (37% against 31%).   However a negative attitude prevails in south-eastern regions (Donbas,  Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhya, Mykolaiv, Odessa, Kherson and Kharkiv oblasts).

The same geographical divide was seen in attitude to the «Orange Revolution» of 2004.

«Thus, historical events like the creation of OUN and UPA, as well as the 2004 Orange Revolution, like before, divide Ukraine into two broad parts»,  the researchers conclude.

The nearer to the present day, the less agreement there is as to positive and negative figures in Ukraine’s history.  Of interest here is the number of people who named Ukrainian nationalist leader  Stepan Bandera, who is closely associated with OUN-UPA, as a person they assessed most negatively (they were allowed to name up to three people).   He was named by 44.6% of people in Donbas; 34.3% in the Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhya oblasts; 33.6% in Mykolaiv, Odessa and Kherson oblasts; 21% in the Kharkiv oblast.  Worth noting that it is not only in the south-eastern oblasts that Bandera is viewed negatively.  The readings ranged from 6.8% to 10.5% in all other regions, except Halychyna (where only 1% name him).

What’s the problem?

None at the moment, but that could change if the President does not veto the above-mentioned laws.  According to Article 6 of the Law «On the Legal Status and Honouring of Fighters for Ukraine’s Independence in the Twentieth Century», :

«Ukrainian nationals, foreigners and stateless persons who publicly express disrespect for those stipulated in Article 1 of this law … bear liability in accordance with current Ukrainian legislation.

2.  Public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukraine’s independence in the XX century is deemed desecration of the memory of fighters for Ukraine’s independence in the XX century, denigration of the dignity of the Ukrainian people and is unlawful

This is not just killing the chances for real historical investigation and debate about the role of UPA, Bandera, etc.  It is also forcing a significant number of Ukrainians to fall silent or face being against the law in their own country for expressing their opinions.  This would be a serious problem under any circumstances.  Given the geographical divides outlined above, the war being waged by Russia and its proxies, and relentless attempts to sow division and enmity between Ukrainians, it would be simply catastrophic.   

The answer to the survey’s question is entirely clear.  It is such laws that endeavour to impose particular views on Ukrainian history and effectively criminalize «dissident» positions that divide Ukraine.

The President must veto them. […]