What is my reaction to Ukraine’s attempt to break ties with its Soviet past by banning communist symbols? Well, I do not have one. In common with much of the country, such initiatives leave me neither hot nor cold.
They represent a sideways step. If the government does not introduce radical reforms to change the way society operates we will have taken a step backwards – however many Lenin statues are removed.
The late Ihor Ševčenko, professor of history at Harvard University, warned at the beginning of the 1990s that while it is relatively easy to overcome a Soviet past the question is what to do about the Byzantine influence of centuries of Orthodox Christianity. Ditto the old joke about the plumber who looks like Marx and, in reply to repeated requests from the party to remove his beard, says “Sure, I’ll shave my beard but where shall I put my wisdom?”
The interrelationship between communism and our historical and cultural legacy should become an object of study for historians and sociologists. At present, it is being treated flippantly. But deadly as it may be, communism is merely a flower growing on a tree whose roots reach deeper into the past. It can be uprooted only with the help of radical reforms. That is why establishing an independent judiciary is much more important in overcoming the past than banning Soviet symbols.
Ponder this: apart from Latvia, which banned Soviet symbolism as early as 1991, other countries that more or less successfully jettisoned their Soviet pasts got rid of Soviet symbols in the 2000s – after they had carried out radical reforms, not before, or in lieu of. Estonia in 2007, Lithuania in 2008, Poland in 2009. The logic?
First, overcome the past, then deal with its surface manifestations.
In Ukraine, you say, unlike in Poland or the Baltic states, there is a war on, so is fighting for the past not more important as a way of bolstering patriotic spirit? If only.
Out of all Ukraine’s regions, Dnepropetrovsk is most supportive of the military struggle against separatists in the Donbass. But Dnepropetrovsk also registers one of the highest levels of hostility (33.6%) towards Stepan Bandera (the Ukrainian nationalist leader revered by some but considered a fascist and Nazi collaborator by others) of any region in Ukraine, second only to the Donbass (44.6%). Levels of patriotism, then, are linked not so much to historical memory as to a desire to protect oneself, one’s family and one’s loved ones.
Imagine what Ukraine – its army, economy and standard of living – would look like if former president Viktor Yushchenko had carried out real reforms in 2004 instead of being preoccupied with history. In that case, would Russia have intervened in Ukraine’s affairs?
This year marks 30 years since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. It is a sad anniversary. For 30 years we have been fighting the past and for 30 years it has defeated us.
Since some time in the late 1980s I have indulged a selfish dream: to fall asleep and wake up in five years, when everything will have sorted itself out and it will be possible to live a normal life. The irony is that whatever year I would have fallen asleep in and whichever five years I would have slept through, the situation would have stayed the same – just as bad as before.
As a historian I don’t abandon all hope because I know that revolutions start fast but take a long time to bear fruit. It took the English 50 years (from 1640 to 1688) to reach a post-revolutionary equilibrium and the French about 100 years after the revolution of 1789. Likewise the Germans needed a century after 1848, or even 150 years if you count from the fall of the Berlin wall, when a unified Germany became the main driver of a united Europe.
My hope rests on the assumption that under modern conditions, historical time moves faster than it did in the past. Ukraine has also crossed two important frontiers.
First, it emerged from the shadows of empire when it became independent. According to economists, this alone increases by 50% a country’s chances of creating institutions that promote development. Second, the Soviet past burned in the fire of the Euromaidan protests. With each step of this sort we outstrip Russia, which has failed the test of history and faces shocks yet to come.
To step beyond our history we need a large-scale crisis, like the fall of communism or something similar to what we are living through now. Will Ukraine take its chance this time? I cannot say. In history, there are no givens.
But at least there is a chance. It would be a sin to throw that chance away by substituting cosmetic change for real reforms.