To regain its status as a natural part of Europe, Ukraine needs to break free from Russian and Soviet colonial heritage
Does Ukraine need de-Sovietization in the 22nd year of its independence? The experience of modern state building and post-communist transformations in Central and Eastern European countries shows that this is a mandatory step on the path to European integration. Before joining the EU, the majority of former socialist camp members carried out radical reforms in the early days of their post-socialist histories in order to cast off totalitarian baggage. Otherwise, democratization, the growth of civic institutions and, most importantly, a revival of national state-building traditions would have been impossible. Ukraine bypassed this stage and continues to struggle with a Soviet heritage that has proven difficult to abandon without radical reform. Ukraine was infected with communism at least 20 years earlier than other Central and Eastern European countries, which experienced modern state building in the interwar period. The totalitarian regime became much more entrenched in Ukraine and led to far more traumatic consequences (including the Holodomor) than in its Western neighbours.
Captive to alien values
After proclaiming independence on the foundation of the Ukrainian SSR and its government institutions and without clearly separating itself ideologically from its totalitarian and colonial past, Ukraine has continued to stumble ahead through sheer inertia. It has made only superficial alterations to the formal and ceremonial representations of its statement while remaining captive to Soviet-Russian values that dictate the mindset, behavioural models and attitudes of both the political elite and a large part of the population.
This condition manifests itself primarily through deeply entrenched paternalism and an inferiority complex inherited from the Soviet colonial past. For example, surveys show that over 63% of Ukrainians believe that several strong leaders could put the country in order faster than legislation and open debate. The dominant strategy for many citizens is still conformism and a desire to adjust to the existing circumstances at any cost and without attempting to change the situation. Most people do not believe in real social or political justice. A survey by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in May-June 2012 showed that 78.4% of Ukrainians were convinced that there was little equality of citizens before the law, if any. To survive, Ukrainians strive to integrate into the current system of relations with the authorities, conforming without initiating any changes. This is similar to what happened under Soviet rule: part of society was able to conform, adapt and learn to coexist with a repressive totalitarian juggernaut by choosing the pragmatic strategy of survival in specific historical and institutional circumstances. Thus, preconditions are in place for the replication and perpetuation of the post-Soviet system.
One of the consequences of long-time isolation during the Soviet era (due to the Iron Curtain) is a lack of mobility and mental openness in society. Surveys show that 77% of Ukrainians have never been abroad and 36% have never left their region. As a result, it is hard for most citizens to compare the realities of their lives with those of other countries and regions and thus comprehend the necessity and value of change. This circumstance undermines social support for any attempt at reform. Continual repression and a system of denunciation in Soviet times made people socially detached, intolerant, and unfriendly for preventive purposes. Today, up to half of all Ukrainians do not trust their social milieu, according to surveys. Post-Soviet mutations led to an odd combination of mutually exclusive values and widespread ambivalence. For example, Ukrainians can think positively of democracy and liberal values and at the same time accept authoritarian methods of governance. Or they may want Ukraine to join the EU and the Customs Union at the same time. Surveys reveal that 59% of Ukrainians would vote in favour of EU accession at a national referendum, and if the issue of joining the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan were put to a vote, 57.5% would support it.
Conformism, cynicism, profanity, criminality, and a lack of principles were the distinct features of the Communist Party and Komsomol nomenklatura in the last decades of the USSR and were then transplanted into post-Soviet life. They have become mandatory characteristics of Ukraine’s political, business and cultural-intellectual elites and continue to be replicated at all levels, from NGOs to politics. The post-Soviet period added to this its all-consuming nepotism, favouritism and backdoor deals, leading to total corruption. As a result, personal, clan and corporate affiliations outweigh national interests in Ukrainian politics. Under this system, state power is viewed as a business project for those who are at the helm of the state and the oligarchic groups close to them. This is precisely the reason why the surviving Soviet bureaucracy makes public administration so inefficient at both the national and regional levels, while the services provided by the government are aimed at earning money rather than actually serving citizens.
The two-way street between money and politics is another distinct feature of post-Soviet Ukraine: money opens the door to power, which in turn provides access to financial flows. Once they reach the top, post-Soviet elites follow the example set by their predecessors in the Communist Party nomenklatura. They attempt to squeeze maximum benefit from their office and access to government resources and surround themselves with various status perks—cadres of security guards, various awards and titles—thus artificially setting themselves apart from the rest of society. Politicians’ deeply rooted sense of impunity and lack of responsibility prompt them to enhance their personal comfort while facing only minimal critical outcry by a weakened civic society.
The worldview and values of the absolute majority of contemporary Ukrainian politicians were shaped in Soviet universities, the “socialist talent foundries”. This has a constraining effect on their views and limits their ability to accept and carry out European-calibre reforms. At the same time, post-Soviet transformations caused them to have ambivalent values: they tend to declare liberal values but take undemocratic steps in practice, thus profaning and merely imitating any constructive initiative. This is, for example, why the Orange Revolution failed to trigger any qualitative shifts in Ukraine’s development – its leaders remained in a vicious post-Soviet cycle, not daring to radically break out of it.
The transitional state in which the worst Soviet practices coexisted with new vulgarized democratic norms and wild capitalism was ideal for the emergence of oligarchy as the informal source of all power in the country. Having emerged from among the Communist Party and Komsomol nomenklatura, “red directors” (CEOs of big industrial Soviet enterprises), and semi-criminal elements, Ukraine’s oligarchs set up their own system of societal power relations and have resisted changes to the status quo. They are absolutely comfortable in this hybridized post-Soviet life as they parasitize society and exploit old Soviet industrial assets while refusing modernization. It would be a mistake to treat them as engines of European integration because their system of values is at odds with that of Europe.
A vicious cycle
The Ukrainian establishment and society continue to live in an old frame of reference – a backward Soviet mentality with chaotically superimposed modern memes. One great example of this is the fact that public space in Ukraine still bears Soviet designations. For example, the country has 20 times more toponyms related to the Soviet era and figures of the totalitarian past than to the history of the national liberation struggle. Communist symbols and discursive practices are ubiquitous in the Ukrainian public sphere. Soviet holidays continue to be officially promoted: Red (Soviet) Army Day on 23 February, Victory Day on 9 May, Komsomol Day on 29 October, etc. This practice serves to perpetuate totalitarian complexes in the minds of millions of Ukrainians and blocks the democratization of society. The European choice is out of the question when Ukrainians are still surrounded by thousands of stone and bronze statutes of Soviet leaders, henchmen and butchers emanating the despotism of the past.
In this situation, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Ukrainians continue to live in a slightly modified Soviet Ukraine: the décor has changed, but the content and inner workings are the same. It should be acknowledged that a truly sovereign establishment of the Ukrainian state is yet to take place.
The pathological condition in which Ukraine finds itself is the product of a post-Soviet mutation—the evolutionary transition from one sociopolitical model to another, which led to an ugly hybrid form combining two opposed and mutually exclusive systems of values: Soviet and national European. In the past three years, Ukrainians have been able to see for themselves that the former system has sufficient mechanisms for self-reproduction under modern conditions. To many Ukrainian citizens, the Viktor Yanukovych regime and the rule of the Donetsk clan have come to embody a typically Soviet mentality, way of governance and, at times, impudent restoration of the backward practices of the Brezhnev and Shcherbytsky eras.
A post-Soviet system is unable to transform itself because it has every resource and internal mechanism necessary for self-replication. Former Communist Party nomenklatura and Komsomol leaders and their power-wielding descendants are absolutely content with this system, which permits them to grow rich following virtually the same rules that prevailed in Soviet times. Under such conditions, only a complete dismantling can be effective. The state and all its institutions must be reset and re-launched on fundamentally different principles, values, and frames of reference. Without such measures, Ukraine’s development and European integration will be impossible.
One must bear in mind that Ukraine’s de-Sovietization should go hand in hand with related processes such as de-Russification and decolonization. Together, these make up three Ds for Ukraine. It must finally be acknowledged that the 70 years when Ukraine was part of the Soviet empire were a period of colonial subjugation, and the Ukrainian SSR was not a full-fledged state or even a quasi-state but merely a cover for Bolshevik occupation. The Soviet was always a symbol of the Russian; Sovietization necessarily entailed Russification, and the USSR was just a form of the Russian Empire.
The task currently facing the counter-elite in Ukraine is to break away not only from the totalitarian Soviet past at the level of institutions, mental attitudes and everyday practices, but also from the imperial Russian cultural tradition which keeps Ukrainians captive to its values, norms and civilizational guidelines, perpetuating the hybrid transitional state and blocking Ukraine’s European prospects. It is impossible to implement European values and standards and build the “Russian world” in Ukraine at the same time – these are absolutely mutually exclusive things. Ukraine needs to clearly determine its frame of reference and settle on a vector of civilizational development for itself. There is no other alternative.
At the same time, de-sacralisation and de-mythologisation of the Soviet past, as well as a total ban on totalitarian symbols, must go hand in hand with a comprehensive approach to reforming all spheres of life and to building Ukraine’s own frame of reference, as opposed to externally imposed ones, which is something that would require a well-defined strategy and an action plan.
At present, Ukraine’s major opposition forces, which together aspire to become an alternative to the Yanukovych regime in the near future, lack a specific plan for dismantling the post-Soviet system and resetting Ukraine on a totally new foundation. They either completely ignore the issue of de-Sovietization due to their ideological indeterminacy, fondness of cheap populism and desire to attract various electoral groups (Batkivshchyna and UDAR) or they reduce de-Sovietization merely to dismantling Lenin monuments and de-mythologising history (Svoboda).
The Estonian experience of post-communist transformation is to be followed as the most successful and telling example in the post-Soviet space. While having roughly the same initial conditions as Ukraine, Estonia has been able to effect comprehensive de-Sovietization and build (or, rather, restore) its state based on national and European values by resolutely abandoning the markers of civilizational development set by Russia. This required a political will and a clearly articulated end goal of transformation. The experience of this small Baltic state shows how successful de-Sovietization reform can be if it is carried out rapidly, radically and without looking back.
So far, Ukraine twice – in the early 1990s and in 2004-2005 – lost its chance to leave its totalitarian past behind and end its post-Soviet agony. Moreover, some of the symbols and practices of the long defunct USSR are now being revived. If it does not undergo a process of de-Sovietization, the country will continue to be flooded with Russian propaganda and pseudo-culture. It will continue to operate within a polarized economic and social model, experience further societal degradation and blocked social mobility for the emerging counter-elite, and ultimately lose its overall competitiveness. Worst of all, Soviet-Russian values will forever install an iron curtain between Ukraine and Europe, thwarting Ukraine’s prospects of European integration and keeping it under the influence of its increasingly aggressive north-eastern neighbour, which seeks to realize its neo-imperial Eurasian projects in the post-Soviet space. However, there is still ample opportunity to effect a radical transformation in Ukraine. Most importantly, such fundamental change is in great demand by society.