Back to a Soviet-Ukrainian National Identity

By Taras Kuzio

As predicted in an issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor earlier this week, a new director has been appointed at the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, established by President Viktor Yushchenko in 2005. As has become standard practice, the position was given to an individual from Donetsk: historian Valeriy Soldatenko. His formative career from 1976 to 1984 was as a senior research fellow at the Institute of the History of the Communist Party under the guidance of the central committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. This was a branch of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism attached to the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The appointment follows in the general ideological direction of the Viktor Yanukovych administration towards returning to a Soviet-Ukrainian national identity. In his annual appeal on the anniversary of the July 16, 1990 declaration of sovereignty, President Yanukovych argued that the Soviet period created the basis for Ukrainian statehood. “Twenty years ago, in adopting the Declaration on State Sovereignty of Ukraine, our state made a decisive step towards independence. It was not an easy decision… And yet they voted for a document that essentially opened a new page in the history of Ukraine,” Yanukovych’s appeal sought to convince Ukrainians.

Yanukovych reminded Ukrainians, “Do not forget that all previous attempts to obtain sovereignty ended in failure. It should be remembered that the Soviet Union, albeit with only limited sovereignty, laid the foundations for Ukraine’s economic and cultural power without which future independence would have been impossible.”

What he forgot to add is that states within the US have always possessed greater rights than the allegedly large amount of autonomy that Soviet republics possessed. In addition, although article 72 of the 1977 Soviet constitution stated that “Each Union Republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR,” anybody seeking to exercise this right was punished by a long-term sentence in the Gulag camps.

Yanukovych’s appointment and appeal reveals much about the greater degree of Soviet and Russian influence in his administration. As a Ukrainian analyst pointed out, there are ten concrete differences between the Leonid Kuchma and Yanukovych political models, with the latter more closely resembling Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Kuchma’s system of playing different clans against each other while the president stands above the clan as an arbiter more closely resembled Boris Yeltsin’s Russia.

Political expert Vadym Karasiov explained that the appointment of Soldatenko will lead to the Institute “becoming less concerned with national memory and one that is more international or Soviet.” The authorities cannot close the Institute, as this would lead to a ‘scandal’, while they also could not appoint a historian with national democratic views, as this would have indicated that the Institute will continue to uphold the Ukrainophile historiography that is associated closely with Yushchenko.

Therefore, Soldatenko was chosen in order for there to be a ‘correction’ in the ideological line of the Institute. The only problem is that the Yanukovych administration does not have a coherent national identity to replace the Ukrainophile identity that has dominated Ukraine’s education policy under three presidents during the last two decades.

“They cannot be pro-Russian and they cannot be national. They cannot be democratic but cannot be anti-democratic. The current authorities are characterized by lack of clarity,” Karasiov said.

The authorities face the same dilemma as did Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in rejecting both Russian and ‘nationalist’ (i.e. Belarusophile or Ukrainophile) historiographies. The only alternative for Lukashenka was to stress – like Yanukovych is now doing – the importance of Soviet rule in building the Belarusian and Ukrainian nations. Both presidents seek to inculcate Soviet Belarusian and Soviet Ukrainian ‘patriotism’.

In the case of Yanukovych this is made more pertinent by the origins of his administration in Donetsk, where he was governor from 1997-2002. Donetsk is a relatively new city that was originally called Yuzovka and then Stalino between 1924 and 1961. Donetsk did not have a university until the 1930s, in contrast to Kharkiv which has the oldest university in Ukraine, established in 1804, and was Soviet Ukraine’s capitol city until 1934. Donetsk is therefore far more a product of the Soviet era.

A survey by the Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies (Razumkov Centre) found that large majorities of the inhabitants of Donetsk and the Crimea hold their primary allegiance to Soviet identity (as compared to Russian or Ukrainian). Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (together constituting the Donbas) have 430 streets named after Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin – the highest number in Ukraine. Thirty-three streets are even named after the Donetsk Bolshevik separatist leader Fedor Artem.

Education and Science Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk will have little difficulty working with the new national identity orientation of the Institute. In January 2003, then-Deputy Prime Minister for humanities Tabachnyk in the first Yanukovych government signed a government resolution to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian Communist leader Volodymyr Shcherbytskyy. The celebrations consisted of nine separate events.

Parliament voted in 2004 and 2009 to celebrate the 85th and 90th anniversaries of the Ukrainian Komsomol, with 251 deputies voting for the latter. In addition to deputies from the Party of Regions, Communist Party and Volodymyr Lytvyn bloc, 53 Yulia Tymoshenko bloc deputies voted for the resolution. The legacy of Soviet rule still hangs over Ukraine in other ways.

In the 2004 presidential elections the heads of both the Yanukovych and Yushchenko campaigns were former senior Komsomol (Communist Youth League) functionaries: Sergei Tigipko and Oleksandr Zinchenko, respectively. Tigipko is now seen as a future leader of the Party of Regions to replace Yanukovych and Nikolai Azarov, who have jointly led the party since it was founded in 2001.

With the election of Yanukovych, history has come full circle in Ukraine.

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