Kiev, Ukraine – More than 20 years after its collapse, the spectre of the Soviet Union still looms large over Ukraine.
A “Lenin Street” runs through the suburbs of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and red stars as well as crossed hammers and sickles adorn many of the buildings in central Kiev.
But from December 2013 to February 2014, an estimated 100 statues of Lenin and other Soviet monuments in Ukraine were destroyed. Among them was a Lenin statue just off of Kiev’s main street, Khreshchatyk. The plinth was later topped with a golden toilet, and has since been painted in Ukraine’s national colours.
In line with this sentiment, the office of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced on May 15 that he had signed what the media has dubbed the “Anti-communist laws”.
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The four laws comprising the “decommunisation” package ban Nazi and communist “propaganda” and criminalise “public denial of the criminal nature of the communist totalitarian regime 1917-1991”.
They also promise to open previously sealed KGB files that had been kept hidden from the Ukrainian public, while at the same time publicly praising militias and one-time Nazi collaborators, who later fought on the Soviet Union’s side during World War II.
The penalties include up to five years in jail for an individual, and 10 years for members of an organisation convicted of breaching the laws.
Streets, districts, and even cities would have to be renamed and thousands of statues and monuments would have to be dismantled and removed. Former Ukrainian tax minister Oleksandr Klimenko estimated costs for the nationwide operation could be as high as $236m.
Among the cities and towns that will have to be renamed are Dnipropetrovsk, which is partly named after communist revolutionary Grigory Petrovsky; and Kirovograd, which was named after Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov.
Some scholars and analysts are concerned by the fact that the new laws stipulate legal penalties.
Oxana Shevel, an associate professor in post-Soviet comparative politics at Tufts University in the US, told Al Jazeera former Soviet satellites such as Poland and the Czech Republic had made similar declarations about the “criminal nature” of communist regimes, but had not gone so far as to impose penalties on those holding the opposite view.
“I think the state is within its rights – I don’t think everyone will agree with it but they want to say the communist regime is bad, and the people who fought for independence, they want to acknowledge them somehow,” said Shevel. “I don’t have a problem with that. I have a problem with the way that it bans the opposite expression.
“There were people who fought on the Ukrainian side who committed grave rights abuses, who participated in the extermination of Poles, of Jews, and I think there should be a clause excluding people who are implicated in these crimes.”
Other Ukrainians such as Boris Chykulay, a film producer from Kiev, told Al Jazeera he supports the new laws because the symbols earmarked for removal were connected to Russian propaganda.
“These are not only communist symbols. These are symbols of a totalitarian dictatorship, and one that is still active. Removing the symbols is a small but important step in the decontamination of Ukraine.”
‘Honouring’ Ukraine’s WWII nationalists
One of the recently passed bills includes the Bandera group among those that will now be honoured for their part in fighting for Ukraine’s independence.
Supporters of nationalist leader Stepan Bandera briefly joined the Nazis during World War II, while two other militias named in the bill – the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – were implicated in the slaughter of nearly 100,000 ethnic Poles during 1943 and 1944.
The four bills were passed without public debate by Ukraine’s parliament on April 9, despite public appeals from human rights groups and scholars concerned about the risk to freedom of expression and association.
“The bill perfectly protects the memory of all the soldiers who gave us freedom. It is not directed to any destruction, it is actually European, really free and unbiased point of view on all the events of the Second World War and Ukraine’s participation in these events,” said Ukrainian Minister of Culture Viacheslav Kyrylenko.
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Notably, he referred to the conflict as “the Second World War” – the term used in much of Europe – as opposed to “the Great Patriotic War”, the term used by the USSR as well as in Russia today.
But Human Rights Watch researcher Yulia Gorbunova, who is based in Ukraine, told Al Jazeera there was a danger the law could be used to persecute people and limit free speech and freedom of association.
“Certain aspects of this package of laws are very divisive and could have a serious negative impact on freedom of speech in Ukraine. For example, opening former KGB archives will help to stimulate free discussion in society, but banning communist symbols and ‘communist propaganda’ will only serve to stifle it,” said Gorbunova.
In an open letter, the bills’ co-author and Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Viatrovych defended the laws, saying the lingering Soviet influence on the country was the reason Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to gain a foothold in the country, and the laws were needed to undo this.
“The persistent totalitarian past still stands in the way of Ukraine’s development as a European, democratic state. It is precisely on this island of ‘Sovietness’, which for historic reasons remained strongest in the Donbas and in Crimea, that Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is taking place,” he wrote.
The legislation also means former Soviet parties or organisations accused of glamorising communism could be ordered to cease functioning.
In a statement released shortly after Poroshenko signed the laws, Petro Symonenko, first secretary of the Central Committee Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), condemned the laws as “contrary to the constitution of Ukraine”.
The party has already had to move its Kiev headquarters several times, and will now have to assume a different name in order to comply with the laws.
“According to these laws, communist ideology, symbols and even the name ‘communist’ is under the prohibition,” the statement read. “It means direct repressions, physical and mental pressure and even criminal prosecution of the members of the CPU and other leftists. Let us stress that these laws are contrary to the constitution of Ukraine.”
Even before the laws were passed, rising anti-communist and anti-Soviet sentiment had led to the formation of some groups dedicated to preserving what they see as important parts of Ukraine’s past.
Soviet Mosaics in Ukraine is a project launched by the Izolyatsia Foundation in February 2014. It was initially based in Donetsk before the foundation was forced to relocate to Kiev because of the war.
At first the NGO focused on preserving the industrial heritage of Donetsk, but it has since expanded its scope to preserving art and architecture in Ukraine.
“Of course, these mosaics had an ideological message, but now, after more than 20 years, we should be able to see the pure aesthetic quality of this art,” the Izolyatsia Foundation‘s Ievgeniia Moliar told Al Jazeera.
“Of course, there are people who do not understand and do not support us. Usually they are far-right radicals or nationalist-oriented. They only want a total Soviet ban.”
Amending the law
In a statement released at the same time as he signed the drafts into law, Poroshenko said amendments would be submitted “in the nearest future … to eliminate conflicts [within the law] that could be used to abuse the legislation [with] violations of human rights and civil rights”.
The statement said improvements would be made to the law banning the denial of the status of fighters for Ukraine’s independence in the 20th century, but made no mention of the Soviet propaganda bill.
Shevel said the laws had already been amended once when it was realised it effectively banned war veterans from wearing their medals during parades, but more changes were needed.
“From the statement, it doesn’t look like he will address condemnation of communists. In that respect, we may still have a problem,” Shevel said.
“The Soviets said everyone who was on our side was good, essentially, and everyone against us is bad. And these laws are doing the same thing, only now they have flipped from plus to minus.”
Follow Philippa H Stewart on Twitter: @flip_stewart