Participants wave communist flags near a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin during an International Worker's Day, or Labour Day, parade in Donetsk, east Ukraine, May 1, 2014.
Marko Djurica / Reuters

Earlier this month, the Ukrainian parliament approved four bills intended to decommunize Ukraine. Critics slammed the legislation, claiming that it would limit free speech and cause unnecessary friction between Kiev and some parts of the country’s eastern regions. Supporters, however, insist that the terms of the bills align with international norms and are necessary to Ukraine’s adoption of pro-Western reforms.

The debate over whether these four bills are valid need not be so fraught. One simple way to evaluate their merit is to focus on whether they promote two key values: freedom and justice. If they do, then they make good laws. If they do not, then the laws should be amended or thrown out. And if they make tradeoffs between freedom and justice, which is often the case, then that’s just life.

Americans and western Europeans generally consider Nazism as one of the greatest evils, much more so than communism. But for Ukrainians and many eastern Europeans, the two were equally destructive forces. According to a study by the Moscow-based Institute of Demography, Ukraine suffered close to 15 million “excess deaths” between 1914 and 1948. Of that total, about 7.5 million were attributable to Soviet policies and 6.5 million to the Nazis. According to the French historian Nicolas Werth, the Stalinist regime killed some 12 million of its own people. The Ukrainian share of Soviet deaths was more than twice its share of the total Soviet population. As the Russian writer Viktor Shenderovich recently put it, “The number of crimes committed in Ukraine under Communist flags is much larger than that committed under German Nazi flags.”

A protester holds a portrait of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as he shouts slogans during a Communist meeting in front of the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev, March 15, 2001.

The assumption underlying the bills, therefore, is that since communism and Nazism were equally evil ideologies, condemnation of one necessarily entails, both logically and morally, condemnation of the other. If de-Nazification is crucial, so too is decommunization.

Against that premise, the first bill acknowledges, in a long list, those movements, governments, and organizations that fought for an independent Ukraine throughout twentieth-century Soviet rule. This list of “fighters” represents a fundamental break with the still powerful hegemony of Soviet, Russian, and neo-Soviet historiography and propaganda, which demonized these groups, portrayed them as traitors, and excluded them from Ukrainian history. Scholars, ideologues, and propagandists working within this colonial and often racist mindset depicted (and still do depict) Ukrainians as either voiceless savages or mindless imbeciles.

By officially acknowledging a historical fact—that these groups contributed to Ukrainian independence—the bill gives Ukrainians a voice to write their own history, free of the colonial prejudices of Soviet, Russian, and neo-Soviet ideologies. In this light, the claim made by some critics, that two controversial nationalist groups, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, should not be included (they have been accused of committing atrocities during World War II), is completely misplaced. Whatever one’s view of these two groups, they did in fact contribute enormously to Ukraine’s independence (it would be similar to claiming that Malcolm X should not be considered a key figure in the American civil rights movement because of his violent rhetoric). Not to include them on a list of pro-independence groups would be to revert to the distorted version of Ukrainian history.

The bill therefore supports free speech by finally allowing scholars to discuss Ukrainian history in its entirety. That said, critics of the bill are correct to point out that its sixth article, which makes the “contemptuous attitude” toward the listed groups potentially punishable by law, defeats its inherent goal of encouraging historical objectivity. Supporters and detractors of the fighters must be allowed to express themselves freely. Kiev should immediately amend this section of the bill to ensure that it actually accomplishes what it set out to do—allow Ukrainians to write their own history.

A statuette of Lenin in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, May 10, 2014.
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

The second bill, which opens secret police archives, will enable citizens to access KGB files. That is a coup for freedom and justice. The reasons are obvious: a mature nation needs to know its past, criminals must be brought to trial, and the inner workings of the Soviet secret police must finally be exposed to public and private scrutiny. At the same time, innocents may be harmed by baseless rumors documented in the secret police reports. If Ukraine follows the example of Germany and other post-Communist states that also opened their secret police archives, however, a variety of regulatory controls can be enacted to protect the innocent. Moreover, the vast majority of existing KGB documents are from the pre– or immediate post–World War II era; more recent documents that could affect any Ukrainians were destroyed by the KGB or transferred to Moscow.

The third bill ends the lie of “the Great Patriotic War,” which was the Soviet Union’s distorted take on World War II. In the Soviet version, the war began with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This bill represents an official recognition that the war actually began with the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. It is also a recognition of the two-year period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939–1941), when the Soviet Union actively collaborated with and promoted Nazi interests in eastern Europe, thereby laying the groundwork for the Holocaust. By demythologizing the Great Patriotic War, Ukraine will eventually have to confront the atrocities Soviet soldiers committed at that time—such as mass rape campaigns in Germany and Hungary in 1945. The perpetrators have mostly all died, but knowledge of their misdeeds will finally dispel the illusions promoted by the Soviet regime. By correcting history, Ukraine will be able to make progress with respect to both freedom and justice.

People react after a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin was toppled by protesters during a rally organized by pro-Ukraine supporters in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kharkiv, September 28, 2014.

The fourth bill prohibits the “propaganda of the Communist and/or National Socialist totalitarian regimes” in Ukraine. In addition to advocating the removal of Communist monuments and public symbols and the renaming of streets and cities, the bill attempts to distinguish between materials that promote Communist and Nazi regimes, which is prohibited, and those that express pro-regime views, which would not be deemed illegal. The Ukrainian parliament on April 23 made some important corrections to the bill, specifying which categories of symbols fall under the law’s purview, but critics have a point when they say that the line between professing Communist views and propaganda is inherently blurry. Still, the principle of outlawing the two regimes that brought so much death and destruction to Ukraine is sound, even if the implementation of this bill may lead to some protest as it is put into practice.

Critics argue that this last bill may turn out to be divisive, particularly in parts of Ukrainian society still wedded to the country’s Soviet past. But it is uncertain that public outrage at toppled Lenin statues will trump public concern over the war with Russia, Putin’s possible escalation, and the economic belt-tightening as a result of the conflict. In any case, a genuine public discourse about the painful aspects of Ukraine’s past is long overdue. Moreover, confronting and overcoming Ukraine’s brush with totalitarianism is indispensable to the country’s pro-Western trajectory.

In sum, Ukraine may be on the verge of making a decisive break with the Communist experience that caused so much death and, until recently, continued to exert its nefarious influence. The divorce from its past will be a contentious and messy one. But controversy is the soul of democracy, and a vigorous public debate can only enhance freedom and justice in Ukraine, as well as its ongoing transition to a free, tolerant, just, and open society.

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