Kiev’s Purge

Behind the New Legislation to Decommunize Ukraine

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. Reuters

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.


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