Ukraine's Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko speaks to Ben Chacko about the Institute of National Memory and the wave of destruction engulfing his country
CLASHES over the removal of statues to Confederacy leaders in the United States have dominated headlines over the past month.
The politics of this new iconoclasm is hotly debated on the left: should statues of racists, tyrants and oppressors be torn down on principle, or should countries have to look their past, however ugly, in the eye? Who decides which statues are unacceptable, and on what grounds?
The battles in the US are more complicated than that: many statues do not date from the civil war but were erected in the era of the Jim Crow laws as a conscious symbol of the subjugation of Black people; their current role as active rallying points for white supremacists and fascists strengthens the left case for tearing them down.
But while our ears are full of the sound and fury of US culture wars, a far more thorough wave of destruction has taken place in Ukraine.
And there it’s the fascists who are attacking monuments to the country’s past.
Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory, reported last month that 1,320 statues of Lenin had been removed — every public statue of the Russian revolutionary leader in the land, along with 1,069 “other Soviet monuments.”
“The destruction of Lenin’s monuments became the ‘idée fixe’ of the regime,” Petro Symonenko, leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU), tells me.
Symonenko is unconvinced that tearing down statues is necessarily positive even when the statues are of racists, as is the case in the United States, though he does wryly note that it is not merely a southern problem in the US: “In New York there is a monument to General Philip Sheridan, who wanted to kill all the buffalo to exterminate the Native Americans, who said he only met ‘good Indians among the corpses of Indians’.”
But the Ukrainian context is different.
The “Maidan” uprising of 2014 was hailed by the US and EU as democratic, despite the fact that the president it overthrew, Viktor Yanukovych, was elected.
The new government in Kiev was backed from the start by openly fascist paramilitaries, and its aggressive Ukrainian nationalism and attacks on trade unionists and leftwingers (most notoriously the 42 burned alive in Odessa’s House of Trade Unions on May 2, 2014) sparked a revolt in the country’s mainly Russian-speaking east, causing a war that continues to this day.
The Communist Party were no fans of Yanukovych’s corruption-riddled administration, but the violence and brutality of the new order is much worse: “A band of thieves has been replaced by a band of robbers,” Symonenko remarks bitterly.
“The regime relies on ultra-right forces and criminal organisations” (such as the fascist Svoboda and Right Sector parties, or the neonazi Azov and Aidan paramilitary battalions). “So-called ‘professional patriots’.
“Their patriotism consists only of destroying, plundering, sowing hatred between peoples, even the physical destruction of dissenters.” Ukraine’s right take as their political inspiration Stepan Bandera’s Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the thinking of Dmitri Dontsov, who acknowledged his intellectual debt to Hitler and Mussolini.
Street violence and vandalism were part of Maidan from the beginning. “In Kiev, after the armed coup in February 2014, a mob led by neonazis barbarously destroyed a monument to Lenin.
“A journalist from one of the TV channels showed me a fragment of the granite, asking with a smirk: ‘Do you know what this is?’“I answered: ‘These are the splinters of Ukraine.’
“To my great regret I was right. The Crimea is gone. The Donbass is blazing in the fire of civil war. And right across Ukraine there is a ‘cold’ civil war: a war between the ideologists of Hitler and the nazi collaborators of the OUN, and the anti-fascists, whose leaders have always been the communists.”
The destruction of statues of Lenin, alongside that of monuments to Red Army soldiers and Jewish and Polish victims of the OUN, is part of the “de-communisation” process that has seen a concerted effort to ban the KPU, the renaming of any streets with names deemed pro-Soviet, and the criminalisation of positive references to the Soviet Union in print. Kiev’s attacks on freedom of expression have been condemned internationally, including by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Amnesty International.
Masterminding this process is the Institute of National Memory, founded under former president Viktor Yuschenko in 2006 but since 2014 “the regime’s main tool in falsifying history and promoting neonazism as state ideology,” in Symonenko’s words.
“People call it the institute of national unconsciousness — absence of memory,” he says. “Its task is to reshape public consciousness, to erase everything connected with the heroic victories of the Soviet Ukrainian people.
“This people, together with other peoples within the USSR, liberated Europe from fascism, restored a country destroyed by the nazi invaders.”
He compares the institute to Heinrich Himmler’s Ahnenerbe, which sought to create myths about the origins and ancient past of the German race.
It too prattles about the “exclusivity of the Ukrainian nation,” its “superiority” and tries to assert that Ukrainians are pure-blood Aryans. Symonenko notes that pseudo-science and pseudo-archaeology is back in a big way.
“It’s not by chance that the media spreads nonsense about the Ukrainian origin of Jesus Christ, or that the Ukrainian nation is ‘older than the pyramids’,” he sighs.
The institute has also worked hard to portray Russia as an eternal “enemy and aggressor” against Ukraine, despite the countries’ histories being so intertwined that both trace their states back to the Kievan Rus federation with its capital at Kiev in the 9th century.
“School history textbooks affirm that there was no Great Patriotic War of the Soviet peoples against the Hitler hordes,” he says.
“No millions of Ukrainian Red Army warriors dying on the battlefield to liberate Europe from fascism.
“According to them there was an invasion of Ukraine by German and Soviet troops.”
This narrative gets confusing, of course, since the OUN and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) collaborated with the nazis and played an active part in the Holocaust.
“The thugs who served with the SS, the Wehrmacht, the OUN-UPA are ‘warriors of light’ waging a ‘war of liberation’ against an evil enemy, Bolshevik Russia.”
Institute chief Viatrovych has repeatedly been accused by other academics of faking historical documents. Jeffrey Burds of the Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, says that “scholars on his staff publish document collections that are falsified.
“I know because I have seen the originals, made copies, and have compared their transcriptions to the originals.” Burds says whole sentences that might portray Ukrainian nationalists of the past in a bad light are removed from documents.
His criticisms are echoed by a researcher at the Kennan Institute and Holocaust Memorial Museum in the United States, Jared McBride.
“When Viatrovych was chief archivist at the SBU [Ukraine’s security service], he created a digital archive open to Ukrainian citizens and foreigners.
“He and his team made sure to exclude any documents from the archive that may cast a negative light on the OUN-UPA, including their involvement in the Holocaust and other war crimes,” he told Josh Cohen of the publication Foreign Policy last year.
Because Ukraine’s history is being so thoroughly rewritten, it is not merely statues of Lenin which are being torn down.
“Monuments to Soviet soldiers are desecrated practically every day. Monuments and plaques to heroes of the resistance, partisans, state and party leaders who made a huge contribution to victory over Hitler, are being destroyed.
“In the Dnepropetrovsk region a monument to the unknown soldier has recently been damaged, as was another such monument in Odessa.
“In Kiev they vandalised the complex of the eternal flame in the Park of Eternal Glory to the Soldiers of World War II. They defiled the monument to the liberator of Kiev, General Nikolai Vatutin.” General Vatutin was commanding the Ukrainian front against the nazis when he was ambushed and killed by OUN-UPA collaborators in 1944.
The UPA’s involvement in the Holocaust has been a particular embarrassment to the country’s new rulers, explaining their eagerness to destroy memorials to both Polish and Jewish victims of its ethnic cleansing operation.
Attempts to remove tributes to the Poles who died in the Volyn massacre — the UPA had promised a “shameful death” to all Poles in Ukraine — caused protests earlier this year.
“The crimes of the OUN-UPA against civilians are crimes against humanity that do not have a statute of limitations,” Symonenko contends.
“The Volyn massacre, the burning of Khatyn, anti-Jewish pogroms in Lviv and Babi Yar, these are only the most famous crimes of Bandera and the nationalists.
“Wherever their foot went you’ll find a local Babi Yar.”
The Communist Party, he says, will always maintain that hiding the truth about these crimes is unacceptable. He quotes the monument to the victims at Volyn: “If I forget them, God in the sky, forget about me.”
He lists more examples than there is space for in a Morning Star article — memorials to Marshal Zhukov, who led the Soviet armies in the second world war, to leaders of the partisan resistance against German occupation such as Sidor Kovpak, Alexey Fedorov and Alexander Saburov and many more have been defaced or smashed.
But he is unsurprised by the events in Ukraine: “After all, the oligarchs’ rule is now based on right-wing radical forces composed of the ideological heirs of Hitler’s henchmen.
“Under slogans of struggling for democracy and liberation from the totalitarian communist past, the ideology of neonazism is being actively seeded in Ukraine.
“Recently the National Guard’s deputy commander Major General Yaroslav Spodar, in an interview with Ukrainian News, said he would not condemn the Azov battalion for sporting nazi tattoos and greeting each other with ‘sieg heils,’ because ‘they have their own view on the National Socialist movement in Germany and that is normal’.”
It adds insult to injury that alongside the destruction of memorials to the anti-fascists of the second world war, monuments are being raised and streets renamed in honour of the collaborators.
“The perpetuation of the names of these executioners on our streets is no smaller a crime than their original atrocities,” he says furiously.
“Through your newspaper, please urge the progressive public to support our struggle, to ensure that in other cities around the world we do not see streets named for nazi agents and Hitlerite officers, and we preserve the boulevards and avenues named in memory of those who liberated the world from the brown plague of Hitler.”
This fighting spirit is a key reason banning the Communist Party has been a priority for the Ukrainian government ever since Maidan, even though the party was not an ally of the Yanukovych administration the coup overthrew.
The KPU — which at the last pre-coup elections in 2012 won 32 seats and more than 2.6 million votes (over 13 per cent) — is now banned by a ministerial decree it considers unconstitutional from having a parliamentary presence.
In July, a court postponed a final decision on whether to ban the KPU outright pending a ruling from the Constitutional Court on whether the decommunisation laws were in accordance with the constitution. But Symonenko is not optimistic that the Constitutional Court will do the right thing.
“This court is completely controlled by President Poroshenko,” he sighs, “and he has said his ‘main achievement’ is that the KPU is not allowed to participate in parliamentary elections.”
It’s true Poroshenko cannot claim to have achieved much else. The CIA says Ukraine’s mortality rate is the second-highest in the world after Lesotho’s. Average wages have collapsed since 2014 while the cost of basics such as energy and food have soared.
Much of the case against Yanukovych was made by justifiable charges that his government was corrupt — but Symonenko says that while most Ukrainians are now poorer, “the capital of officials of all ranks grows like mushrooms after rain.
“Corruption and embezzlement permeate all spheres of public life. The cynicism and banditry of the authorities is gobsmacking.
“In the first six months of 2017, eight employees at the Justice Ministry each received more than 23 million hryvnia (£690,000) in ‘premiums.’
“That’s $60-300,000 a month when the average monthly wage is $250. And the cherry on the cake? According to your audit company Ernst & Young, Ukraine is the most corrupt and fraudulent country in Europe.”
But he insists the communists will “fight on to victory,” whatever challenges are thrown in its way. “The decommunisation laws prohibit not just Soviet but international communist symbols, like the hammer and sickle. They equate those who profess communist ideology to criminals and terrorists.
“Over the three years since the coup, more than 400 criminal cases have been fabricated against communists, including myself.”
He says that among the most poignant was the case of Alla Aleksandrovskaya, first secretary of the KPU’s Kharkiv committee, who was thrown into jail for nearly five months, despite being unwell and in her late sixties, for proposing to the city council that it appeal to the president in favour of elected local governors.
In June, KPU lawyers were able to have verdicts overturned against Viktor Ryzhevol and Alexander Tsymbal, two party members jailed on charges of ‘violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity’ for allegedly participating in counting votes held in the self-declared Lugansk People’s Republic.
The case is not a one-off: “The Communist Party will continue to fight for every comrade who is persecuted.” He ends with an appeal to the readers of “your well-known and respected British newspaper”: “Support our struggle.”
Given the near-universal ignorance in Britain about the crimes being committed by a regime enjoying full support from our government, spreading the word is the least we can do.