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Ukraine's plans to discard Soviet symbols are seen as divisive, ill-timed

Ukrainian lawmakers want to de-communize the country by getting rid of its Soviet-era titles and symbols

Perched high on a hill and standing 334 feet tall, the stainless steel Mother Motherland monument greets visitors to this capital with her stoic gaze across the Dnieper River, where 70 years ago the Soviet army battled Nazi forces in what is known here as the Great Patriotic War.

Or, rather, was known as the Great Patriotic War.

Because of a package of de-communization bills rushed through the new Western-leaning parliament in Kiev last month, Ukraine is embarking on a massive spring-cleaning of its Soviet-era lexicon and symbols.

To start with, the Soviet-era term for the global conflict would be scrapped; henceforth, the Great Patriot War officially would be known as the Second World War from 1939 to 1945, with the first date indicating that the conflict started long before Nazi Germany turned against the Soviet Union in 1941.

The bills are being hailed by some Ukrainians as long overdue for this post-Soviet nation. However, many say they are untimely and divisive as the country is still reeling from last year's political uprising in Kiev, a war in the east to take back territory from pro-Russia separatists and a desperate battle to keep the state from going bankrupt.

In addition, opponents say, the measures would not do much to win over the hearts and minds of the Russian-speaking east, where nostalgia for the Soviet Union and a fear of Ukrainian nationalism can run high. Nor would they help counter Kremlin propaganda claiming that Kiev is being overrun with far-right nationalists hellbent on oppressing ethnic Russians.

"At a time when Russia is waging undeclared war against Ukraine, the need for unity is paramount," wrote Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group shortly after the bills were passed. She warned that the measures "will be used in propaganda against Ukraine, with some of that propaganda, unfortunately, being difficult to refute."

The four bills, which still require the signature of President Petro Poroshenko, condemn the Soviet and Nazi governments as criminal and ban their symbols, flags and monuments. If signed, thousands of streets and cities bearing names associated with the Soviet Union will be renamed, a move that is guaranteed to strain dwindling state coffers.

State archives from the Soviet period would be made public, which proponents say is a crucial step for Ukraine to move forward.

The most contentious of the four measures would give state recognition to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an underground guerrilla group formed in 1942 that fought the German and Soviet armies. Some of its units were accused of committing atrocities against Poles and Jews in western Ukraine.

The measures sparked a sharp response from some of the world's top scholars on Eastern European history. They would make it a crime to deny the Ukrainian Insurgent Army's role in the fight for Ukrainian independence or to deny the "criminal nature of the communist totalitarian regime," but the scholars say those provisions threaten Ukraine's ability to honestly debate its most difficult periods in history.

In an open letter to Poroshenko signed by 69 academics from Canada, the United States and Europe, they urged the Ukrainian president to veto the bills. "Difficult and contentious issues must remain matters of debate," the letter said.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance and an architect of the legislation, said the letter was "an overreaction" and a misinterpretation of the measures. "Opening the archives will start these discussions, not restrict them," Viatrovych said. "De-Sovietization is a priority for our national security."

Viatrovych blames nostalgia for the Soviet Union and a generation still clinging to Soviet myths about Ukrainians for the current cultural and political divides in the country of 43 million. Playing on these myths, Russian President Vladimir Putin has manipulated the industrialized east into believing Ukraine's tilt toward Europe was an attack on what Putin refers to as a broader "Russian world," Viatrovych said.

Larisa Ignatenko, 79, and Alla Voloshina, 78, walk the length of the park along Kiev's Dnieper River embankment every day as part of their exercise routine. Inevitably, the pensioners' talk turns to politics and prices.

They are fed up with the government, which they see as doing nothing to help as they struggle to survive on their $53 monthly payments.

"Now is not the time to reexamine our history," Voloshina said. "They want to take away what we think are Soviet repressors. Now we have a new regime. Are they not repressing us, then? It's our history they are stealing away from us."

If the bills are signed, Mother Motherland, that great silver statue on the hill built to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, will find herself in a conundrum.

Beneath the huge figure is the History of the Great Patriotic War Museum, a title that may be changed. In her right hand, she hoists a 50-foot sword into the sky. In her left hand, she holds a massive, 13-ton shield decorated with the Soviet Union's seal, which most probably will come down.

"I personally don't think this would be bad," said Zhenya Nuzhdenko, 22, a student at the Institute of International Relations. "But people now are thinking about other things, and I don't think getting rid of all the Soviet symbols is the most important issue right now. People are thinking about how to survive now; that's what is important to Ukrainians now."

Removing the seal will take a team of engineers and specialists and, by some estimates, about $3,500, Viatrovych said.

"Well, you have to remember that activists have already torn down hundreds of Lenin statues in the last year free of charge," Viatrovych said with a grin, referring to the toppling of the Soviet leader's figures across the country since the start of the massive protest movements in Kiev last year.

"So, in that sense, we've already saved the government some money."

Ayres is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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