Perpetuated conformism, or Head in a muddle

Kuchma, Brezhnev, and Shcherbytsky’s bas-relief in Dnipropetrovsk

It is typical for the local authorities in Ukraine to shed crocodile tears over the deplorable state of the public budget. As soon as it comes to repairing roofs, elevators, pavements, or leaking water pipes, there is never a penny to be found. Government’s help for the World War II veterans, who risked their lives to defend their Fatherland, and managed to survive in the inferno of the war is limited to a bag of groceries on Victory Day, May 9. In a word, every avenue comes up to a dead end. However, the mansions of public servants, who are supposed to be earning modest salaries, are sprawling.

Yet everything changes dramatically, if the authorities want to advertise themselves and polish their public image. As a rule, this happens in the run-up to elections. Miraculously, there always are funds for this – no matter how exhausted the municipal treasury is, according to officials. As for pretexts, everything goes.

For example, the 80th anniversary of Stalin’s administrative territorial reform which resulted in the formation of the first five Ukrainian oblasts. What a blissful moment! It is certainly worth being commemorated by building a square in Dnipropetrovsk. That the anniversary is not really impressive, and the 50th anniversary of the same event was never celebrated in Soviet time, is the authorities’ least concern. The oblast must be promoted somehow, so this event is as good as any other. And as if by magic, over seven million hryvnias appeared out of thin air for renovation, the purchase of bas-reliefs, memorial plaques, steles, etc.

According to the mayor Ivan Kulychenko, “This is a special square. I believe we have very opportunely enclosed the city’s administrative zone with such a polyptykh. Here we can see the events and people that have made our region famous in history. Here the young generation has an opportunity to ponder over everyone’s chance to glorify Dnipropetrovsk and the oblast, and find appreciation.”

In fact, this glorification of Dnipropetrovsk and the oblast requires a comment. The square sports bas-reliefs of people who, in the local government’s opinion, have made this region famous. Mykhailo Yangel, the outstanding rocket designer, Oleksandr Makarov, a long-time leader of the industrial giant Yuzhmash, Dmytro Yavornytsky, a prominent historian of Ukrainian Cossacks, the writer Oles Honchar, Oleksandr Pol, who contributed a lot to the development of the Dnipro area, Andrii Fabr, the governor of Katerynoslav Governorate, who did a lot to transform Katerynoslav [now Dnipropetrovsk. – Ed.] into a beautiful city along the Dnipro’s banks, or the Cossack leader Ivan Sirko – all these men, indeed, deserve many a word of gratitude. At their time, they made a great contribution to the progress of their Fatherland, and thus, they are gratefully remembered by their descendants.

However, our leaders have a truly pathological obsession with the legacy and glorification of individuals, whose role in our recent history is doubtful, to put it mildly. Or negative, if we will call a spade a spade. In the early 2000s, a memorial plaque in honor of Volodymyr Shcherbytsky was hung on the wall of the Dnipropetrovsk oblast council building. Shcherbytsky, who was First Secretary of the Dnipropetrovsk oblast committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, and later First Secretary of the CPU Central Committee, member of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee, was an ardent persecutor of everything Ukrainian, especially of the so-called Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism. When the authorities in Moscow turned against dissidents, Kyiv (with Shcherbytsky as leader) hurried to crash down on the dissident movement. He is responsible for the imprisonment and death of the poet Vasyl Stus, as well as the persecutions of Ukrainian dissenters and human rights activists. What is his outstanding role in the development of the city and the nation? An ordinary apparatchik, a communist party bureaucrat, who would never let power go once he knew the taste of it. The Soviet Union had a host of the likes of Shcherbytsky.

Of course, “dear Leonid Ilyich” could not be left out. Some time ago, one of the streets in a new residential neighborhood on the left bank of the Dnipro was named in Brezhnev’s honor. Arriving at Kamienskoye [the first Soviet name of Dniprodzerzhynsk. – Author] as a child, Brezhnev made a meteoric career during Stalin’s purges of the Great Terror period. According to the memoirs by General Petro Hryhorenko, he displayed no particular valor at the front, never approaching the battle line closer than two kilometers. During a quieter period, Brezhnev moved to Malaya Zemlya [a Soviet uphill outpost on Cape Myskhako near Novorossiysk. – Ed.]. However, he had a stroke of bad luck there, eventually coming under fire. This has left him with a speech impairment, which in the years of stagnation became a subject for endless jokes and japes.

Brezhnev’s personal record, dated 1942, describes him as follows: “Avoids hard work. Rather weak command of military subjects. Tends to solve many problems like an administrator, rather than a political commissar. Not unbiased in his treatment of other people, tends to have favorites.” Brezhnev cherished this tendency ever in his further career.

Another revealing fact: at various times and in various IDs, Brezhnev would change his nationality. In October 1942 his personal record shows him as Ukrainian. In September 1943 the report on awarding him the Order of Patriotic War mentions him as Russian. His passport of 1947 states his nationality as Ukrainian again, while the report on his election as First Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, after Nikita Khrushchev’s dismissal, mentions him as Russian.

The very notion of stagnation in our history is associated with the name of Leonid Brezhnev. Many older people today recollect that period with fondness, although there hardly was anything worth being nostalgic for. Long lines in retail stores, ration cards in many cities and towns of the huge country, and imported grain and foods (thanks to the favorable oil prices on the global markets). That was when the country became heavily addicted to relying on gas and oil. Even now, Russia cannot overcome this addiction.

Besides, Brezhnev led the Dnipropetrovsk oblast Communist Party organization for a short time only, just as its Zaporizhian counterpart, spending less than a year in the latter, in 1946-47, and nearly three years in the former, in 1947-50. Yet it was in Dnipropetrovsk that he managed to create his clan, consolidated by Moldavian party functionaries, which later followed him in Moscow, eventually raising an impenetrable wall around the “dear comrade Brezhnev,” which became the beginning of the Soviet Union’s end.

Brezhnev’s name is associated with the military invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, 1968, and of Afghanistan in December, 1979. Ukraine lost nearly five thousand of its sons, while many more were left wounded and maimed in the war for someone else’s interests.

All these “heroic deeds” and “outstanding achievements” allow the local authorities in Dniprodzerzhynsk to raise monuments (and in Dnipropetrovsk – to name a street) in honor of the man they hail as a prominent statesman. What kind of prominence is that? Why should Dnipropetrovsk and oblast be proud of this fellow citizen? No public servant will offer you a clear answer. At the best, they will pack you off with a bunch of hackneyed cliches.

And last, but not least, the third “hero,” honored with a bas-relief, is ex-president Leonid Kuchma. The former leader of Yuzhmash Plant was brought by favorable political conjuncture to lead Ukraine. Kuchma’s only service to Ukraine is that it was he who created the oligarchic structure, which now exploits the country. As president, he tried to nip democracy in the bud, rigged elections, changed political orientation, and put Ukraine in the imminent danger of political isolation. The Gongadze case is a black shadow over Kuchma’s political career, and he can never again wash himself clean of it. He initiated persecutions against the journalists who had fallen out of favor with the regime, and infringements on freedom of speech. The incumbent regime follows Kuchma in his footsteps. This apparently appeals to Ukraine’s present-day leaders and their supporters. As the English proverb has it, birds of a feather flock together.

What is the reason for such a fondness our authorities have for the bad guys in our history? There are several reasons, actually. They are as follows:

Firstly, the current political moment or, more precisely, the upcoming election. Fine words butter no parsnips. You can talk of “improvement” until you are blue in the face, yet it only irritates the people. Perhaps, someone’s life did improve, but their percentage among the voters is negligible. Therefore, it is necessary to wake a surge of nostalgia and make people recall their young years. They might feel soft at heart and vote for the “right” candidate.

Secondly, the establishment of today tends towards conformism. They share the philosophy and goals of a Soviet-time apparatchik. They never mastered the present-day art of management, and they will not know of any other methods than those employed by their elder comrades. It is only logical that any representative of government, from president to a rank and file pencil-pusher, should look up to Brezhnev, Shcherbytsky, and their likes. They elevated corruption into the rank of policy, making it a familiar and comfortable environment for government. It is not for the people that they hang those bas-reliefs around. It is for their own sakes. Stalin and Brezhnev are their paragons and role models, and they are prepared to follow them in everything.

The revision of history is no mere coincidence, when the Soviet-style interpretation, merging on the Brief Outline [of the CPSU History. – Ed.], is presented as Gospel truth, while any alternative interpretation is hushed, at best.

Municipalities refuse to rename streets, bearing the names of tormentors and murderers, under the pretext of preserving historical heritage. What would they say to Germany commemorating Hitler? After all, he, too, was a page in German history, wasn’t he?

By Yurii RAIKHEL

“HONORING OF KUCHMA WILL BE ON THE CONSCIENCE OF THOSE WHO DECIDED TO HANG THE PLAQUE”

Levko LUKIANENKO, honorable head of the URP, philosopher, historian:

“Can we hang memorable plaques or erect monuments to living people? In the world the final assessment of the activity of politicians or scholars is traditionally made after their death. Even if the person does not interfere in the process of honoring in his lifetime, the majority will think that he paid for the opening of the plaque. Kuchma was a president of the independent Ukraine. In this case the installation of the plaque is at least legally justified. Brezhnev, in his turn, was ruling an empire, and Shcherbytsky was granted the authority by this empire to head the occupation administration in Ukraine. In a sense, the Russian empire with Brezhnev at the helm carried out the occupation policy with Shcherbytsky’s hands. People who respect themselves and their history should distinguish between Ukraine the colony and Ukraine the independent state.

“The Russian empire, either tsarist or Communist, is a fierce foe of Ukraine. It destroyed the Ukrainian nation by organizing genocides three times, which caused death of millions of people. Repressions, deportations… Those who erect monuments to these people in any form have no national feeling whatsoever. In a sense, it means that we are honoring those who strangled Ukraine, put a noose around the neck of the Ukrainian nation and were constantly pulling it. The Russian empire wanted to ‘develop’ the Ukrainian territory. Those who disagreed were intimidated, sent to exile, and killed. This was exactly what Shcherbytsky was doing under the command of Brezhnev. It is shameful and unacceptable to honor these people today. Practically it means that we honor the butchers of our own people. Installing the plaques to these people, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast authorities seem to say that they did the right thing by killing Ukrainians. This is totally unacceptable, from moral, political, and historical angles. The current disgraceful power of Ukraine which is doing this, is confirming that it continues the policy of Russian imperialists in Ukraine. It is no secret that Russian political elite has not abandoned the idea of bringing Ukraine back to Moscow. But having won national freedom we must appreciate it. We must condemn those who were killing Ukrainians and strengthened the occupation regime in the country.

“Kuchma used to be the president of independent Ukraine. This fact will remain under any circumstances, no matter how we assess the policy carried out by this person. We can ask questions on the reasonability of honoring Kuchma in such a way, on his real merits before Ukraine, but the fact remains: he used to be the president. From this angle, of course, installing monuments and boards to him is deserved, but what he also deserves is to be tried by a just criminal court. He should be convicted, because he was involved in Gongadze’s murder. We also should not forget that Kuchma developed his own ways of ruling Ukraine, where only criminal methods were used. So, speaking about the unveiling of a bas-relief board to Kuchma, we should understand: the power has a legal right to do so, because he was a president of independent Ukraine. A bad president as he was, he still was a president. And honoring Kuchma will remain on the conscience of the initiators of installing the board. But it is ridiculous to do so in his lifetime.”

“THIS CAN PRODUCE NOTHING BUT LAUGH AND IRONY”

Serhii ZHADAN, Ukrainian writer:

“Kuchma is alive, but he is being surrounded by a myth, like Shcherbytsky and Brezhnev. If I were Leonid Danylovych, I would have been immensely proud of being in such a ‘wonderful’ historical company. Of course, I for one would have made a different list of honorable residents of Dnipropetrovsk oblast, but apparently I won’t be admitted to the process of making any of such lists. The present-day power does not listen either to the opinion of people, or the opinion of their opponents. It is doing what it likes. The honoring of namely these people along with those who really deserve it, leads to shaping the post-Soviet discourse, regarding which I have many questions. It looks as if Ukraine is not moving ahead, but is looking back all the time, trying to think up more persons to honor. As a result we acquire such Ukrainian ‘heroes’ as Brezhnev and Kuchma. Honoring Kuchma by a bas-relief board in Dnipropetrovsk can produce nothing but laugh and irony. Probably, Leonid Danylovych has paid for the installation of the board. Anyway, it is ridiculous, specifically taking into account his ‘merits’ before the oblast and Ukraine as a whole.”

Prepared by Vadym LUBCHAK, The Day