WORLD AFFAIRS.  The war over symbols continues in Ukraine—this time heatedly and violently—threatening to split the country into warring factions. The immediate pretext was the May 9th Victory Day celebrations, a Soviet-era holiday marking the “Soviet people’s” defeat of Nazi Germany.

Why should there be disagreement over something as important as that? Because the Yanukovych regime stupidly and purposely permitted red flags to be included in the celebrations. For some Ukrainians—those primarily in the east and south—the red flag symbolizes both victory in the “Great Fatherland War” and Soviet rule. They’re as proud of the former as they are nostalgic for the latter. For other Ukrainians, the flag symbolizes Stalinist totalitarianism, communist terror, the Holodomor, the Gulag, and the indignities of colonial rule. The analogy with the Confederate flag in the US is not inappropriate: for some American Southerners, it’s just a symbol of their identity; for others, especially African Americans, it’s a symbol of slavery. An analogy with the Nazi flag is also apposite. Sympathizers of the Third Reich view it as a symbol of Germany’s resurgence. Opponents of the Third Reich associate it with Auschwitz.

We know how these disagreements have been resolved in the United States, where the Confederate flag is frowned on in official settings, and Germany, where the Nazi flag is banned outright. Things are more complicated in Ukraine, both because large numbers of people sympathize with Stalinism and communism and because leading members of the Yanukovych regime (such as the supremacist Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk) have been actively promoting Stalinist agendas. That said, no red flag has ever been officially displayed on Victory Day celebrations in the past 19 years of independent Ukraine’s existence: every president, from Leonid Kravchuk to Leonid Kuchma to Viktor Yushchenko, understood that waving it would be needlessly provocative. When the Regionnaire-dominated Parliament recently agreed to permit public displays of the red flag this May 9th, it knew full well that it was endorsing the functional equivalent of showing off swastikas in Israel. Yanukovych—too terrified to sign or veto the Parliament’s criminal measure—just hoped the controversy would go away. Naturally, it didn’t.

The red flag was displayed in all parts of the country and, predictably, led to violent altercations, especially in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Instead of unifying the country, the May 9th celebrations divided it. That’s stupid, because it threatens to make Ukraine even more ungovernable than it was under Yushchenko, but it’s also unsurprising. The Regionnaires know they’re bankrupt. The only way they can retain any degree of popular support is by stoking the culture wars, enhancing divisions, and creating a “nationalist” bogeyman to distract attention from their own criminality and Ukraine’s economic woes. Significantly, the Regionnaire provocation and Yanukovych’s indecision also mean that he has effectively lost control of his own party. How’s that for stability?

What could Yanukovych have done differently? Well, for one thing, just as it was perfectly possible to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany without red flags for two decades, so too it must have been possible to do so today. After all, the victory over Hitler was the selfless achievement of common Ukrainians, who died in the millions, and not of Stalin, who killed them in the millions. But even if you think some version of the red flag was absolutely imperative, Yanukovych should have insisted that the celebrations feature Soviet Ukraine’s blue-and-red flag alongside independent Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag. That way, both sides might have been mollified, with the national democrats getting the noun, Ukraine, and the color blue, and the pro-Soviet forces getting the adjective, Soviet, and the color red. Of course, Yanukovych would have had to sell the idea to the people and his party. A strong president could have. A weak one who knows his future is tied to a band of desperate thugs wouldn’t even try.

But the problem may be more deeply rooted in the general Regionnaire obtuseness regarding symbols and morality. The mayor of Donetsk, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, recently stated that his city wouldn’t remove its statues of Lenin and Stalin for the Euro 2012 soccer championships. Fair enough, but here’s why: “European values do not permit removing statues for events. Please excuse me, but why does Germany still have Marx?” Disregard the fact that a Regionnaire’s invocation of “European values” is as obscene as a Ku Klux Klanner’s invocation of the Declaration of Independence. More important is that Lukyanchenko’s comment is breathtakingly idiotic. After all, the continued presence of Marx’s statues in Germany just may have something to do with his having been a great political thinker and not the founder of a totalitarian state. Had the good mayor looked at Deutschland more closely, he might have noticed that Hitler’s statues came down some time ago.

On the other hand, if Donetsk wants European soccer fans to see its collection of Lenins and Stalins, go right ahead, I say. German burghers will get a kick out of their spooky encounter with East Germany redux; Polish patriots will shake their heads at memorials to the perpetrator of the Katyn massacre; French Stalinists will nod approvingly; while English football hooligans will enjoy relieving themselves at the feet of the great leaders. Oh, and business people seeking rapidly modernizing places to invest in are sure to conclude, upon hearing Lukyanchenko’s commitment to a pre-modern past, that Donetsk is just what they’ve been looking for. After all, who needs foreign direct investment? Let the proletariat eat red flags!

Alexander J Motyl


Ukrayinska Dumka


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