Myths from U.S.S.R. still have strong pull today

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Feb. 25, 2009, 6:39 p.m. | Op-ed — by Yuriy Lukanov
NATO is evil, Bandera worked for Nazis, and other myths that divide Ukraine A civil war has been going on in Ukraine for the last several years, albeit a virtual one. Fights are cruel, as if the citizens want to destroy each other – or at least each other’s brains. They feel that when they completely knock the contents of the enemy’s brain out, they will have peace and quiet. That they’ll be able to live happily ever after, eat bread and salo and sing joyful songs.

What am I talking about? Can you imagine citizens of a single country, even with radically different political views, fighting over raised utility rates? Citizens from different regions normally have a similar attitude to this type of problem: They do not accept an insolent price hike by greedy power brokers.

But sometimes there are things so illusionary and far from real life that our compatriots fight battles of words as if they are the sense of their existence in this world.

Last year, nearly all TV channels showed a report from the Crimea, in which age-old pensioner grannies enthusiastically stomped on flags. Their faces were lit up with joy as if they have just seized the German Reichstag in May 1945, and celebrating the greatest victory in their lives.

But in reality they were dancing on a NATO flag brought to the peninsula by those who – as they said – wanted to give true information about the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Gathered by Communist Leonid Hrach, the grannies started attacking information tents of NATO advocates, knocked them down to the ground and started their wild dances. They obviously felt triumphant.

It would seem that one can only shrug here and ask a rhetorical question: “What else can you expect from the Communists?” But the paradox is that today one of the most ardent opponents of NATO in Ukraine is the party that represents large capital, the Party of Regions. Paradoxically, party leader Victor Yanukovych a few years back developed a stage-by-stage plan of how to join the military alliance. The whole faction voted almost unanimously in support of this document.

But today it joins the Communists in chanting nonsense about the alliance. Have the Regions Party finally begun to see clearly and realized that NATO is a hostile and aggressive bloc?

It happened after the 2004 Orange Revolution, when President Leonid Kuchma, having ruled the country for two terms, had to free his chair. There were few ideological confrontations in his time because he had created an autocratic regime in Ukraine and held on tight to all power levers. If someone had become too enthusiastic about lighting the ideological fire, they would have been simply moved away from the power trough or – worse still – their business would be bankrupted.

But, just before leaving power, Kuchma lobbied for legal changes that did not allow his successor to have the high concentration of power that he enjoyed. In fact, these changes contributed greatly to creating the current power conflict. This, in turn, forced various business and political groups to start an open confrontation, including an ideological one.

Debate and disagreement – natural for democratic countries – have turned into farce in Ukraine. Opponents of President Victor Yushchenko didn’t start a real discussion about a real problem, but rather re-animated an old Soviet myth.

One of the greater myths is the image of NATO as a hostile bloc that dreams about putting a yoke on Ukraine. The Regions imitated the Communists just because the new president supported speedy integration with Europe and joining NATO. With the help of mass media, the problem of NATO became just about more important than issues to do with everyday life – increasing personal well-being, getting medical treatment or proper rest.

Another one of such myths is the one about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, formed during World War II. It fought against Communist power until the 1950s, under the leadership of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.

It spoke for Ukraine’s independence. In the U.S.S.R., the propaganda was that the army fought on the side of the fascists and destroyed their own compatriots. Indirect proof of this myth was artificially supported by those who hate the insurgent army the most – the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the Crimea. The insurgent army did not fight in these areas at all, mostly confining its activities to western Ukraine.

There were even memorials erected in the Luhansk region and Crimea to those who had fallen victim to the insurgent army. Residents of those regions do not even know the proper name of the insurgent army’s leader. They call him Stepan Bendera (with an 'e,' rather than Bandera), confusing him with the hero of famous Soviet novels, Ostap Bender.

Yushchenko spoke for reconstruction of historic events that either had been twisted or hushed up by the Soviet propaganda machine. Instead, in compliance with the myths about the insurgent army, the president received the label of “fascist” – something that his opponents frequently talk about.

The language issue also belongs to this selection of myths. During Soviet times, opponents of the slow and subtle exclusion of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine were condemned as “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists,” and could even end up in prison as enemies of the Soviet state.

The eastern parts of Ukraine were Russified much sooner than the rest of the territories, hence the myth about traditional Russian-speaking territories in eastern Ukraine.

The spin was that population there has always been Russian-speaking, and that’s why the Ukrainian language is alien there. As a result, more often than not those parts of Ukraine treat the forgotten ancestor language with hostility, as if it’s an ideological poison. Yushchenko, who supports the Ukrainian language, received more terrible labels for this stance, too.

A political party that exploits an old myth will, sooner or later, end up as an outsider of social progress. But it’s not the debate they started that is the real problem. The problem is that supporting ancient Soviet myths does not help society’s development.

Here’s an example: Yanukovych recently announced that, in his native Donbass, children are suffering and crying because they are forced to study in Ukrainian. Can you imagine a statement of this sort about French, English, Polish or other languages from politicians in these nations?

A war against your own language and lies about your own past are akin to the Communist propaganda about Pavlik Morozov, a boy who told Soviet authorities that his father was an enemy of Communist power. The father was jailed and Pavlik became an heroic legend of history textbooks and a role model for generations of Soviet kids.

This tale of a young Judas is long-forgotten, but other Soviet myths are alive and well. When is this all going to end? Moses led his people around the desert until the death of the last person born as a slave. Maybe he was right. Maybe Ukraine will have to wait for two more generations.

Yuriy Lukanov, a freelance journalist in Kyiv, is a Kyiv Post columnist.
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