Ukraine’s Nationalist “Decommunization” Laws of Spring 2015: Shielding Perpetrators and Excluding Victims

Cette notice fait partie du dossier: N°9. Les politiques illibérales du passé
Tarik Cyril AmarColumbia University
Paru le : 06.04.2023

Tarik Cyril Amar – Université de Columbia – Département d’histoire

Résumé: L’objectif principal des lois mémorielles du printemps 2015 en Ukraine n’est pas vraiment la décommunisation, mais plutôt la nationalisation  visant à encenser les nationalistes de l’époque de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Ces lois discriminent leurs victimes, reproduisant les pratiques d’exclusion. Elles sont cohérentes avec une longue tradition de dénégation et d’auto glorification des nationalistes qui remonte à la guerre froide, lorsqu’une partie de la diaspora ukrainienne, surtout en Amérique du nord, réécrivit l’histoire de son courant nationaliste pro fasciste en le transformant en mouvement anti totalitaire et anti communiste. Ces lois incitent à penser que la décommunisation doit nécessairement aller de pair avec le déni des crimes des nationalistes, opérant une  synthèse juridique, politique et morale qui est présentée comme la seule alternative à l’héritage communiste.

The main purpose of Ukraine’s “decommunization” laws of spring 2015 is not “decommunization” but “nationalization” shaped by a memory-political project to venerate World War Two ethno-nationalists of the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), notwithstanding their record of right-wing authoritarianism, pronounced fascist tendencies, antisemitism, Holocaust participation, mass murder and ethnic cleansing (Rudling 2016: 31ff). Hence, the 2015 Laws also discriminate, whether deliberately or in a stunning bias, against the victims of these nationalists: the Laws in effect reproduce the exclusion from the Universe of Obligation that was part of their initial victimization.[1]

The 2015 Laws comprise the Legal Status Law on the “legal status and honoring of the memory of the fighters for independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century”; the Immortalization Law, dedicated to the “immortalization” of the victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War of 1939-1945”; the Access Law regulating “access to the archives of the repressive organs of the communist totalitarian regime, 1917-1991”; the Condemnation Law on the “condemnation of the communist and national-socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes and the prohibition of propagating their symbols.”

These laws form a whole and cannot be reasonably read as mere decommunization or an “infantile disease” of necessary nation-consolidation. Instead, they belong to a broader “turn to the right in politics and culture in post-Communist Eastern Europe,” marked by “the rise of militaristic, glorifying versions of the ethno-national histories of the Second World War” (Michlic 2017).

In the making of the Laws, Ukraine’s dramatic recent situation – revolution, geopolitical re-orientation, regional internal unrest, and Russian aggression – has been deftly exploited to advance a nationalist agenda long preceding it. While referring to circumstances of “open [Russian] military and information aggression” (Explanatory Note), the Laws, moreover, claim to align Ukraine with international, i.e. mostly Western values. Yet, in reality, the Laws are a classic case of memory legislation in the service of nationalism, which clashes with European Union aims, as described by Nikolay Koposov (Koposov 2017, p. 10).

Even critics have usually accepted the claim that an overdue “decommunization” is the purpose of the Laws. Yet in this case the question if state-led “decommunization” is good or bad in principle is a distraction. Instead, we need a longer perspective extending through the Cold War to World War Two, an international context beyond Russia, and an ideological context with room for nationalism no less than for Communist legacies.

While mostly misleading, the term “decommunization” does reflect that the Laws are not, as claimed, targeting Nazism and Communism equally, in a spirit of “anti-totalitarian” and “double-genocide” symmetry, problematic in itself. Rather, Communism is the main target (Himka 2015). The purpose of condemning Nazism is largely rhetorical – to reinforce the attack on Communism: if it were not, the simultaneous idolization of nationalist Nazi sympathizers and collaborators would be impossible.

Some pragmatic concerns over the Laws have focused on feasibility, with one observer arguing that short-term success means that the Laws have turned out less problematic than critics feared. Yet the fact that they are a low priority for many Ukrainians does not mean that they are not detrimental or that they even “strengthen civil society” (Shevel 2015). Rather, as elsewhere, bad laws provoking little criticism indicate a failure of civil society.

This article, however, focuses on the political choices that the laws represent and promote: the use of state power to impose a denialist narrative about the history of Ukrainian nationalism, especially during World War Two, and the implicit but severe discrimination against its victims.

The Legal Status Law: Protecting Perpetrators

The Legal Status Law is the core of the 2015 Laws. Among other beneficiaries, some also very questionable, the law insulates from criticism Ukrainian World War Two nationalists of the OUN and UPA, recognizing them as fighters for Ukrainian independence and prohibiting “publicly showing a disrespectful attitude” to or “insulting” their image. The Law sanitizes their record (Himka 2015), thus continuing policies started by former president Viktor Yushchenko (2005 and 2010) who posthumously awarded highest public honors to Second World War nationalist leaders Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, stressing that he was honoring their organizations too (Rudling 2016, p. 27f). Under President Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine has seen street re-naming and the making of monuments with the same purpose. The Legal Status Law breaks new ground, however, not only by glorifying these World War Two nationalists, but by suppressing open criticism, too.

In reality, Ukrainian wartime nationalists and their forces conducted, in Jared McBride’s terms, “a highly coordinated ethnic cleansing campaign, planned by a political organization against a civilian population,” murdering between 70,000 and 100,000 Polish civilians (McBride 2016a, p. 633, 639). Yet nationalist apologetics thrive, with a recent key work in this vein (of very low quality) produced by Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory and a main shaper of the 2015 Laws (McBride 2016b, p. 657-661).

Regarding the Holocaust, generally, murdering Jews may not have been the priority of Ukrainian nationalists, but their participation in the Holocaust is also “not as extensively documented as the role of Romanian, Croatian, and Slovak governments” (Himka 2008, p. 364) – certainly due to long-standing research neglect among Ukrainian historians. At any rate, it is clear that they “in various ways participated in the murder of the Jews” (Himka 2008, p. 364f). In sum, depriving Jews of their place, their possessions, their dignity, and their lives characterized Ukrainian World War Two nationalism in practice.

It is crucial to note that by protecting ethnic cleansers and Holocaust co-perpetrators from criticism in the name of respect for the nation’s independence, the Law implies that an honest account of nationalism’s full history threatens Ukraine as a whole. Here it is not, as sometimes charged, outsiders from abroad but Ukrainian political elites who insist on signaling a (false) incompatibility between Ukrainian independence and acknowledging all of its history. The Legal Status Law uses the state to take the nation hostage to protect the illusions and manipulations of nationalists.

Another implication of this law, reminiscent of the ideology of Ukrainian World War Two nationalism, is that national independence trumps all moral concerns: it justifies criminal violence in the past and its denial in the present. Moreover, lumping together murderous nationalists with other activists, the Law effaces crucial differences: non-violent late-Soviet dissident should not have any complaints, it implies, in the commemorative company of far-right authoritarian antisemites and ethnic cleansers.

Discrimination by Biased Condemnation

The relationship between the Legal Status Law and the Condemnation Law illustrates their interaction: ostentatiously, the Condemnation Law targets both Nazism and Communism as totalitarian, prohibiting the propagandizing of their symbols. While the Legal Status Law explicitly protects perpetrators, the Condemnation Law makes state policy a factually absurd equation of all of Soviet rule between 1917 and 1991 with Nazism.

Yet the Condemnation Law is also a powerful statement by omission, citing Nazi and Soviet crimes while remaining silent about crimes committed by Ukrainian nationalists. Two points bear emphasis: the Law claims in its Preamble to speak in the name of “the Ukrainian people – the citizens of Ukraine of all nationalities”, thus adopting a supra-national or civic tone. This claim remains hollow, however, as shown below.

The Condemnation Law goes beyond generalities by detailing types of Nazi and Soviet crimes. Yet some of them were committed by Ukrainian nationalists, too, such as “the infringement of human rights in the form of individual and mass murder,” “mass physical terror, persecution on ethnic, national, religious, [and] political … grounds,” “infringement of freedom of conscience, thought, [and] expression of views,” “absence of political pluralism.” In addition, while nationalist apologists claim that Ukrainian nationalists protected Jews, the overwhelming reality was persecution and, for those who nationalists did keep alive, temporarily only, forced labor[2], another category of crime listed by the Condemnation Law – but again only with reference to the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

In sum: here is a Ukrainian law, made by an independent Ukrainian state, claiming to speak for all Ukrainian citizens, independent of national or ethnic background and to promote the truth about Ukrainian history – yet it fails to even consider any Ukrainian nationalist perpetrators of crimes it explicitly lists and thus it also fails to consider their victims.

The Condemnation Law claims to serve the renewal of “justice and the removal of the consequences of arbitrary rule and the infringement of civil rights.” But it signals clearly that it will not concede the same need for justice to the victims of Ukrainian nationalists. The law also states that propagandizing the Nazi or Soviet regimes constitutes “derision” of their victims. The inescapable message, then, is that a policy of propagandizing World War Two Ukrainian nationalists somehow, in the eye of the Ukrainian state, does not entail derision of their victims or that such derision does not matter. In sum, restricting the Law’s scope to Nazi and Soviet crimes constitutes discrimination – embedded in a package that also shields Ukrainian nationalists from criticism.

This situation can be explained in only two ways: either the nationalists committed no crimes and therefore made no victims or the rights and needs of their victims count less than something else, namely, the sacrosanct (ethno-)nationalist cause, here identified with the nation as such. This means that the law is anything but an expression of civic nationalism, but follows the logic of exclusion from the Universe of Obligation already applied by the perpetrators which belongs, of course, to the realm of ethnic nationalism at its most violent. Just as the nationalists had no compunctions taking their victims’ life because they did not accord them a place in the ethno-national community, the Condemnation Law has none about withholding the justice offered to other victims.

The Condemnation Law,  which aims to prevent the “repetition of the crimes” of Nazism and Communism and “any discrimination on national, social, class, ethnic, race,” also lists specific obligations for the Ukrainian state: to investigate “genocide crimes, crimes against humanity , [and] war crimes” and to reestablish historical justice. Yet, again, these obligations apply only to crimes committed by the Nazi or Soviet regimes: the current Ukrainian state accepts no such obligations regarding the victims of precisely the nationalists it claims for its heritage. Unsurprisingly, the severe sanctions this law introduces into the criminal code for propagating Soviet or Nazi symbols do not apply to the (often close to national-socialist) Ukrainian nationalist propaganda or symbols.

Maintaining Discrimination: The Immortalization Law and the Access Law

At the core of the Immortalization Law is the commemoration of the victory over Nazism, purged of the Soviet “Great Fatherland War” narrative, while offering some compromise to Ukrainians, especially veterans, attached to parts of this Soviet tradition. This law legislates honor and respect for war veterans (former Soviet soldiers), members of the “Ukrainian liberation movement” (Ukrainian nationalist fighters), and “all victims of Nazism” (Immortalization Law: St. 1: 1 and 2). The law also contains a call for the “prevention of the falsification of the history” of the war (St. 2: 1(3)), a vague regulation strikingly reminiscent of the recent Russian legislation that has been widely criticized, especially in the West.

What has been largely overlooked is that this law states a fundamental sameness not only between veterans of opposing armed forces (Soviet and nationalists, including those of the SS-Galizien), but also between all veterans taken together and victims. The Immortalization Law thus abuses the memory of victims by treating it in the same manner as that of groups that included perpetrators.

The Access Law, regulating access to the archival legacy of institutions of Soviet repression may appear to be the most technical of the 2015 Laws. Yet even this law has nationalist implications. It is true that it gestures toward European Council standards and employs a rhetoric of transparency and participation, invoking “public dialogue,” a right to receive “objective information” about history as one of the foundations of democracy, and asserting that understanding recent history “can support the prevention of conflicts and hostility in society.” It also establishes a crucial link between, on one side, the prevention of “a repetition of the crimes of the totalitarian regimes [and] discrimination of any kind by national, social, class, ethnic, race or other criteria,” and, on the other, open access to the documents of the “repressive organs of the Communist totalitarian regime of the years 1917 to 1991” (Access Law, Preamble). Once again: while discrimination was a massive and deliberate part of Ukrainian nationalist theory and practice, the Access Law, too, simply ignores this fact.

It describes the activity of the Soviet repressive organs as applying “state coercion and terror regarding specific persons or groups … for political, social, class, national, religious or other motives” (St. 2: 1(6))  and as “irreconcilable with the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual and the citizen” ( St. 3: 1(4)). Even the notion of specialized “repressive organs” would apply directly to Ukrainian World War Two nationalism – a movement striving for a state: while its victims suffered and died at the hands of various formations of perpetrators, some of the latter were organized in special Sluzhba Bezpeky (SB) security service units which practiced coercion and terror, targeting their victims by several of the criteria explicitly listed in the Access Law. Their activities contradicted fundamental rights no less than those of their Soviet counterparts. Yet, this law, too, excludes nationalist perpetrators and their victims: thus, even the seemingly most technical of the nationalist Decommunization Laws is embedded in denialism and discrimination.


Where did these laws come from? This short article can only point out some key factors. Some critics have faulted them for replicating Soviet mistakes, i.e. overbearing regulation from above (Shevel 2015). In general, scholars of post-Communism have observed that Communism did long-term damage to political culture (Fish 2005: 86). Indeed, it is a sad irony that nationalist “decommunizers” share illiberal dispositions with their Communist target and it would be ahistorical to overlook the Soviet-legacy factor: not only Soviet mass violence, such as the famine of 1932-33, but also the Holocaust entailed Soviet policies of memory suppression and manipulation (Amar 2014). The Ukrainian-nationalist mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Polish civilians was marginalized, too: while hating Ukrainian nationalism, the Soviets foregrounded its fight against their rule, not its massacres of Poles (Himka 2008, p. 360).

However, overemphasizing Soviet legacies is misleading, for three reasons: First, doing so to explain escalating nationalist distortions, a quarter-century after the Soviet collapse, leaves nationalists with unrealistically little responsibility. Past and present connect here, Jared McBride has cautioned us not to overburden the popular double or triple occupation explanation of political mass violence in Eastern Europe: while Nazi German and Soviet Stalinist contributions were important, local actors also had agendas and agency. OUN and UPA leaders in particular had “embraced the idea of violence against ethnic enemies in both ideology and practice long before” the Soviet and German occupations (McBride 2016a, p. 651). It would be ironic if an over-emphasis on what is left from the Soviet past made us underestimate nationalism in the present.

Secondly, the Soviet legacy is only one among three that are relevant here: also important are those of Ukrainian nationalism, including its denialism, and the Cold War. Thus, with their anti-nationalist propaganda, the Soviets inadvertently helped make nationalist leader Stepan Bandera into one of the most significant symbols of Ukrainian nationalism (Rossoliński-Liebe 2014, p. 405).

Moreover, some of the Soviet allegations against Ukrainian nationalism were known to be false. During the Lviv pogrom of July 1941, for instance, Ukrainian nationalists and local Ukrainians took part, but Soviet claims that the Ukrainian nationalist auxiliary “Nachtigall” battalion marching into the city with the Nazis participated as a unit were wrong. Nevertheless, nationalists were heavily involved, probably including individual “Nachtigall” soldiers; moreover, “Nachtigall” committed massacres of Jews elsewhere (Rudling 2016, p. 36). Many also joined the battalion’s successor unit, Schutzmannschaft 201, heavily engaged in “anti-partisan” warfare in Belarus that is likely to have had criminal and genocidal aspects. “Nachtigall” veterans also ended up in nationalist security service units, the Waffen-SS Division Galizien, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), and yet another “anti-partisan” unit in German service – all offering more opportunities to kill civilians (Rudling 2016, p. 42f).

Yet the fact that Soviet claims were wrong on the particular point of how exactly “Nachtigall” legionnaires killed Jews is used to deny all Ukrainian responsibility for the pogroms. This debilitating effect of a known Soviet falsehood deployed by nationalists to distract from a silenced nationalist one is still with us, reinforced by the fact that Putin’s Russia still continues to produce similar propaganda.

Finally, in Ukraine, blaming the Soviets also converges with discriminating against citizens who do not share nationalist views, echoing a tradition of mutual accusations of showing an inadequate sense of national identity (Amar 2015, Marples 2015). This is an important reality of Ukrainian discourse, also among the makers of the 2015 laws: The director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINP) Volodymyr Viatrovych has claimed that Ukrainian MPs not supporting the Laws were pro-Russian (Viatrovych 2015), thus designating those who disagree with his idea of state-imposed nationalism as disloyal.

His dismissal reaches beyond politicians. Holding a Soviet legacy in general responsible is one thing; blaming specific parts of the population designated regionally is another one. For Viatrovych there is an “island of Sovietness,” most pronounced in Crimea and eastern Donbas, which are the focus of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. There, he maintains, it is the “bearers of Soviet values … that are today the main source of manpower of the terrorist bands” (Viatrovych 2015).

There is yet another consequence of exaggerating Soviet legacies and underestimating nationalism: while Soviet legacies may make a convenient scapegoat, they are also assumed not to last. The rosy expectations of post-Soviet transition have been battered by reality. Yet identifying a problem as a Soviet hold-over still implies that time will take care of it eventually. Missing the role of nationalist strategies, such hopes amount to cultivating a blind spot for their future potential.


Instead of facing the complexity of a nationalist movement that claimed to embody and monopolize the nation’s striving for independence while its members made real sacrifices and committed terrible crimes, Ukraine’s 2015 “Decommunization” Laws follow long-standing patterns of nationalist denial and self-glorification. These patterns date back to World War Two and the Cold War, when parts of the Ukrainian diaspora, especially in North America exploited the West-East antagonism to reinvent their (pro- fascist) nationalism as “anti-totalitarianism,” with emphasis on anti-Communism.

The 2015 Laws also discriminate against the victims of Ukrainian nationalists and these victims’ memory by projecting a Universe of Obligation that excludes whoever was victimized not by Soviets or Nazis, but by the Ukrainian nationalists that the same laws elevate to the level of fiercely protected national symbols. Is there a clearer way to reproduce the moral and social exclusion that the same nationalists practiced toward their victims? Is there a clearer way to signal that national identity should be founded on selective denial instead of recognition and reflection?

Finally, perhaps the most manipulative message of the 2015 Laws is almost hidden in plain sight: that decommunization ipso facto entails nationalist denialism. Indeed, the latter is naturalized as the seemingly only alternative to a helpless acceptance of Communist legacies: decommunization and nationalist denialism are collapsed into a legal, political, and moral synthesis. In the spirit of the 2015 Laws, decommunization is necessarily nationalist and discriminatory. They leave no room for either nationalism’s victims in the past or alternatives to nationalism in the present and future.


The “Decommunization” Laws:

The Legal Status Law

The Immortalization Law .

The Access Law

The Condemnation Law

Explanatory Note

(all accessed 01/04/2019)

Secondary Sources

Amar, Tarik Cyril, 2014, “A Disturbed Silence: Discourse on the Holocaust in the Soviet West as an Anti-Site of Memory,” in Michael David-Fox et al. (ed.), The Holocaust in the East: Local Perpetrators and Soviet Responses, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh University Press (UP), p. 158-183.

Amar, Tarik Cyril, 2015, The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv. A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists, Ithaca, Cornell UP.

Fish, M. Steven, 2005, Democracy Derailed in Russia. The Failure of Open Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge UP.

Himka, John-Paul, 2008, “Obstacles to the Integration of the Holocaust into Post-Communist East European Historical Narratives,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 50, p. 359-372.

Himka, John-Paul, 2015, “Legislating Historical Truth: Ukraine’s Laws of 9 April 2015,” ab imperio (21 April).

David R. Marples, 2015, “Volodymyr Viatrovych and Ukraine’s “Decommunization” Laws,” Krytyka, May 2015.

McBride, Jared, 2016a, “Peasants into Perpetrators: The OUN-UPA and the Ethnic Cleansing of Volhynia, 1943–1944,” Slavic Review, vol. 75, p. 630-654.

McBride, Jared, 2016b, “Who’s Afraid of Ukrainian Nationalism?,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol. 17, p.647-663.

Michlic, Joanna Beata, “Eastern Europe’s Difficulty with Holocaust History,”  (accessed on 01/04/2018).

Koposov, Nikolay, 2017, Memory Laws, Memory Wars: The Politics of the Past in Europe and Russia, Cambridge, Cambridge UP.

Rossoliński-Liebe, Grzegorz, 2014, Stepan Bandera. The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist. Fascism, Genocide, and Cult, Stuttgart, ibidem.

Rudling, Per Anders, Gilley, Christopher, 2015, “Laws 2558 and 2538-1: On Critical Inquiry, the Holocaust, and Academic Freedom in Ukraine,” Політична Критика (29 April).

Rudling, Per Anders, 2016, “The Cult of Roman Shukhevych in Ukraine: Myth Making with Complications,” Fascism, vol. 5, p. 26-65.

Shevel, Oksana, 2015, “‘De-Communization Laws’ Need to Be Amended to Conform to European Standards,” Voxukraine (7 May).

Shevel, Oksana, 2016, “Decommunization in Post-Euromaidan Ukraine: Law and Practice,” PONARS Eurasia, Policy Memo No. 411 (January).

Volodymyr Viatrovych, 2015, “‘Decommunization’ and Academic Discussion,” Krytyka (May).

[1] For the notion of the Universe of Obligation and its relevance to the Holocaust, see Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimization during the Holocaust, New York, Free Press, 1979.

[2] This refers to the well-documented fact that those Jews who did receive temporary protection by nationalist units (often to be killed later) did so under the condition of working for them. This is why Jews with specific skills had better chances. In the apologetic literature this practice is, of course, never categorized as forced labor.