/ 7 January 2016

Ukraine says ‘nyet’ to Soviet bubbly in commie purge

The outlook is not rosy: Ebrahim Harvey says that the leadership of the left
The outlook is not rosy: Ebrahim Harvey says that the leadership of the left

This past New Year’s Eve marked the last time Ukrainians could pop open Sovetskoye Shampanskoye or Soviet Champagne – the Kiev factory that makes it said it is changing the popular drink’s name because of a law on decommunisation.

The regulations, which came into force in May last year, ban any street, town or product from having names that glorify communism. They also make it a crime to deny the “criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine”.

However, in the latest sign that many appear to be following the law in letter but not in spirit, the drink will be renamed Sovietov. “We have taken this step to save one of the main traditions of the new year celebration,” the company said.

Ersatz champagne with the “Soviet” brand name has been produced since 1937, when it was introduced at the height of Joseph Stalin’s purges. It is a popular drink at celebrations, and comes in sweet, semi-sweet and dry versions – at a fraction of the price of real champagne.

More seriously, the new law means that all Ukrainian town and street names with links to Soviet leaders or officials will have to be changed, and statues of Vladimir Lenin will have to be removed from town squares.

Kiev’s main Lenin statue was pulled down by protesters in December 2013 at the beginning of the Maidan Revolution and, since then, there has been a spate of Lenin downings across the country. Now the move is official, though the first Bolshevik leader remains standing in some places. In the town of Lisichansk, the monument has not been removed but was vandalised just before new year, with red paint poured over Lenin’s head and “I am the butcher of Ukraine” daubed on his body.

In December, the Ukrainian Parliament approved a list of 108 towns and villages that will have their names changed after local consultation, including Artemovsk, named after an early Russian revolutionary. The town will go back to its prerevolutionary name of Bakhmut.

The biggest Ukrainian city affected by the law was Dnipropetrovsk, named after Bolshevik leader Grigory Petrovsky. However, local politicians voted to rename the city in exactly the same way: Dnipropetrovsk. The proviso is that it is now named after St Peter, not Petrovsky. It is unclear whether the “new” name will be legally approved.

Kiev’s decommunisation law has caused controversy, with many criticising an addendum stating that Ukrainian independence movements during World War II – some of which collaborated with the Nazis and were involved in massacres of Jews and Poles – should be respected as “fighters for Ukrainian independence”.

At a time when the country is embroiled in a war that has seen Russia-backed rebels take control of an eastern chunk of the country, the law does not seem to work to consolidate society, but rather the opposite. Many disagree with removing Soviet heritage and critics say the law itself is reminiscent of Soviet methods.

Last month, a Kiev court banned the Ukrainian communist party, in a move criticised by human rights organisations.

However, Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory, said: “The example of Russia shows us that if you don’t do anything with your Soviet past, it will resurrect itself.” – © Guardian News & Media