This past New Year’s Eve marked the last time Ukrainians could pop open “Soviet champagne”, as the Kiev factory that makes it has announced it is changing the popular drink’s name due to a law on decommunisation.
The regulations, which came into force last May, 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 the brand was first introduced at the height of Joseph Stalin’s purges. It is a popular drink on New Year’s Eve and at other celebrations, and comes in sweet, semi-sweet and dry versions – and 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 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, especially in the east of the country. 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.
On 23 December, the Ukrainian parliament approved a list of 108 towns and villages that will have their names changed after local consultation, including Artemovsk, a major town in east Ukraine named after Comrade Artem, an early Russian revolutionary. The town will go back to its pre-revolutionary name of Bakhmut.
The biggest Ukrainian city affected by the law was Dnipropetrovsk, named after the Bolshevik leader Grigory Petrovskiy. However, in a sleight of hand, 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 which states that Ukrainian independence movements during the second world war – 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 of those in eastern cities who are pro-Kiev are uneasy about Ukrainian nationalist heroes and disagree with removing the Soviet heritage. Critics have said the law itself is reminiscent of Soviet methods.
Last month, a Kiev court banned the Ukrainian communist party, accusing it of promoting separatism. The move was criticised by human rights organisations. John Dalhuisen, of Amnesty International, said: “The decision may be seen as dealing with the damaging vestiges of the Soviet past. In fact, it does exactly the opposite by following the same style of draconian measures used to stifle dissent.”
However, Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of Ukraine’s institute of national memory, said this was a false perception. “A lot of people think we don’t need to do anything with the Soviet past, that it will disappear of its own accord and a new generation will appear who don’t remember it,” he told the Guardian. “But the example of Russia shows us that if you don’t do anything with your Soviet past, it will resurrect itself. And we see a lot of people, even of the younger generation who were born after the Soviet Union collapsed, but they are absolutely Soviet and have a totally Soviet world view.”