Lenin zhil, Lenin zhiv, Lenin budet zhit. Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin shall always live.
I first heard this slogan while studying at the Pushkin Institute of the Russian language in Moscow in the 1980s. At the time, I thought it was amusing. But for Ukraine and especially for its internally displaced persons (IDPs), the phrase is not funny.
In April 2015, after Russia took over Crimea and the subsequent conflict fueled by Russia in the Donbas region ensued, the Ukrainian parliament, Rada, passed a series of laws to bring about “decommunization of the country.” The goal was to sever historical ties with the Soviet Union occupation and remove communist symbols from the country. The process included ending Soviet-style commemorations of World War II, opening KGB archives, rehabilitating Ukrainian nationalists vilified by the Soviet regime, renaming all Soviet-named places and tearing down communist monuments. The deadline for doing so was November of 2015.
In some places, such as the city of Dnipropetrovsk, progress on the decommunization front has been slower than in others. Most of the 5,500 or communist monuments left standing in Ukraine at the time of independence in 1991 have been taken down. However, the main drag in Dnipropetrovsk is still Marx Prospect, near Lenin Street, and the city itself is (still) named for Grigory Petrovsky. The head of the NKVD, the state security service that preceded the KGB, Petrovksy played a significant role in suppressing Ukrainian nationalism with a reign of terror starting with his service to Lenin.
In early April 2016, I traveled to Ukraine to assess the work of HIAS, the refugee agency for which I work, and the current state of the internally displaced. A manager of our Ukrainian IDP project, known as the “Right to Protection,” told me in Dnipropetrovsk, that the removal of statues and the renaming of streets is merely superficial. The government needs to go much deeper to truly decommunize the country and reverse unnecessary laws that continue to torment the population, particularly those who are the most vulnerable, the IDPs who have fled eastern Ukraine.
A far more painful remnant of communism than statues and street signs is the propiska, or internal passport, which was introduced by the czar before the Russian Revolution, but was subsequently perfected as a method of control by the Soviets. It remains in effect to this day.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has displaced more than 1.6 million people from their homes. These are people who are still registered, as evidenced on their propiska, to live in towns in the eastern part of the country which are now either “non-government controlled areas,” or areas in the conflict zone.
The reality is that IDPs in Ukraine are both vulnerable and voiceless. As a result of the propiska system, no matter where they live, IDPs cannot vote in local or regional elections nor for regional representation in Parliament. They can only vote where it says they can vote on their propiska, where there is no voting at all. Such disenfranchisement is a clear violation of human rights, as reflected in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement applied by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Internal Displacement.
IDPs on a fixed income – retirees – cannot collect their pensions if they continue to live in a non-government controlled area, as the Ukrainian government considers fulfilling this responsibility as pumping money into the (Russian-occupied) economy. To receive the pension which he or she worked all their lives to earn, a person registered to live in a non-government controlled area must move to territory that is under the control of Ukraine. Of course, this policy has encouraged additional displacement over and above those IDPs who fled danger and destruction.
The Ukrainian government, however, suspicious that some pensioners who claim to live in government-controlled areas are actually still living in (separatist-controlled zones), recently cut off hundreds of thousands of IDP retirees from their pensions without any semblance of due process. They also cut off IDP social assistance payments to hundreds of thousands of IDPs, based on suspicion about their addresses. But with the propiska system still in place, it is a serious challenge for an IDP to prove that he or she has a new address. Landlords, family members, friends and good-hearted people who take IDPs into their homes seldom cooperate in allowing the IDP to register at his or her address, as they fear doing so could impact their taxes, their utility bills (usually calculated not by meter, but by the number of occupants), and even their property rights to the residence.
As the census is used in the U.S. to apportion legislative districts as well as government funds for education and other government services, the propiska system is used for this purpose in Ukraine. If an IDP does not live at the address on his propiska, as far as the government is concerned, he or she does not live at all. IDPs do not vote, and they are not counted for educational or social services either. They are 1.6 million ghosts, haunted by the Soviet propiska policy. Lenin’s body is in a mausoleum in Moscow, and most of his bronze likenesses may be gone, but Lenin lives and, until the Ukrainian government destroys the legacy of the propiska, he shall continue to live. And torment IDPs.
Mark Hetfield is CEO of HIAS, a global Jewish organization for refugees that operates in Ukraine.