Wartime Ukraine reclaims national identity with surge to erase Colonial Russian past from public spaces
On the streets of Kyiv, Fyodor Dostoevsky is on the way out. Andy Warhol is on the way in.
Ukraine is accelerating efforts to erase the vestiges of Soviet and Russian influence from its public spaces by pulling down monuments and renaming hundreds of streets to honor its own artists, poets, soldiers, independence leaders and others — including heroes of this year’s war.
Following Moscow’s invasion on February 24 that has killed or injured untold numbers of civilians and soldiers and pummeled buildings and infrastructure, Ukraine’s leaders have shifted a campaign that once focused on dismantling its Communist past into one of “de-Russification.”
Streets that honored revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin or the Bolshevik Revolution were largely already gone; now Russia, not Soviet legacy, is the enemy.
It is part punishment for the war crimes and brutality to civilians by Russia, and part affirmation of a national identity by honoring Ukrainian notables who have been mostly overlooked.
Russia, through the Soviet Union, is seen by many in Ukraine as having stamped its domination of its smaller southwestern neighbor for generations, consigning its artists, poets and military heroes to relative obscurity, compared with more famous Russians.
If victors write history, as some say, Ukrainians are doing some rewriting of their own — even as their fate hangs in the balance. Their national identity is having what may be an unprecedented surge, in ways large and small.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has taken to wearing a black T-shirt that says: “I’m Ukrainian.”
He is among the many Ukrainians who were born speaking Russian as a first language. Now, they shun it — or at least limit their use of it. Russian has traditionally been spoken more in the eastern and southern parts of the country. Western Ukraine, farther away from Russia, was quicker to shed Russian and Soviet imagery.
Other parts of the country are now catching up. The eastern city of Dnipro pulled down a bust of Alexander Pushkin in late December. Like Dostoevsky, he was a giant of 19th century Russian literature. A strap from a crane was unceremoniously looped under the statue’s chin.
Also in December, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko announced about 30 more streets in the capital would be rechristened.
Volodymyr Prokopiv, deputy head of the Kyiv City Council, said Ukraine’s “de-Communization” policy since 2015 had been applied in a “soft” way so as not to offend sensitivities among the country’s Russian-speaking and even pro-Moscow population.
“With the war, everything changed. Now the Russian lobby is now powerless – in fact, it doesn’t exist,” Prokopiv said in his office overlooking Khreschatik Street, the capital’s main thoroughfare. “Renaming these streets is like erasing the propaganda that the Soviet Union imposed on Ukraine.”
During the war, the Russians have also sought to stamp their culture and domination in areas they have occupied.
Andrew Wilson, a professor at University College London, cautioned about “the dangers in rewriting the periods in history where Ukrainians and Russians did cooperate and build things together: I think the whole point about de-imperializing Russian culture should be to specify where we have previously been blind, often in the West.”
Wilson noted that the Ukrainians “are taking a pretty broad-brush approach.” He cited Pushkin, the 19th century Russian writer, who might understandably rankle some Ukrainians.
To them, for example, the Cossacks — a Slavic people in eastern Europe — “mean freedom, whereas Pushkin depicts them as cruel, barbarous, antiquated. And in need of Russian civilization,” said Wilson, whose book “The Ukrainians” was recently published in its fifth edition.
In its program, Kyiv conducted an online survey, and received 280,000 suggestions in a single day, Prokopiv said. Then, an expert group sifted through the responses, and municipal officials and street residents give a final stamp of approval.
Under the “de-Communization” program, about 200 streets were renamed in Kyiv before this year. In 2022 alone, that same number of streets have been renamed and another 100 are scheduled to get renamed soon, Prokopiv said.
A street named for philosopher Friedrich Engels will honor Ukrainian avant-garde poet Bohdan-Ihor Antonych. A boulevard whose name translates as “Friendship of Peoples” — an allusion to the diverse ethnicities under the USSR – will honor Mykola Mikhnovsky, an early proponent of Ukrainian independence.
Another street recognizes the “Heroes of Mariupol” — fighters who held out for months against a devastating Russian campaign in that Sea of Azov port city that eventually fell. A street named for the Russian city of Volgograd is now called Roman Ratushnyi Street in honor of a 24-year-old civic and environmental activist who was killed in the war.
A small street in northern Kyiv still bears Dostoevsky’s name but soon will be named for Warhol, the late Pop Art visionary from the United States whose parents had family roots in Slovakia, across Ukraine’s western border.
Valeriy Sholomitsky, who has lived on Dostoevsky Street for nearly 40 years, said he could go either way.
“We have under 20 houses here. That’s very few,” Sholomitsky said as he shoveled snow off the street in front of a fading address sign bearing the name of the Russian writer. He said Warhol was “our artist” — with heritage in eastern Europe:
Now, “it will be even better,” he said.
“Maybe it is right that we are changing many streets now, because we used to name them incorrectly,” he added.
In late December, workers removed the statue of Catherine II, also known as the “Monument to the Founders of Odesa” in Odesa, Ukraine. The decision to dismantle the monument, consisting of sculptures of Russian Empress Catherine II and her associates, was made by Odesa residents by electronic voting.