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Why are Ukrainian cities renaming streets and dismantling monuments of the Russians?

Contrary to a popular self-deceiving belief, culture does never exist completely “outside” of politics. Whether an artist works directly for authorities, acts as a means of soft power, or simply spreads certain values and narratives. And throughout the centuries, Russia is weaponizing its culture, just as it did with language and history. 

But mark: when it’s your turn to be dragged to graveyards,
You’ll whisper and wheeze, your deathbed mattress a-pushing,
Not Shevchenko’s bullshit but poetry lines from Pushkin.

Those lines were written by Joseph Brodskyi, a Russian poet who emigrated from the USSR, received high recognition abroad, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. Even after 20 years spent away from Russia, Brodskyi still had something to say “On the Independence of Ukraine“. 

The poem was never officially published, but he publicly read a piece full of disrespect to the Ukrainian people. With words like “khohol” (ethnic slur for Ukrainians), suggestions to spit into the Dnipro River, and offense for parting their ways with Russians. And it is just one example of Russian cultural heritage, that is not really “outside” of politics.

Lenin is finally gone 

To fully understand why Ukrainians are renaming so much these days, we may need to take a step back. The fight against postcolonial heritage is not exactly new — it started in 1991, just after Ukraine gained independence. 

Back then, 15 out of 25 regional centers had the main street or the main city square (sometimes both) named after Vladimir Lenin. The same was true for smaller towns and villages. If not Lenin’s, it might have been Soviet street or October Revolution square — that is what Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv used to be called.

Lenin crimes against Ukraine
Vladimir Lenin by Pavel Zhukov, 1920.

After 1991 some of those streets and squares were renamed, mostly to resemble the independence and unity of Ukraine. And some monuments, especially the Lenin statues, were also taken down. Some, but not all of them. By 2012 Lenin was still dominating the main streets of cities, towns, and villages across Ukraine.

lenin streets in Ukraine
Names of the main streets in cities and villages in Ukraine in 2012. In red (top to bottom): Lenin st, Soviet st, October st.
In blue: Independence st, Hrushevskyi st, Sich Riflemen st.

The next wave came with the Revolution of Dignity. On December 8, 2013, a huge Lenin statue in the center of Kyiv was thrown down from the pedestal during the protests. That was the start of the so-called “leninopad” (leninfall).

lenin statue Kyiv
The destruction of the Lenin monument in the center of Kyiv, 2013. Photo: Maks Levin/Reuters

The process intensified after Ukraine passed four decommunization laws in 2015, including the one “On the condemnation of the communist and national socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes and the ban on the use of their symbols”. According to the law, those symbols include, among others, the USSR flag, the red star, hammer and sickle as well as statues and toponyms named after the USSR official and events. 

By the end of 2016, more than 50,000 streets across Ukraine were renamed, as well as 987 settlements, including two regional centers. 2389 monuments and memorial signs were removed, with 1320 devoted to Lenin among them.

Pushkin is on the way

And this was still not enough to fully reclaim Ukrainian cities. According to study, in 2018 more than a third of Ukrainian streets were named after a person. On the top of the list is Taras Shevchenko, the great Ukrainian poet who is often regarded as the father of the nation. The second place goes to Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin, and the third – to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Just like in Brodskyi`s infamous poem.

Pushkin had 594 streets named after him in Ukraine, more than any Ukrainian poet, artist, scientist, or politician except literally the father of the nation.

ukraine street names
25 most common streets, named after a person, in Ukraine. Ukrainian figures in blue, Russian and Soviet ones in red.

Of the 25 most commonly mentioned names, 16 belonged to Russian or Soviet figures, with Horkyi, Lermontov, Chekhov, Maiakovstkyi, and Tolstoi among them. And only 9 were Ukrainian artists and historical figures. 

Read more: Ukraine’s cultural heritage in flames

This postcolonial heritage became painfully obvious again when Russia started a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Just like many times before, today Russians are placing their monuments in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. Lenin was returned to Henichesk and Nova Kakhovka. Sergei Kirov, a Soviet politician and a friend of Joseph Stalin, was put in Melitopol. And a statue of Catherine II (“the Great”) may soon appear in Kherson.

Catherine II guilty of
Catherine II by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder, 1780s.

In response to the aggression, in many places across Ukraine people advocate for monuments, dedicated to Russians, to be demolished and streets to be renamed. And in some, the process had already started. 

The capital city of Kyiv is not an exception. The Friendship of Nations (Ukrainian and Russian nations) statue was taken down, and the Friendship of Nations arch is now called The Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian people. More than 40 monuments are on the list to be transferred from the city streets to the museum.

And almost 300 streets and five metro stations are waiting to be renamed in Kyiv. For example, Kyivans voted for Volgogradska street (Volgograd is a Russian city) to be renamed after Roman Ratushnyi, the Kyiv activist who died in the war with Russia. Russian toponyms, names of most Russian artists, Red Army commanders, Soviet myth figures, and imperial names will be gone from the capital`s streets.

Russian artists on that list usually cause the most incomprehension. But the core question here is not only “what are Russian artists of the past guilty of?”: some of them did openly support the imperialist ideology of their country or speak offensively about Ukraine, and others might not. The question is also “why were there almost six hundred Pushkin streets here in the first place?”. 

Not so much because of their special place in Ukrainian history (although some, like Viktor Vasnetsov, who worked on the interior wall paintings of St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, will remain on the map). And not so much because of their unique talents or contribution to world culture. By 2018 Mozart had five streets named after him in Ukraine. Shakespeare had nine and Byron had two. Chekhov and Tolstoi had more than two hundred each.

Alexander Pushkin did wrong
Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky, 1827.

Pushkin’s statues and streets were not about his poetry. Just the same as the Lenin ones, they were used to mark the territory of the Russian Empire (or Soviet one), to impose “great” Russian culture on Ukraine, and create an unified cultural space with less place for national heroes. 

Those toponyms were spread on the orders of Soviet officials or Russian Empire leaders without any regard for the Ukrainians will. But now Ukrainian people can make a choice, and they choose to raise monuments and devote city streets only to those, whom they truly honor.

Veronika Lutska, journalist