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Ukraine 'derussifies' public space: audio report

06.08.2022 20:00
Ukraine has launched a broad effort to 'derussify' its public spaces by removing Russian and Soviet monuments and names from cities across the country.
The dismantling of a bronze sculpture installed in Kyiv city centre in 1982 to celebrate the reunification of Ukraine and Russia.
The dismantling of a bronze sculpture installed in Kyiv city centre in 1982 "to celebrate the reunification of Ukraine and Russia."Photo: EPA/OLEG PETRASYUK

The issue of whether to retain Russian and Soviet monuments and names in Ukraine predates the war. But now some Ukrainians see it as the front of a cultural invasion amid Russia’s physical assault.

After Ukraine became independent in the early 1990s, European-facing areas such as the western city of Lviv attempted to erase their Soviet past. More than 1,300 monuments to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin fell during the 2013-2014 Maidan Revolution, which followed Russian sway over Ukrainian politics.

Past movements around historical memory have been highly regional, mapping cultural ties to Russia. But the ongoing Russian invasion has instigated renaming efforts from the southern city of Odesa to the eastern industrial city of Dnipro.

'Mental colonization'

Northeast of Lviv city center, among the maze-like, bending streets, a small road leads past European villas and a playground. Parked cars parallel the wide sidewalks. Rose bushes and cedar trees decorate boutique gardens.

This street – one of Lviv’s most posh and most European – was named after Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Or until last week, anyway.

In the last four months, a city commission has studied the 1,000 or so streets in Lviv and selected 53, including Tolstoy Street, to be renamed. The reason, says commission head and deputy mayor Andriy Moskalenko, is "decolonization."

Streets like these were named during Russian rule as emblems of Russian superiority. Those names, he says, reinforce a kind of “mental colonization.”

Culture war

Thirty years after the fall of the USSR, almost every Ukrainian city still has Russian or Soviet memorials – mostly street or square names. And while past protest movements brought down political monuments, like statues of Lenin, those honoring artists like Leo Tolstoy or Piotr Tchaikovsky weren’t as controversial.

Then came Feb. 24, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin justified the invasion that began that day, in part by claiming Ukrainians and Russians are the same people.

To Ukrainians, that’s another way of saying their nation doesn’t exist. Many in the country now see this conflict as another attempt to erase their culture, no different than decades of Soviet rule when Ukraine’s artists were executed and their literature suppressed. Russia’s invasion is to them a literal culture war.

Like Lviv, cities across the country have founded commissions to identify Russian or Soviet monuments and recommend which ones should be changed. The work requires judging what counts as the shared history of two neighboring countries and what counts as “colonization.”

Difficulty aside, interrogating monuments has become for many Ukrainians a powerful act of historical justice – similar to the removal of Confederate statues in the United States or relics of apartheid in South Africa.

'Culture is important like the army'

In that process, says Olha Honchar, director of the Lviv “Territory of Terror” Memorial Museum, the country can see what it’s trying to protect and why its soldiers are fighting.

“Culture politics and language politics are [safe places for] every country because they’re a part of identity,” says Honchar, whose museum documents Soviet and Nazi rule. “Culture is important like the army.”

Last week, the mayor of Lviv wrote on his Telegram channel that Tolstoy Street was being renamed for the late Roman Catholic Cardinal and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Archbishop Liubomyr Huzar.

It was one of eight street renamings he announced, saying, “This is just the beginning.”

Halyna Pastushuk reports from Lviv.

Click on the audio player above to listen.