A Soviet-era monument in kyiv honored 12 “heroic cities” of the USSR for their role against the Axis forces in World War II. Now, where the names of Moscow, Leningrad or Brest appeared, there is Mariupol, Irpin or Bucha. At the beginning of the month, a group of activists removed the names of all the Russian and Belarusian towns (the majority) to leave only the Ukrainian ones -Kiev, Sevastopol, Odessa and Kerch- and added banners with the Ukrainian cities most affected by the current invasion Russian. You can also see the trail of torn communist symbols and a Ukrainian flag on the T-34 tank that participated in the defense of kyiv in 1943.
That was a private initiative that the local authorities supported a posteriori. This Tuesday, on the other hand, it was directly the City Council that dismantled one of the main symbols of the Ukrainian capital: the monument that has celebrated since 1982 the friendship between the two countries today at war. “Russia has commemorated their attitude towards Ukraine with brutal murders of peaceful Ukrainians, the destruction of our cities and towns and the desire to destroy our state”, justified the mayor, Vitali Klitschko.
They are not two isolated cases. The invasion has accelerated the derussification of Ukraine, which began with independence in 1991 and deepened after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas in 2014. The measures not only affect the historical episodes that most confront the two countries ( those that Moscow lives as part of a common past between brothers and kyiv as the Russian denial of its differentiated identity), but also to culture, such as the end of Russian music on the radio, the removal of a statue of the poet Alexander Pushkin or the decision to rename the streets dedicated to Tolstói and Tchaikovsky.
Some are official initiatives; others, faits accomplis by activists, military or paramilitaries that are later condoned or applauded by the local authorities. And the target is not always what is purely Russian, but also what is Soviet, perceived as an alien past, imposed and centralized in Moscow.
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The city of Ternopil, for example, has removed a statue of Pushkin. “The crimes of the Russians against the Ukrainian people […] they have erased the culture of the Russian people. They leave us no choice”, said its mayor, Serhiy Nadal, after stressing that the writer has no link with the town. In Lviv, also in the West, the authorities removed on the 16th a five-pointed red star and a hammer and sickle symbol to take them to the Territory of Terror, a museum dedicated to dictatorial regimes. Lviv will also rename 30 streets dedicated to Russian personalities or towns in May. “But not for five or ten years and then change them again, but for the next 100 years,” said its mayor, Andriy Sadovy, quoted by the local press. The western city of Uzhhorod will do so with 58 streets associated with Russian characters and in the eastern Dnipro avenues such as Moscow will no longer be called that.
Kharkiv, the great Russophone city and one of the most heavily bombed, is a clear example of the accelerating role of war in derussification. On the 17th, two military vehicles dismantled a bust of Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov there and threw it into a landfill. An image of the empty pedestal with graffiti with the phrase Glory to Ukraine and the national coat of arms appeared on the Telegram messaging channel. Both the removal of the monument (demolished in June 2019 during a demonstration and relocated a month later by the City Council) and the renaming of Zhukov Avenue after Petro Hryhorenko (a former Soviet soldier who ended his days in exile in the United States as a dissident) had years involved in a political and legal mess that the invasion has resolved with a stroke of the pen.
The cultural canon, vehicle of Russification
“The hatred of Russia and its use of culture as a weapon in the propaganda war carries a lot of weight, especially since the Russian massacre of civilians in Bucha”, explains by email the British journalist and historian Anna Reid, one of the great connoisseurs of Ukraine and author of Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. “The Soviet Union used the Russian cultural canon (Pushkin, Tolstoy, the ballet, etc.) as a vehicle for both Sovietization and Russification. He forced it down school children all over the USSR while non-Russian writers were semi-ignored or even banned. Therefore, removing Pushkin statues is not a protest against Pushkin himself, but against a long-term homogenizing effort by Moscow,” he adds.
The radios have already stopped broadcasting the Russian pop and rock music that delighted adults and young people. A bill, admitted for processing in Parliament on the 11th, proposes that it not sound on television, establishments, public transport, educational and cultural institutions, hotels, restaurants, cinemas and public spaces “until the liberation of all the territories occupied Ukrainians.
A survey on the 6th of the Ukrainian sociological study group Rating shows the enormous support for both these derussifying measures, as well as others with anti-democratic overtones. 76% support renaming the streets, 90% remove the seat of pro-Russian deputies, 81% raise taxes on Ukrainian businessmen who continue to operate in Russia and 51% veto the activities of the Ukraine Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate .
The mayor of kyiv announced on Tuesday the dismantling of another 60 monuments, bas-reliefs and symbols associated with the USSR and Russia, and the renaming of more than 460 streets. Someone has already placed stickers on the statue of Pushkin located in the homonymous park, with a hand with the middle finger raised and the famous phrase “Russian ship, go to hell”, with which a Ukrainian soldier responded to the Russian sailor who demanded surrender at the beginning of the war. And the head of the metro, Viktor Brahinsky, wants to rename the Friendship of Peoples, Lev Tolstoy Square, Brest, Minsk and Heroes of the Dnieper stations.
But not all symbols in the capital have been affected. In the middle of the month, the statue of Zoya Kosmodemianskaya, a Soviet partisan assassinated by the Nazis, who was demolished in the punished Chernihiv, north of the city, was intact. Also various plaques on Russian leaders and the museum on the historic Cuesta de San Andrés by Mijail Bulgákov, the author of The Master and Margaret, born in kyiv and censored by Stalin, but from a Russian family.
Recovering the language, its own history and the myths prior to the Soviet Union has been part of the Ukrainian political agenda since independence in 1991. The patriotic fervor and the inevitable emotional reactions that the invasion arouses have promoted a process that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin now cites as proof that the population of Russian origin is in danger in Ukraine. It is the reason why he justified the start of the offensive last February.
The trend gained momentum in the media after the 2014 war in Donbas, when Russia supported the separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. This is what is called “the cancellation of Russian culture”. Ukrainian artists and intellectuals argue from the press stands that it is an inevitable action. This is how the novelist Andrei Kurkov explained it to this newspaper: “Russians use culture as an instrument, their classics above all. Russian contemporary culture does not give much. It is a soft power of the Kremlin, it is not culture in fact. For the writer, the acceptance of Russian culture and the common heritage will come in 30 or 40 years.
After the pro-European Maidan revolution in 2014, which ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power, and the outbreak of war in Donbas, the Ukraine decommunization law was passed. Thus, the street on which Kanyctiha works has not been dedicated to Lenin since 2019 and is named after Voskresenskaya, after the Resurrection. In the battle for the gazetteer there are also nods to Russia’s enemies. Dzhokhar Dudayev, the leader of Chechen independence in the 1990s, has streets named after him in many municipalities in Ukraine.
In the moments after the Maidan, what became known as lenopad, the collapse of statues of Lenin. It had already happened in the west of the country in the 1990s, but not in the south and east, where – historian Reid recalls – amusing compromise solutions were reached, such as wrapping her in a blue and yellow scarf (the colors of the American flag). ukraine) in Sloviansk or disguise her as Darth Vader, in Odessa.
Russian continues to be a commonly used language in the country, but there are only a few generations left for this to change. At school number 8 in Berdichev, in central Ukraine, it ceased to be used during the war in Donbas. At the entrances to the facilities and to the classrooms, the signs appear in Ukrainian, English and Hebrew – the municipality has a rich Jewish heritage – but not in Russian.
In everyday life there are multiple examples, such as in the names of people: the student Daria Shapovalova asked in Lviv to be called Darina, the Ukrainian version of the same name, and the official of the Dnipro History Museum Svetlana Kanyctiha pointed out the same thing: she It’s Svitlana. Some Russian-speaking Ukrainian refugees told, after crossing into Poland, that they had decided as a result of the invasion to start communicating in Ukrainian with their friends or to make an effort to make it their children’s first language at home.
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