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Far from Ukraine’s beleaguered eastern front, a new struggle is being waged – not from the trenches, but in leafy side streets and wide avenues. This is where the enemy is called Pavlov. Or Tchaikovsky. Or Catherine the Great.
Across Ukraine, officials are launching projects to, as they say, “decolonize” their cities. The streets and metro stations whose names evoke the history of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union are scrutinized by a population eager to get rid of the traces of the nation which invaded it at the end of February.
“We are defending our country, also on the cultural front lines,” said Andriy Moskalenko, deputy mayor of Lviv and head of a committee that reviewed the names of each of the city’s more than 1,000 streets. “And we don’t want to have anything in common with the killers.”
Ukraine is far from the first country to undertake such historical accounting – the United States has struggled for decades with renaming Civil War-era monuments. It’s not even the first time Ukraine has undertaken such an effort: after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was one of many Eastern European countries that renamed streets and removed statues commemorating an era of communist rule that has become synonymous with totalitarianism.
This time, the decision to erase Russian names is not just a symbol of defiance of the invasion and Soviet history, said Vasyl Kmet, a historian at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv. It is also about reaffirming a Ukrainian identity that many believe has been suppressed under centuries of rule by its most powerful neighbor, he said.
“The concept of decolonization is a bit broader,” Kmet said. “Russian politics today is built on the propaganda of the so-called Russky mir – the Russian-speaking world. It is about creating a powerful alternative, a modern Ukrainian national discourse.
The western city of Lviv is one of many regions undertaking “decolonization” campaigns. The same goes for the city of Lutsk in the northwest, which plans to rename more than 100 streets. In the southern port city of Odessa, whose residents are predominantly Russian-speaking, politicians are debating whether to remove a monument to Catherine the Great, the Russian empress who founded the city in 1794.
In Kyiv, the capital, the city council plans to rename the Leo Tolstoy metro station in honor of Vasyl Stus, a Ukrainian poet and dissident. The “Minsk” stop – named after the capital of Belarus, which stood alongside Moscow during the invasion – may soon be renamed “Warsaw”, honoring Poland’s support for Ukraine.
And it’s not just Russian names that are under scrutiny. The Lviv committee also plans to remove street names in tribute to some Ukrainians. One is named after writer Petro Kozlaniuk, who collaborated with Soviet security agencies, including the KGB
Removing the names of some cultural icons – which the Lviv committee said it did after consulting with academics in the relevant fields – proved more divisive. The history of figures like Pyotr Tchaikovsky can be tricky: the classical composer’s family roots were in modern Ukraine, and some musicologists say his works were inspired by Ukrainian folk music.
A few kilometers from Lviv, Viktor Melnychuk owns a sign factory which is preparing to manufacture new plaques and poles for the famous streets. Although he acknowledges that he has a business interest in each change, he is ambivalent about some of the new names.
“Perhaps we should keep some classic writers or poets if they belong to other periods. I’m not sure,” he said. “We cannot completely reject everything. There was good. »
But he planned to stick to the decisions of the committee. And his decision was unanimous: Tchaikovsky would go.
“When we rename a street, it doesn’t mean we’re saying, ‘This person didn’t make this invention or wasn’t important,'” said Mr Moskalenko, Lviv’s deputy mayor. “It means that this person’s work was used as a tool of colonization.”
Mr. Kmet, the historian, saw an opportunity to honor the contributions of some Ukrainians whose contributions have been lost to history. He hopes to name a street in Lviv after an obscure librarian, Fedir Maksymenko, who he says secretly saved Ukrainian culture and books during Soviet times.
“I and Ukrainian culture owe him a lot,” he said. “We have to work very hard today to preserve what he saved.”
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