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Russia’s former southern capital renounces its past: How Ukraine is destroying its heritage 27 Nov 22, Ukraine is turning into a significantly more homogeneous and far less culturally diverse country.

In recent years, Ukraine has become the battleground for a ‘war of monuments’ waged among various political forces. In 2014, the process reached a peak during the mass demolition of statues of Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet politicians. These events fundamentally changed the symbolism and policy of the country’s historical memory, paving the way to a reality in which any public speech must now be accompanied by the words ‘Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!’

This was the slogan of Stepan Bandera’s World War Two nationalist movement, which collaborated with Adolf Hitler’s Nazis and took part in the Holocaust. 

Although Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s team initially tried to ‘reset’ the historical memory policy, radical nationalism got the upper hand in this symbolic battle. Following the start of Russia’s military operation, this year, the so-called ‘decommunization’ policy became openly known as ‘de-Russification’ – even with over half of the population officially recognized as Russian-speaking.

Memory wars

After Russian troops entered Ukraine in February, many locals projected their hatred of Moscow onto objects of cultural and historical heritage that were in any way linked to the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, politicians actively supported such sentiment, using it as a cheap way to boost their personal ratings.

Over the past months, the number of initiatives aimed at the cultural and historical ‘de-Russification’ of Ukraine have ballooned. Examples abound. The Kiev City Council recently renamed 11 streets having any reference to Russia (Lomonosov, Magnitogorsk, and Belomorskaya streets, among others). It also completely excluded the Russian language from the curricula of the capital’s kindergartens and schools. 

The decision was supported by 64 out of 120 deputies. Vadim Vasilchuk, head of the Standing Committee on Education, Science, Family, Youth and Sports of the body, commented that teaching Russian in the current situation is “inappropriate.” In fact, Kiev’s educational institutions stopped teaching the language in any shape or form (including as electives) at the beginning of the academic year.

Meanwhile, other Ukrainian cities saw a wave of ‘de-Pushkinization’ sweep through. In November, monuments to the great Russian poet were toppled in Kharkov and Zhitomir, while the monument in Odessa was painted over with the inscription ‘Get out!’ In Kiev, one of the oldest monuments to the bard had been taken down a few weeks earlier.

The demolition of monuments to Russian and Soviet statesmen has continued as well. The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture’s expert council on ‘overcoming the consequences of Russification and totalitarianism’ decided to demolish monuments to Soviet military commanders Nikolay Vatutin and Nikolay Shchors (even though Leonid Kravchuk – a student at the time and later the first president of Ukraine – posed for the Shchors monument).

A memorial to Soviet soldiers erected on May 8, 1970 on the 25th anniversary of victory in WWII was demolished in Uzhgorod in November. The decision dates back to October 13. In its place, Kiev proposed a memorial to the soldiers of the 128th separate mountain assault brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine – a military unit that took an active part in the Donbass war unleashed by Kiev in 2014.

The story of one monument

Perhaps the most dramatic case of ‘de-Russification’ unfolded in the port city of Odessa. The city’s history dates back to the end of the 18th century, when the Russian Empire colonized the northern Black Sea region. In November, Odessa’s mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, announced the impending demolition of one of the historical city symbols – a monument to its founders that shows Catherine the Great and her associates, thanks to whom the city became the southern capital of the Russian Empire by the end of the 19th century………………………………………………………………….

How has this become possible? When Ukraine gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its political (electoral) geography acquired stable borders and became integrated into the self-consciousness of the country’s two parts. In fact, several population groups with powerful national identities emerged at the time: Ukrainian-speaking (mostly living in the western and central regions, and professing a purely ethnic narrative), Russian-speaking (mostly living in the center, south and east, for whom Russians were not ‘strangers’ or ‘enemies’), and actual Russians.

These groups, particularly the Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, long had their own heritage, language, and political representation. Recall the Orange Revolution of 2004 or the Euromaidan of 2014, during which the ‘pro-Ukrainian’ part of society opposed the ‘pro-Russian’ leader Viktor Yanukovych. Who, in reality, had spent years negotiating with the EU about eventual Ukrainian membership. ………………………………………….

A few years ago, residents of Ukraine’s south and east spoke Russian while recognizing themselves as Ukrainians. Now, the Russian language and its cultural and historical symbols are undergoing irreversible changes and becoming a marker of political affiliation – namely, of being pro-Russian.

Conscious of this, the authorities are striving to gain control over historical heritage and memory policies and expect to win this battle for public opinion. The current southern and eastern regions are turning into a testing ground for experimental nation-building. Their political self-determination fully depends on the historical memory and language policies. Meanwhile, nationalism offers all the necessary tools for constructing a cohesive socio-political community. That is why such a striking ‘de-Russification’ initiative as the demolition of the monument to Catherine the Great in Odessa will not be the last.

For many years, the main political and cultural debate in Ukrainian society has revolved around the question of preserving or eradicating its Russian and Soviet cultural heritage. In the present situation of armed conflict, supporters of the latter skillfully use public outrage to achieve their aims. Should the process continue (and there’s little reason to think it won’t), in a few years Ukraine will turn into a significantly more homogeneous and far less culturally diverse country – one that has willingly renounced a major part of its heritage.

By Alexander Nepogodin, an Odessa-born political journalist, expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union.


November 28, 2022 - Posted by | culture and arts, Ukraine

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