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22 Nov, 2022 12:48

Russia’s former southern capital renounces its past: How Ukraine is destroying its heritage

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

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.

Just a few months back, the same official had opposed the initiative. “I’m not in favor of taking down statues. We may remove the monuments, but history will not change. I know that a petition has been signed by 25,000 people, but I’m going to wait. After all, should I also remove the monument to [Alexander] Pushkin or [Yuri] Gagarin? It doesn’t make sense,” Trukhanov wrote. However, activists soon sent a petition to Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, who instructed the police to investigate the mayor’s activities.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture supported the idea of taking down the monument to Catherine the Great, but according to the ministry’s head, Aleksandr Tkachenko, the decision was to be made by local deputies. “My opinion is obvious: there’s no need for [the monument] here. However, the decision should be taken by Odessa deputies with a corresponding appeal to the ministry. If such an appeal arrives, we will certainly give our consent,” the official said. Finally, following numerous vandalism attacks on the monument (it was doused with paint, covered with inscriptions, and a red ‘executioner’s’ hat was placed on Catherine the Great’s head), the Odessa City Council decided to conduct an electronic survey to decide on its fate.


Trukhanov hastened to change his mind and said he would vote to transfer the monument to a “park of the imperial and Soviet past” that he proposed to create. Meanwhile, the deputy mayor of Odessa, Oleg Bryndak, offered to immediately install a fountain on the site.

An online vote was held in the shortest possible time. As a result, out of Odessa’s population of about a million people, 2,900 residents voted for the demolition and 2,251 opposed it. The rest (i.e., over 990,000 people) abstained from the vote. Despite this, the public vote was recognized as legitimate. The city council is yet to make a final decision, but the outcome is not hard to predict. According to an announcement affixed to the wooden protective case now enclosing the bronze monument, preparations for its dismantling and transfer are already underway.

History repeats itself

Ironically, Catherine Square in central Odessa perfectly illustrates the shifts in historical heritage policies during critical periods for Ukraine. When the square was initially built, a public garden was laid out in its center. In 1873, the city’s central water supply began functioning and the authorities installed a fountain on the spot. In 1891, the Odessa City Duma decided to build a monument honoring the centenary of the city’s foundation. On the eve of the anniversary, a competition was held to decide on the best design project and finally in August 1894, construction officially began. The opening of the monument took place on May 6, 1900 and was timed to coincide with the centenary of the death of one of the city fathers, commander Alexander Suvorov. At an architectural conference one year later, Catherine Square with its monument to the city founders was recognized as the best integral architectural complex in Europe.

The monument was unveiled twice – first on May 6, 1900, and then on October 27, 2007. During the Russian Revolution, when the city was constantly changing hands, the authorities covered the monument and intended to take it down. Nobel Prize-winning author Ivan Bunin, who was in Odessa in 1919, wrote in ‘The Cursed Days’ [his diaries of the Revolution]: “Visited Catherine Square before dusk. Everything is gloomy and wet. The monument to Catherine the Great is wrapped from head to toe, bandaged with dirty, wet rags, entwined with ropes and plastered with red wooden stars. Opposite the monument is the Emergency Commission [the Provincial Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-revolution, Speculation, Sabotage, and Crimes of Office, known as the Odessa CHEKA – RT]. Red flags droop from the rain, their reflections flowing like blood in the wet asphalt."

Speculation on whether to keep the monument or not had given the authorities no peace since the 1917 Revolution, and as a result it was transferred to the Petrograd Art Commission. In May 1920, when Soviet power was established in Odessa, the monument was finally dismantled, leaving a bare round column and pedestal. The figures of Catherine the Great and her associates eventually ended up in the courtyard of the Museum of Local Lore thanks to the intercession of the writer Maksim Gorky.


In the 1920s, Catherine Square and street were renamed after Karl Marx. For the next two decades, the pedestal housed a sculpture of the famed ‘Das Kapital’ author. At one point, the authorities replaced the bust with a new, life-size monument. However, the statue fell during a sudden storm, supposedly due to the poor quality of the materials used in its construction (or so reads the official version). In 1931, a sculptural composition with the symbols of the proletariat – a hammer and sickle – was temporarily installed on the spot.

During the occupation of Odessa by Romanian troops during World War II, Romanian Prime Minister Ion Antonescu hastened to rename the square and street after Adolf Hitler, though this time without any monument. In the 1950s, the pedestal was removed from the square and once again replaced with a public garden. In 1965, on the day marking the 60th anniversary of the uprising on the battleship Potemkin, a bronze monument to the sailors was unveiled on the square. This monument stood for 42 years. Finally, in 2007, as part of a project to recreate the historical appearance of Odessa’s city center, the ‘Monument to the Founders of Odessa’, an exact replica of the original, was returned to Catherine Square. And now the square is in for new changes as the political winds have shifted again.

A political pendulum

The fact that nationalism comprises the essence of cultural memory in many Eastern European countries and, as a result, the nation becomes its own victim, is once again confirmed by the changes across Ukraine’s cultural and historical landscape. Moreover, Russia, which is being cast as a threat to independence and territorial integrity, is thus becoming a key element in the mechanism of collective memory and identity. In other words, the model of a suffering nation and the motif of an existential threat have prevailed, and it is the image of Russia’s past and present that will be used in forming Ukrainian identity.

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. 


Despite certain similarities between the groups, their differences were so strong that even prior to Ukraine’s independence, the authorities viewed any federalization attempts as ruinous for the nation at large. 

For many years, Ukraine had existed thanks to a political pendulum between its south, east and west. A sense of unity depended on two conditions: the internal and external. The internal condition was that the political elite coming to power from any part of the country would express the interests of the entire population. The external condition was to keep the country balanced between the main centers of power. Both conditions turned out to be fragile. The former depended on how Ukraine’s domestic political projects were pursued, while the latter reflected the country’s ability to pursue a multi-vector policy in relations with Russia and the European Union.

2014 saw the collapse of both conditions. Prior to Euromaidan, the reunification of Crimea with Russia, and the outbreak of the armed conflict in Donbass, the disagreements about the historical narrative had been moderate. This delicate balance was upset by a policy in favor of actively building a nation state. The pendulum swung violently and suddenly the whole system lost balance.

Local elites reacted in different ways. Some emigrated fearing persecution (such as former deputy of the Odessa City Council Aleksandr Vasiliev), and others became part of a nationally-minded elite (as the aforementioned mayor of Odessa, Trukhanov, who in late 2013 to early 2014 repeatedly spoke at pro-Russian rallies).

At the same time, the main battle unfolded for the loyalty of Ukraine’s so-called ‘moderate’ residents – i.e., the Russian-speaking Ukrainians (or Russian Ukrainians, as the renowned political scientist and Kiev resident Mikhail Pogrebinsky calls himself). This group has always been the middle ground. Having much in common with the two groups, it stood apart from both. And following the start of the conflict in 2014, the attitude of this cohort towards Russia and its culture became a key point of Ukrainian politics.


A Russian east?

Most Russian-speaking Ukrainians did not consider themselves of ‘different nationality’ and did not propose alternative national projects (for example, a unique regional identity associated with Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions as a former part of the historical cultural region of Novorossiya). Such ‘denationalization’ was a result of Russia’s limited foreign policy in the 1990s to early 2000s and the overall socio-economic situation.

In those years, there had been no interethnic or intercultural conflicts in Ukraine because it wasn’t divided between ‘Russians’ and ‘Ukrainians’. The eventual split occurred between those who took on Ukrainian national identity and those who didn’t. In other words, following the status quo change in 2014, the southern and eastern regions became a conglomerate of territories insufficiently involved in the construction of the Ukrainian nation. While the region questioned its Ukrainian identity, it also couldn’t follow the example of Donbass, which proclaimed the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) – a unique model that couldn’t be applied to the rest of the south and east.

Following the start of Moscow's military operation, dissociation from Russian culture and language became inevitable. At the same time, the national identity of Russian-speaking Ukrainians has also undergone major changes. What used to be a compromise that encouraged a multiethnic and multicultural model of national development became a transitional model towards acquiring a totally Ukrainian identity – both language- and culture-wise.

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.