June 28, 2022

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A damaged town council building in Soledar, in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, which President Volodymr Zelensky visited on Sunday.

Far from the besieged eastern front of Ukraine, a new conflict is taking place – not from trenches, but on leafy side streets and wide avenues. This is where the enemy by the name of Pavlov goes. Or Tchaikovsky. Or Catherine the Great.

All over Ukraine, officials began projects, they say, to “decolonize” their cities. The streets and subway stations whose names evoke the history of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union are under scrutiny by residents eager to rid themselves of the traces of the nation they left behind. invaded in late February.

“We are defending our country, also on the cultural front lines,” said Andrei Moskalenko, deputy mayor of Lviv and head of the commission that reviewed the names of each of the more than 1,000 streets in the city. “And we don’t want to have anything in common with the killers.”

Ukraine is not the first country to conduct such historical accounting – the United States has struggled for decades with Renaming Civil War Era Monuments. Nor is it the first time Ukraine has made 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 the era of communist rule that had become synonymous with totalitarianism.

Vasyl Kmet, a historian at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv, said the decision to erase Russian names this time around is not just a symbol of the defiance of the invasion and Soviet history. It is also about reasserting a Ukrainian identity that many feel has been oppressed under centuries of domination by its more powerful neighbour, he said.

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“The concept of decolonization is a bit broader,” Mr. Kemet said. Russian politics today is based on the propaganda of the so-called Russky Mir – the Russian-speaking world. It is about finding a powerful alternative, a modern Ukrainian national discourse.”

attributed to him…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Western Lviv is one of the many regions that carry out “decolonization” campaigns. So is the northwestern city of Lutsk, which plans to rename more than 100 streets. In the southern port city of Odessa, whose population is mostly Russian-speaking, politicians debate whether a monument to Catherine the Great, the Russian empress who founded the city in 1794, should be removed.

In the capital, Kyiv, the city council is looking into renaming the Leo Tolstoy metro station after the Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl Stoss. “Minsk” station – named after the capital of Belarus, which sided with Moscow during the invasion – may soon be renamed “Warsaw”, in honor of Poland’s support for Ukraine.

And it’s not just Russian names that are subject to scrutiny. The Lviv Committee also plans to delete street names in honor of some Ukrainians. One of them is named after the writer Petro Kozlanyuk, who collaborated with Soviet security agencies, including the KGB.

The removal of the names of some cultural symbols – which the Lviv commission said it did after consulting with academics from related fields – proved even more divisive. The history of figures like Pyotr Tchaikovsky can be deceptive: the classical composer’s family roots go back to present-day Ukraine, and some musicologists say his works are inspired by Ukrainian folk music.

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A few miles from Lviv, Viktor Melnychuk owns a sign-making factory that is preparing to make new billboards and posts for the renamed streets. Although he admits he has a business interest in each change, he is hesitant about some of the new names.

Perhaps we should keep some classic writers or poets if they are from other periods. “I’m not sure,” he said. We cannot reject everything completely. There were some good things there.”

But he planned to abide by the commission’s decisions. And her verdict was unanimous: Tchaikovsky will go.

“When we rename a street, it does not mean that we say:” This person did not make this invention, or it was not important,” said Mr. Moskalenko, the deputy mayor of Lviv. “This means that the work of this person was used as an instrument of colonization.”

Mr. Kemet, the historian, saw an opportunity to honor the contributions of some Ukrainians whose contributions have been lost to history. He hopes to name one street in Lviv after a mysterious librarian, Feder Maksimenko, who said he secretly protected Ukrainian culture and books during the Soviet era.

“I and the Ukrainian culture owe him a lot,” he said. “We must work hard today to preserve what he saved.”