By Katherine Baughman, Intern, CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program

On June 1st, 2016, the Ukrainian Parliament approved a measure that would rename several Ukrainian cities and towns including the east-central Ukrainian metropolis previously known as Dnipropetrovsk, now to be known as Dnipro. It is among over 900 set to be renamed by the end of 2016 as part of an official campaign to “decommunize” Ukraine by eradicating symbolic remnants of the Soviet legacy. The campaign also targets streets and monuments that retain the names and likenesses of over 500 Soviet and Soviet-linked historical figures such as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. These recent changes, pursued under theApril 2015 law banning Soviet and Nazi propaganda, have now been sent on to President Petro Poroshenko for final approval.

Ukraine is by no means the first country to attempt to distance itself from its Communist past by changing its place names. In 2010, Uzbekistan renamed 150 streets and neighborhoods in its capital, Tashkent, replacing Soviet names with those with Uzbek historical and cultural significance. In 2011, Georgia went so far as to launch an international campaign to change its name in languages across the world from those resembling the Russian-language moniker, Gruziya, to Georgia, the English term for the Caucasian country. Even Russia has made some efforts to distance itself from its Soviet past. For example, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the cities of Leningrad, Sverdlovsk and Gorky reverted to their pre-Soviet names of St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Nizhny Novgorod, respectively.

However, the current renaming initiative in Ukraine is prompted by a desire to distance the country not only from the symbolic remnants of its Soviet past, but from both the legacy of the Russian Empire and the modern Russian Federation. This desire is rooted, of course, in popular frustration and anger with the Russian Federation in the wake of its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The new upsurge of feeling against the Soviet and Russian cultural legacies more than two decades after Ukraine’s independence from the USSR parallels a broader shift in the definition of Ukrainian identity. The renaming initiative is an important marker of that shift.

A street by any other name

Unlike other cases of nominal decommunization in the post-Soviet space, it is not only Soviet or Communist figures, but also names associated with pre-Soviet Russia that are being eradicated from the public sphere. Furthermore, they have been replaced by not simply national, but in some cases by nationalist Ukrainian heroes.

Whereas Georgia had always been recognized as a more or less culturally separate entity, many Russians have persisted in seeing Ukraine as a mere extension of Russian culture. Assertions of Ukrainian national identity have often sought, at least in part, to differentiate Ukraine from Russia. This is also true of the current project of renaming Ukraine’s cities, towns and streets.

Take, for instance, the recent renaming of some of the main thoroughfares in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Kutuzov and Suvorov streets, named after Imperial Russian generals and Russian national heroes, will now commemorate Alexei Almazov and Mykhailo Omelianovych-Pavlenko, military leaders from the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic that emerged after the collapse of the Russian Empire. The avenue bearing the name of the historical and present capital of Russia, Moscow Prospect, is being renamed after Stepan Bandera, the activist who led the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) during the 1930s and 1940s, accused by many detractors of being a Nazi sympathiser. The so-called “decommunization” effort in today’s Ukraine is, in essence, a campaign of de-Russification.

Regional versus national identity

While detractors point out the possible societal divisiveness of and financial difficulties involved in widespread name changes, especially in a time of war, the mayor of Zaporizhya claims that this legislation has been beneficial in that it removes the topic from popular debate. The mayor of the newly-renamed Dnipro, on the other hand, states that the decision to change the name of his city was met with confusion, controversy and opposition among its residents. As the city is traditionally Russian language-dominant, it is unsurprising that some dissatisfaction with the essentially top-down decision to rename it has arisen at a regional level. However, the Ukrainian parliament recently upheld the resolution to rename the city after a party member of the Opposition Bloc (whose stronghold is in Eastern Ukraine) presented a petition bearing the signatures of 300,000 residents who were opposed to the change. Just as politicians who once would change their language of address when traveling between Western Ukraine to Southern and Eastern Ukraine now essentially speak only Ukrainian in public contexts, [1] the enactment of the name change in spite of local misgivings speaks to a broader consolidation of disparate regional identities into a shared national identity. This national Ukrainian identity is in the process of being decidedly “de-Russified.”

The campaign to rename Ukraine’s places is not only an attempt to decommunize the country akin to similar efforts in other post-Soviet states, it is a symptom of a broader symbolic de-Russification and a growing focus on the national over the regional in Ukrainian society. Though it may seem purely nominal, the distinction between Dnipro and Dnipropetrovsk in fact exemplifies a new phase in the evolution of post-Euromaidan Ukrainian identity.

 

[1] Katherine Baughman, “Divergence of Catalan and Ukrainian Linguistic Histories, 1990-2015: Political, Cultural, Economic and Demographic Factors in Language Change” (Thesis, Middlebury College, 2016), 72.