Taking nation-building to the streets: How Ukraine is ‘decolonising’ the streets of Kyiv14 min read

 In Analysis, Culture, Eastern Europe, War in Ukraine

Nearly 500 kilometres away from the fierce battles raging in the south and east of the country, the streets of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv are bearing witness to a new ‘cultural frontline.’ However, this battle is not being fought with guns or artillery, but rather with street names. More than 500 streets have already been renamed in the city since 2014, with many of them being changed amidst the full-scale Russian invasion. This is quite an astonishing number, as it represents nearly one-fifth of the roughly 2,700 streets in the capital. This latest street renaming frenzy is part of a larger movement in Ukrainian society to (re)establish and assert its national cultural independence in the face of the Russian onslaught to erase the country from the map. 

From empire to independence

Kyiv is no stranger to mass street renamings. The city has seen rulers, hetmans, tsars, general secretaries, military commissariats, and presidents come and go throughout its nearly 1,500-year history. Each has left a profound impact on Ukraine’s historical development, and thus also on its street names. These names have acted as visible markers of new social, political, and cultural orders that craft and instil national identity at times, and at other times impose and justify foreign domination.

In pre-19th century Kyiv, as with the rest of Europe, street toponyms were mainly utilitarian, denoting the direction they lead to or come from, the type of businesses present, or after prominent landmarks and geographical features. However, in the 19th century, on the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Kyiv started to grow considerably. As such, local governors of the Russian Empire began to plan for the city’s growth by building new districts and widening existing thoroughfares. With this came the need to rethink the way the city’s streets were named.

This was particularly important during the era of nationalism, when it became imperative for imperial authorities to cement their hold on non-Russian lands in the face of national (re)awakening and self-determination. Streets are essentially the backbone of urban environments, and a city’s inhabitants constantly refer to street names in their everyday lives. By renaming streets to fit a country’s ideology, you are essentially weaving a nation’s heroes, myths, and values into the very fabric of the urban environment.

For example, the central Kyivan avenue Volodymyrska was named after Volodymyr the Great, the ancient Kyivan prince who brought Christianity to the early East Slavic states. The Russian Empire saw Volodymyr the Great as the mythological founder of all the Rus’, and thus viewed his commemoration as vital in establishing and justifying Russian domination of Kyiv and Ukraine. A parallel street to Volodymyrska was renamed to Yelizavetynska, after Russian empress Elizaveta Petrivna. This street would shortly thereafter in 1899 be renamed to ‘Pushkinska’ after perhaps the most famed Russian poet of all time and founder of modern Russian literature Alexander Pushkin. 

Imperial Russian rule would not live for much longer in Ukraine. The far-left revolutionary USSR took its place, with its own ideological fanaticisms that were often elevated to that of dogma. As such, mass renaming of streets across the country was undertaken to quash any remnants of the previous ‘ancien regime’ and to transform the country into a socialist society.

For example, Ploshcha Tsarya Vyzvolytelya (Tsar the Liberator Square) was renamed immediately after the Bolsheviks seized power to Ploshcha III Internatsionalu after the Communist International, a Soviet-controlled international organisation that advocated for global communism. Even streets that had nothing at all to do with the previous regime were renamed by the Soviets. Velyka Zhytomoyrska was renamed to Horvitsya in honour of a Ukrainian Bolshevik revolutionary, while Kontraktova Ploshcha (Contracts Square) was renamed to Chervona Ploshcha (Red Square).

While many of these re-namings were to be expected from an ideology-obsessed Soviet state, some are more unexpected. For example, Bibikovskyy Boulevard in central Kyiv was renamed in 1919 to Tarasa Shevchenka Boulevard after the most celebrated Ukrainian poet and writer Taras Shevchenko. This may seem unusual for contemporary readers, but early Soviet leaders often took advantage of Shevchenko’s immense support (sometimes bordering on deification) among the Ukrainian peasantry by highlighting his anti-serfdom, anti-monarchist political views as opposed to his championing of Ukrainian independence and democratisation. The Soviets used a similar line of reasoning in renaming Nesterivska to Ivana Franka in honour of Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko, himself socialist but also a radical Ukrainian nationalist.

Leninopad and de-communisation

In the early years of Ukraine’s new-found independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s national consciousness was shaky at best. Many cities, including Kyiv, remained largely Russophone. The fledgling democracy walked a fine line between limited Western integration and remaining economically, politically, and culturally close to Russia. Much of the early nationalist fervour of the Gorbachev era and of Ukraine’s independent honeymoon-period fizzled away during the economic collapse of the 1990’s.

As such, the wave of renaming was more limited than one may expect. Streets named after Soviet leaders (mostly Lenin), lesser Soviet officials, and Bolshevik revolutionaries were the first to go. In many cases, streets regained their original historical names, as was the case with Kontraktova Ploshcha, whose original name was restored in 1991. In other cases, entirely new names were chosen, such as Bohdana Khmelnytskoho, named after the Ukrainian Cossack leader who led an uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th century. However, by and large, many seemingly-neutral Soviet street names, such as those named after heroes of the Second World War or cosmonauts, remained unchanged.

However, from the Orange Revolution in 2004 onwards and culminating during the Revolution of Dignity in early 2014, Ukrainians became increasingly politically-active and nationally-conscious, demanding Euro/Atlantic-integration and separation from the Russian sphere-of-influence. In the patriotic fervour following the Maidan revolution and the 2014 Russian invasion, remaining Lenin statues across the country were torn down in a movement cheekily-named ‘Leninopad,’ a combination of ‘Lenin’ and the Ukrainian suffix ‘pad,’ meaning ‘to fall.’ 

The fall of Lenin statues symbolically signalled the desire for Ukrainian society to rid itself of its Soviet past, as well as to find common ground with Russophone Ukrainians, many of whom still had considerable social and economic ties to Russia. After all, the shared dislike of the antiquated, corrupt Soviet-style of governance that plagued Ukraine for most of its independent history was perhaps one of the few things that could easily unite the country.

The new pro-Western government in Kyiv rendered this impetus into a central tenet in Ukraine’s new nation-building project, proclaiming that “Ukraine will never build a prosperous and peaceful future without overcoming the legacy of the totalitarian past,” conflating the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union with that of Nazi Germany. This was codified into law in 2015, where it was estimated that roughly 50,000 toponyms across Ukraine were legally subject to be renamed. In a sense, Ukraine was following the example of other Eastern European post-communist countries such as Poland and the Baltic States, which enacted similar de-communisation laws in the early 1990’s.

What few streets left with Soviet references in Kyiv were renamed. At other times, even streets with overt references to Russian aggression were altered. The Soviet-named Prospekt Reunification (Reunification Avenue) was changed to Prospekt Sobornosti (Unification Avenue). Unification, in this sense, refers to the unification of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1917, marking the first truly united Ukrainian state in history. Reunification, on the other hand, refers to the Pereyaslav Agreement of 1654, which Russian historiography often portrays as Ukraine’s ‘reunification’ with Russia.

However, not all name changes went without controversy. In particular, two major avenues in Kyiv named Moskovskyy Prospekt and Prospekt Henerala Vatutina were respectively renamed to Prospekt Stepana Bandery and Prospekt Romana Shukhevycha. Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych were two main figures of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), an extreme-right nationalist organisation which collaborated with Nazi Germany and committed large-scale massacres of nearly 100,000 Poles in Volyn and Eastern Galicia between 1943 and 1945. While many in Western Ukraine (particularly Galicia) view the nationalist organisation positively for their post-war insurgency against Soviet forces, the UPA never found much support in the rest of Ukraine, where its collaboration with Nazi Germany and atrocities against civilians have tarnished its image.

The Kyiv City Council proposals to rename the two streets in 2016 quickly became a legal fiasco. An online petition to choose more neutral names was rejected by the city council for “massive falsifications during the voting.” The decision to finally approve the new name for the street was repealed by the Administration Court of Kyiv and later reinstated two times each. Prospekt Romana Shukhevych encountered fiercer resistance due to Shukhevych’s direct involvement in anti-Polish and anti-Jewish massacres, as opposed to Bandera’s passive inaction. Prominent Jewish-Ukrainian organisations protested vehemently against the proposed renaming, and the Israeli Knesset even issued an appeal to Kyiv mayor Vitalii Klitchko to cancel the decision. The city council’s decision went through appeal after appeal, until eventually being settled in 2019 after an intervention from the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance.

The lionisation of UPA leaders like Bandera and Shukhevych by renaming prominent streets after them is an open display of different competing forms of national memory politics at play. Perhaps the most obscure part of this veneration is the fact that modern Ukraine is in no way a fascist ethno-state as envisioned by the likes of UPA. Ukraine is very much a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-linguistic state. The decision to rename streets after such leaders obfuscates the reality of Ukraine’s recent successes as an open, tolerant, and democratic European state, while giving rhetorical ammunition to Russian propagandists and Polish populists. Regardless, the transplantation of ‘Bandera nationalism’ onto the streets of Kyiv demonstrates a shift in Ukrainian society that is perhaps more a sign of the growing pains of nation-building than a tacit endorsement of UPA’s ideology.

Pushkinopad and de-Russification

The morning of 24 February 2022 would change Ukraine forever. The images of missile strikes against peaceful cities and the subsequent atrocities uncovered in towns like Bucha and Irpin mobilised Ukrainians in defence of their country and its  future as an independent, democratic, and European society. The very idea of Ukraine was under threat of extinction by an all too familiar enemy. The Rubicon had been crossed, and any lingering sympathies with Russia quickly vanished for a vast majority of Ukrainians. As such, they wouldn’t settle for just de-communisation; they demanded full de-Russification.

This time it wasn’t Lenin falling, but Pushkin. While it was clear what Lenin represented in the eyes of Ukrainians, what did Pushkin represent? Was he just a Russian poet and writer, or was he a vehicle of the Russian imperial project and nationalist world-view? Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy called Pushkin “a true imperialist,” while writer Oleksandr Mykhed conflated public commemoration of Pushkin with “Russians marking their territory.” Whatever one’s views are on Pushkin himself or others like him, Russia’s full-scale invasion ushered in a new era of re-evaluation of everything ‘Russian’ in Ukraine.

For many Ukrainians, de-Russification means de-colonisation. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who himself is a native Russian-speaker, recently signed into law a regulation on “the de-colonisation of toponyms,” harkening back to the 2015 de-communisation laws. These laws stipulate that national and local governments should remove references that glorify, promote, or symbolise “the aggressor state” in public spaces.

Pushkina, arguably one of the prettiest and historically-preserved streets of central Kyiv, lost its 123-year-old name and was renamed Yevhena Chykalenka Street after Ukrainian philanthropist Yevhen Chykalenko, who was vital in convening the first independent Ukrainian Rada in 1917. Fellow Russian novelist Lev Tolstoy also lost his place on the streets of Kyiv: His eponymously-named central Kyivan avenue was renamed to Hetmana Pavla Skoropadskoho after the Ukrainian Revolutionary Army general and short-lived Hetman of Ukraine Pavlo Skoropadskyy.

It wasn’t just names of Russian cultural figures in the crosshairs, but also streets carrying Russian toponyms. Streets named after Magnitogorsk, Orel, and Baikal were respectively renamed after the temporarily-occupied Ukrainian cities of Kherson, Oleshky, and Melitopol. Hroznenska, whose name comes from the Chechen city of Grozny, was renamed to Ichkerska in support of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which the Ukrainian government considers to be “temporarily occupied” by Russia. Meanwhile, new streets bearing the names of prominent Western figures such as Descartes, Vaclav Havel, and Boris Johnson have appeared throughout the capital, while the growing number of dead Ukrainian military heroes are also seeing some streets named in honour of them.

Despite the relatively consistent public support, this most recent renaming frenzy has also not gone on without fault. For example, when the Kyiv City Council proposed to rename Povitroflotskyy Prospekt (Air Force Avenue) to Prospekt Evrosoyuzu (European Union Avenue), it sparked a backlash from local residents. Local historian Anton Kurob claimed that the current name fits its historical and spatial environment as it recognises Kyiv’s robust aerospace industry and is the main avenue that leads to one of the capital’s airports. On the other hand, the Kyiv City Council, as well as the independent expert commission, stated that “the legal successor of this ‘air force’ is now shelling Kyiv with missiles” and thus needs to be renamed to something more appropriate.

Another controversy emerged around the proposition to rename a small street in central Kyiv after former mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko, which was put forward by current mayor Vitalii Klitchko. This action prompted immediate public backlash, as Omelchenko’s tenure as mayor of Kyiv from 1999 to 2006 was rife with controversy, as he oversaw the partial destruction of the city’s tram network and controversial building permits for high-rises in the historic centre. Additionally, he was involved in two separate fatal traffic accidents. A petition to prevent the renaming reached 6,000 signatures in three days, while a public vote on the ‘Kyiv Digital’ app showed that 74.2% of respondents voted against the proposed renaming. The Kyiv City Council eventually rescinded the resolution.

Perhaps one of the biggest points of contention is where do Ukrainians draw the line. Is anything and everything Russian to be purged from the public sphere, or is there room for exceptions? For example, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote some of his most famous novels in his beloved hometown of Kyiv. However, Bulgakov also held strong discontent for Ukrainian self-determination, taking up arms for the White Army in their fight against the Ukrainian People’s Republic. In a conversation about renaming Bulgakov’s eponymously-named street in Kyiv, literary critic Rostyslav Semkiv stated that Bulgakov had no respect for Ukrainian culture, and only held sentiment to “Kiev,” not Kyiv.

Even more difficulties are raised by Ukraine’s already complicated historical memory of the Second World War. The Kyiv City Council recently voted to revert Ploshcha Peremoha (Victory Square) to its original name, Ploshcha Halytska (Galicia Square). The square was renamed in 1952 to commemorate the Soviet victory, but such public commemoration seems to be finding less and less place among Ukraine’s war-torn society. Over six million Ukrainians fought for the Red Army during the Second World War, but as Tymish Martynenko-Kushlyanskyi, a member of Kyiv’sCommittee on Names,’ put it, “Ukrainians made an outstanding contribution to the victory over Nazism, but at the same time they did not gain freedom.”

Charting old history and marking new beginnings

Ukrainian society has demonstrated an astounding ability to reinvent itself as a nation in the midst of war. Processes of de-colonisation are often long and painful, and force societies to critically reevaluate themselves and their history. However, the threat of the country’s very extinction has necessitated this process and pushed it into overdrive, with Ukrainians fighting on both the literal and metaphorical frontlines. 

Street names are but one of many battles. The importance of streets and their names in the urban fabric means they are not merely utilities, but rather vessels of national (re)awakening and nation-building. Streets are mirrors to local and national history, and as such bear witness to the national project as a whole. With this comes subtext that provides an insight into a nation’s mythology, ideology, and values.

The fact that Kyiv alone has seen one-fifth of its streets renamed in less than a decade is testament to the fact that Ukraine is undergoing a profound shift in its conception as a nation. While this shift may be shaky at times, it should not be seen in the same vein as some other Western countries’ shift towards far-right nationalism. Rather, Ukrainians have shown that defiant, civic nationalism in the face of existential peril can be an admirable way to promote and defend democratic values. Although street renamings (particularly at this scale) are rather unusual in the Western world, perhaps these very visible markers of civic engagement can be an inspiration for us all to rethink and reevaluate our own societies.

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Canva
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