Ukraine’s Cultural Counteroffensive: The Rush to Erase Russia’s Imprint

Photo for The Washington Post by Kasia Strek/Panos Pictures
The Soviet Union gifted this installation, called the People’s Friendship Arch, in 1982. In May of last year, it was renamed the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian People.

KYIV, Ukraine – In one of the most profound examples of how President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion has backfired, some Ukrainians are now trying to erase Russia – and the Russian language – from their culture and landscape.

Ukraine is a country where many, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, grew up with Russian as their native tongue. But now the language is vanishing from public life and fading even in some daily private conversations.

Russian-language books have been pulped. Russocentric museums have been pressured to shutter. Streets named after Russian sites, poets and Soviet army generals are marked for a change.

Zelensky last month signed two laws barring the use of Russian place names and requiring Ukrainian citizens to know the Ukrainian language.

“Russia itself is doing everything to ensure that de-Russification takes place on the territory of our state,” Zelensky said a month after the start of the invasion in February 2022. Putin in part has justified his bloody assault on Ukraine by saying he is saving Russian people there from cultural erasure.

But Russia’s war on Ukraine, including the bombing of predominantly Russian-speaking cities such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, has only pushed Ukrainians further away.

“No one has done more de-Russify Ukraine than Putin,” said Rory Finnin, an associate professor of Ukrainian studies at Cambridge University. Ukrainians had been able “to manage their, at times, overlapping” and layered cultures, Finnin added, but Putin’s aggression has pushed many to seek the complete removal of Russian culture and history.

Photo for The Washington Post by Kasia Strek/Panos Pictures
Activist Oleg Slabospitsky stands in front of a statue commemorating Red Army commander Mykola Shchors, in Kyiv on Jan. 9. Graffiti on the base of the monument calls for its removal.

It is in Ukraine’s public squares and parks where “de-Russification” is most visible. Statues of Russian poets and Soviet generals are being torn down or defaced, and public art and propaganda murals are being covered up or removed.

The erasure of the past has prompted a debate not unlike one in the United States: How to contend with the physical monuments to a fraught history? Americans are questioning whether to keep monuments of enslavers and Confederate generals. Ukrainians are reassessing the place of Soviet and Russian figures who once seemed intertwined with their country’s story.

Oleg Slabospitsky, a Kyiv-based activist who is part of the organization Ukrainian Kyiv, has recorded the location of more than 200 signs and monuments in Ukraine’s capital that he believes should be removed. A Telegram channel run by another organization, Decolonize Ukraine, has more than 5,000 members. Daily posts detail almost every nook and cranny of the country where the stamp of Russia still remains. In vigilante fashion, members sometimes set off in the middle of the night to deface or dismantle landmarks they deem offensive and that local governments haven’t taken down.

Videos from the Decolonize Ukraine Telegram channel verified by The Washington Post show Ukrainians dismantling landmarks in the Lviv region, in Chernihiv, in Cherkasy and in the village of Romaniv over the past year.

This effort to “decolonize” Ukraine has its roots in an earlier movement to “de-communize” the country. During the pro-democracy Maidan Revolution of 2013 to 2014, Ukrainian demonstrators repudiated Soviet symbols, including statues of Vladimir Lenin, because they were rejecting authoritarianism and communism and demanding closer ties with the European Union. Ukraine outlawed Soviet symbols in 2015 after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the country’s east. For many, that is no longer enough.

“I’ll be satisfied when everything is removed,” said Slabospitsky, referring not just to Communist iconography but Russian names and imagery.

Other Ukrainians, however, object to wholesale destruction driven by self-appointed guardians of national identity. They would like to see some deliberative process drive decisions about what should be removed.

“It’s one thing to physically demolish these objects, and another to dismantle them in a civilized manner and store them safely,” said Ukrainian scholar Leonid Maruschak. He is part of an organization called Denede, formed in 2015 to explore the problems the de-communization law posed for historians and artists.

“As a historian and researcher, it’s important to me to not lose the object of research I can work with, no matter the year, epoch or perspective.”

One winter afternoon in Kyiv, Slabospitsky and two other young men gathered by train tracks on the city’s outskirts to shave down a stone marker commemorating a Soviet victory in World War II. Clad in orange vests, which create the impression they are city employees, they got to work, sanding down the Russian inscription. After about 10 minutes, the writing was gone, but the men were not satisfied.

“You can still see the star,” said Slabospitsky, gesturing to the slab’s five-pointed base – a century-old symbol of communism. Erasing it was beyond the scope of the tools the group brought.

“We have appealed for it to be removed,” he said.

For them the effort is part of the larger fight against Russia. “If you’re not on the front line, there’s a lot of work in the background,” said Serhiy Saliy, 29, who helped sand down the monument.

The stamp of Russian influence continues to mark Kyiv. For the people who walk by these spots every day, determining what should stay and what should go is a complicated question.

The Soviet Union gifted this installation, called the People’s Friendship Arch, in 1982.

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, demonstrators painted a large crack on the arch. In May of last year, it was renamed the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian People.

Soviet mosaics are all over Kyiv, etched into apartment buildings, bus stops and schools. One on Beresteyska Avenue depicts the hammer and sickle of the Communist Party.

Residents of the high-rise are torn. “I actually like them,” said Oleksandr Tretiakov, 77. “It’s not because I’m old, it’s because it’s art. … Before removing monuments and mosaics, we should think about the historical value of each particular monument or mosaic and then decide if we want to get rid of that.”

“Actually, we needed to get rid of this symbol a long time ago,” said Serhiy Pratsiuk, 41. “My 5-year-old son is the future. We are already bringing him up with this rule that the past is the past. And we shouldn’t have any nostalgia for it.”

Memorials to Alexander Pushkin, the 19th-century writer and one of Russia’s greatest poets, have also become a target of the activists. Statues and murals of him have been defaced – even some that are more than a century old.

Pushkin became a symbol to Ukrainians of Russia’s full-scale invasion, said Edyta Bojanowska, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale University. “The saturation of the urban landscape with statues to famous Russian writers is part of the imperialistic legacy of Russia, which has tried to make these important cultural figures also central to Ukrainian culture.”

Mariia Kazymirenko, 17, who lives close to Kyiv’s Pushkin Park, agreed. She added: “I think we have to demolish all these kinds of monuments because we have to get rid of any Soviet … past and Russian culture.”

Some in the larger literary community balked at the targeting of the poet. “The enemy is Putin, not Pushkin,” wrote PEN Germany in a March 2022 press release urging against boycotts of Russian books and plays.

But Pushkin, whose work at times channeled czarist imperialism, has long been a vehicle for Putin’s propaganda. Children recited his poetry around the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Russian actors who supported the full-scale Ukraine invasion read verses by the Moscow-born bard.

Russian culture should be appreciated, Bojanowska said, but “we can’t whitewash the complicity of that culture with Russia’s imperial projects.”

In Kharkiv, a largely Russian-speaking city just 26 miles from the Russian border, tensions over the past can be starker than in other parts of Ukraine. The main road into Ukraine’s second-largest city has two signs welcoming travelers: one in Russian and one in Ukrainian, symbols of a dual identity.

The Kremlin may have anticipated that the city’s residents would welcome the Russian army.

“The reality turned out it be very different,” said Gamlet Zinkivskyi, a Kharkiv-based street artist who has been documenting the war in real time on the walls of the bombed-out city. “Occupiers were met with molotov cocktails and a lot of their equipment was simply burned down. This is our ‘hellish hospitality.'”

The city incurred devastating destruction from Russian shelling at the start of the war.

But for Kharkiv’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, and some residents, completely erasing the city’s Russian heritage would take away part of their identity too.

“The people of Kharkiv still speak predominantly Russian,” he said. “But that doesn’t make them less Ukrainian.”

That point gets harder to make. Terekhov was fined in November by the Ukrainian government for making official statements in Russian.

With the removal of statues, he said, “we need to do everything rightfully and lawfully.”

About a year after the war began, the city feels empty after people abandoned their homes, driven out by shelling and the lack of heat and power. Many of those who remain feel ambivalent about the Russian symbols and murals woven into Kharkiv.

“Ukrainian cultural heritage is not a monolithic thing,” said Katherine Younger, research director of the Ukraine in European Dialogue program at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. “Soviet heritage is an indelible part of Ukrainian heritage, and that has to be part of that story, too.”

A large metal hulk called the Monument to the Liberator Soldier honors the Red Army soldiers who recaptured the city from the Nazis in 1943. Passersby said a Ukrainian flag had been placed in its pistol only recently.

Karolina Kobutseva, 28, said the monument brought back fond memories of playing in the park in her childhood. “But actually, it’s old,” she said. “We need to have something new. … It would be great to put here for example a Ukrainian soldier.”

“This is a Ukrainian soldier,” noted Oleksandr Mikhailovich, another resident. “This is not dedicated to some general who was sending Ukrainian soldiers to obvious death in World War II. So we should keep it.”

Mosaics are cemented into Kharkiv’s buildings as well. Denys Fedolov, 23, said covering the hammer and sickle of one on Pushkinska Street might cause the mosaic to “lose its artistic value.”

“It would be better to completely dismantle and then present it in museum spaces,” he said.

A star with an image of the Kremlin hung outside an apartment building on Arkhitektora Alioshina Avenue. “We have to get rid of that,” said Viktor Makukin, 69. He has been reading Ukrainian history books since the war began, and said he has started speaking Ukrainian more.

In February, images from the Decolonize Ukraine channel on Telegram showed men taking down the star.

Kharkiv’s city hall still bears the markings of its Soviet past: The hammer and sickle is part of its facade.

Decolonize Ukraine’s Kharkiv representative, Vadym Pozdniakov, grew up in the city and said that when he was younger he was confused why the streets and parks were named after people who had orchestrated atrocities against Ukrainian people.

Names included Vlas Chubar and Pavel Postyshev, two Communist Party officials tied to the Holodomor, a 1932-1933 famine that killed millions of Ukrainians and was caused, historians say, by Soviet policies.

“I had a desire,” Pozdniakov said, “that the city would be cleansed of the symbols of colonial, Russian, Soviet enslavement.”

Kharkiv’s city council has taken steps to remove some Soviet and Russian monuments.

Kharkiv’s former statuary now lies junked about two miles outside the city center in a nondescript loading area, waiting for authorities to decide what to do with it.

Serhiy Nazarenko, 53, an employee of the city’s park services, oversaw the dismantling, which he said can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour per monument, depending on its size, and can require the strong claws seen on a large blue truck parked nearby.

“I think that they should be in a museum, and everyone who still cares about this part of history could go check them out,” he said, as he looked over the toppled metal busts, including of Pushkin and Alexander Ostrovsky, another 19th-century Russian writer. Just months ago, they had stood upright in Kharkiv’s parks.

“At the time that they put them in the parks in Kharkiv they were considered art,” he said. “Our job right now is to maintain them in the condition they were taken down.”

Some historians view these efforts as essential to preserving the country’s past.

For Maruschak, the graffitied statue commemorating Red Army commander Mykola Shchors in Kyiv, for example, is at once a controversial landmark and “the best horse monument, a one-of-a-kind horse monument in Ukraine.”

The ideology of the Soviet Union was built in part around victory in World War II, but the demand for monuments dedicated to that victory was also the reason “that many geniuses of Ukrainian sculpture were able to realize their potential,” he said.

“We need to remember what [the past] was like,” he said. “And these objects are vivid testimonies of that.”

Slabospitsky, the activist in Kyiv, says that in theory these monuments could be preserved in a museum. Other former Soviet states have taken similar approaches: Budapest has a park dedicated to Hungary’s Communist-era statues and plaques. Lithuania founded a museum and sculpture garden to house its artifacts.

But, Slabospitsky notes, there would have to be quite a few museums, “because there are a lot of these monuments.”