Destruction and Debates On The Ground
Much has been made of Russian attacks on Ukrainian cultural institutions throughout the country. From Kyiv to the far east of Ukraine, various museums and landmarks have been the subject of the Russian war machine. Ukraine’s Department of Culture states that more than 350 “Russian war crimes against cultural heritage” have taken place as of May 19. Meanwhile, UNESCO has been able to confirm damage to 133 sites within the country.
Both Ukrainians and outside observers have claimed that Russia’s attacks on heritage sites have been intentional. Western leaders, including President Biden, have stated that Russia’s new offensive seeks to destroy the distinct cultural identity of Ukraine. Despite these attacks having no strategic military justification, they offer Russia the chance to eliminate symbols of Ukraine’s unique history, separate from Russia.
For President Putin, the notion of Ukrainians and Russians being of “one people” has been part of his justification for the incursion into Ukraine. Back in July 2021 he published an article examining the close relationship of the two groups, concluding that the only thing separating them is artificial borders. While Putin’s claims that Russians and Ukrainians are the same is false, they do share many commonalities. During the Soviet Union, many ethnic Russians settled in Ukraine, and today you can still hear Russian being spoken through the country.
For many in the U.S., questions surrounding ways to reexamine and disentangle controversial legacies are familiar ones. Americans have been engaged in an ongoing debate about whether Confederate monuments should be removed, military bases renamed, and whether lessons about slavery should be a larger part of public-school curriculum. Ukrainians are also facing similar dilemmas. Many of Ukraine’s cultural and physical infrastructure bears ties or direct naming after Soviet figures, prompting the public to question whether these titles are still appropriate.
Ukrainianization Before and After the Invasion
Ukraine began this self-interrogation long before Russia launched their invasion. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko implemented the policy known as “Decommunization” in 2015, which started the process of renaming the various places and items that memorialized Russian leaders. One street in the city of Dnipro used to be called Karl Marx boulevard, but was renamed in the honor of a famous Ukrainian historian. The invasion of Ukraine in February only further sped up that process. More cities and towns across the country, especially in the heavily Russian influenced eastern parts of the country, have quickly renamed streets and metro stops in favor of Ukrainian figures.
Yet while “Decommunization” has increased and likely found new support, it may not receive universal backing. For members of the older generation raised in the Soviet Union, schools taught them about Russian cultural icons and largely revere them. Furthermore, certain Ukrainian figures bring with them their own controversies. Notably, Stepan Bandera, a famous political figure, fought for Ukrainian independence against the Soviets, but also collaborated with Nazis during WWII.
While the war in Ukraine is devastating, especially the destruction of cultural institutions brought on by Russian attacks, it presents an opportunity for Ukraine to redefine itself. In doing so, the country can carve out a new cultural identity that will likely need to address its historical ties to Russia while also acknowledging its distinct heritage.