Updated: Jun 11
While decommunization in Ukraine started as early as the 90s, straight after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its pace intensified the most after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and even more so later, after the full-scale Russian invasion. This process is surrounded by many myths and misconceptions, with some people claiming the removal of Soviet monuments is vandalism and implying that Ukrainians renaming their cities and streets means they are “forgetting their history.”
Let’s examine some of those claims and see the true Ukraine’s motivation behind decommunization.
What is decommunization really about?
While declaring the USSR stood for "people’s fraternity and equality", it retained the colonial mindset of the Russian Empire, meaning the Russians remained the dominant group, and the Soviet authorities continued oppressive policies, such as language bans and killings of the colonised peoples, in particular, Ukrainians. In our previous post, we discussed how the Russian Empire and later, the USSR employed cultural appropriation and mocking of traditional Ukrainian clothes to erase Ukrainian national identity.
Consequently, the ongoing decommunization process in Ukraine is part of the decolonization effort where Ukrainians reject the Russian-enforced legacy.
Soviet toponyms and monuments were used to amplify false narratives
The myth of brotherly nations was reinforced by naming the streets in Ukraine after Russian cities, geographical landmarks, and cultural figures and creating monuments dedicated to the “Friendship of [Russian and Ukrainian] Peoples”. Removing such toponyms and monuments, especially after the full-scale Russian invasion, also symbolises no longer accepting such narratives.
Thus, in 1981, in Kyiv, the monumental complex People’s Friendship Arch was created. It initially aimed to celebrate the “reunification of Ukraine with Russia.” Ever since the Russian invasion in 2014, there have been debates on how appropriate it is to keep such a monument in its current form.
Finally, after the full-scale invasion, the decision was made to remove one of the elements of the monument: the sculpture depicting Ukrainian and Russian workers standing together. And the monument itself was renamed the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian People.
By renaming the cities, Ukrainians are reclaiming their history
Some opponents of decommunization suggest this process is a sign of Ukrainians trying to erase their history, but this cannot be further from the truth. Decommunization often means bringing back authentically historical, pre-Soviet, toponyms.
Bakhmut, in 1924, was renamed Artyomovsk after bolshevik Fyodor Sergeyev (nickname Artyom), who assisted in installing Soviet rule in the Donetsk region. The history of the original name dates centuries back, with the first mentions of Bakhmut in official documents appearing as early as the XVIII century. Thus, in 2016, Ukraine returned the town back its historical name.
Ukrainians don’t need the streets to be named after their oppressors
Soviet authorities (and earlier Russian Empire) were forcing Ukrainians to celebrate their oppressors by installing their monuments and nameplates on the streets of Ukrainian cities and naming the streets themselves after the executioners of Ukrainian people. Decommunisation involves removing and replacing such statues and toponyms.
Numerous streets in Ukraine were named after Stanislaw Kosior, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who was complicit in organising in Ukraine Holodomor in 1932-1933, the man-made famine that amounts to genocide against Ukrainian people. Most of such streets were renamed amid the ongoing decommunisation, and the monument of Kosior was removed in Kyiv in 2008.
The Soviet military tactics in WWII demonstrated a criminal disregard for the lives of its own soldiers as it did not involve minimising human losses by thoughtful planning. On the opposite, military leaders, such as Vatutin, used so-called “black infantry” — troops of poorly equipped and untrained soldiers (including many Ukrainians) to make the Nazi army run out of ammo so that the Soviets could push the enemy’s army with regular troops later. In the meantime, despite the Belarussians and Ukrainians suffering the highest death toll during the Nazi invasion, including sacrificing their lives to defend their land in the battles, Russia often takes the main credit for the Soviet contribution to the victory.
Dismantling of the monument to Soviet general Vatutin. Source: Kyiv City State Administration
The members of Cheka, the secret Soviet police, were responsible for organising Red Terror, Holodomor, and numerous other crimes. The removal of the monument dedicated to them in Kyiv has been actively discussed since 2013. Finally, in 2016, the monument was destroyed.
Many of the Russian and Soviet cultural figures are irrelevant to Ukraine
Numerous streets or, for example, metro stations in Ukraine were named to honor people who had nothing to do with Ukraine or any part of its history, and their primary purpose was to substitute the local cultural figures and create an impression that there was no culture in Ukraine before Russia.
As of March 2022, there were over 100 Pushkin monuments all over Ukraine and more than 1000 streets with his name. Aside from Taras Shevchenko, no other Ukrainian cultural figure had this level of commemoration on the territory of Ukraine. In the meantime, Pushkin has close to no relation to Ukraine, and many of his poems are a clear celebration of Russian colonialism.
While the monuments of Russian writers, scientists, and politicians were abundant throughout Ukraine, many names of notable Ukrainian cultural and political figures were either forgotten or labelled Russian due to consistent repressive policies. So now, Ukraine is finally paying homage to its own heroes.
Glinka Street in Rivne, named after Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, is now Vasyl Slipak Street, in memory of a Ukrainian opera singer who volunteered to defend Ukraine and was killed by a Russian sniper in Donetsk Oblast in 2016. A monument was also installed in his name near Luhanske town, where he was killed. When in 2022, Russians occupied the town, they destroyed the monument.
The destruction of Vasyl Slipak monument after Russia invaded the town, 2022
Volhohradska Street in Kyiv, named after a Russian city in the 1960s, is now renamed to commemorate Roman Ratushnyi — a Ukrainian civil rights activist killed in action on the frontline in Izium in 2022.
Irpin authorities renamed Pugachev Street (named after a Russian historical figure and insurgent) to commemorate Mykola Amosov — a prominent Ukrainian surgeon and a pioneer of high-precision heart surgery. Also, the street named after the Russian cosmonaut Gagarin in Bucha is now Leonid Kadeniuk Street, honoring the first Ukrainian astronaut.
Soviet authorities consistently repressed prominent Ukrainian cultural and political figures. Such people were executed, imprisoned, forced to assimilate, censored, and often almost forgotten, all while everything Russian was amplified. Now, Ukrainians bring the memory about them back. For example, Vasyl Stus, a Ukrainian poet and dissident, was imprisoned and died in a forced labor colony. In 2003, Radhospna Street in Kyiv, named after Soviet state-owned farms, got Stus’ name instead.
Soviet legacy is the symbol of Russian occupation
Soviet monuments are used as a marker to determine Russian colonial power on a certain territory. Thus, the Russians installed back Lenin monuments in occupied territories and are persistently using obsolete Soviet toponyms. Thus, there are documented reports of the Russian invaders installing Lenin monuments in the occupied parts of Kherson Oblast, such as in Henichesk, Nova Kakhovka and Melitopol.
Lenin monuments reinstalled by Russians in the temporarily occupied parts of Kherson Oblast
Simultaneously, the locals in the occupied territory are trying to destroy or damage such monuments in protest against the Russian invasion. For example, in the occupied Mariupol, Russians put a Lenin bust which had never even been there in Soviet times, but the unknown people destroyed the monument.
Destroyed Lenin bust in the occupied Mariupol. Source: Mariupol City Council
Just like USSR was the successor of the Russian Empire, the present days Russian Federation is the successor of the USSR. In all its iterations, Russia forces its culture and its heroes on those it conquers while simultaneously trying to overwrite the history of the invaded nations. Ukraine demands historical justice and condemnation of the crimes of the Soviet regime. Decommunization is not about vandalism or forgetting the past. It is about Ukrainians’ right to choose which historical figures to celebrate today and which to only remember as history.