Since independence, Ukraine has renamed 52,000 streets, dropping Soviet-imposed ones in favor of names drawn from Ukrainian history or entirely apolitical sources. But two recent cases have reversed street name changes in Kyiv and Kharkiv – an indication that toponymy is again becoming a place of political struggle.
A Kyiv district court overruled a decision by the Kyiv city council two years ago and restored the names Moscow and Vatutin, a Soviet general, to streets that now bear the names of Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, two leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists during World War II. An appeal is pending.
In mid-June, the Kharkiv City Council restored the name of Georgy Zhukov to a street there. Two years ago, the same council dropped the Soviet officer’s name and gave the street the name of Petro Grigorenko, also a Soviet general but a man who fought for the rights of the Crimean Tatars and other minorities.
These changes have triggered discussions both about the past these various figures represent and about who and what are behind the current efforts to reverse earlier renaming, with some suggesting that pro-Russian forces are behind it and are exploiting the lack of clarity in the position of the new Ukrainian president on this point to act now.
Whatever the exact facts turn out to be, Moscow commentators are celebrating those who have pressed for these changes as human rights activists and saying that the restoration of the Soviet names in place of Ukrainian nationalist ones represents a triumph of “historical justice” (e.g., vz.ru/world/2019/6/26/984277.html).
But Ukrainian officials and activists say that what is happening now not only insults Ukrainians who want to recover their own past – one often submerged by the Soviet authorities – but is part of Moscow’s war effort against Ukraine now and thus must be opposed to the full extent of the law (svoboda.org/a/30022021.html).
Volodymyr Viatrovych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, says he believes that the effort to reverse the earlier renaming is an attempt by “pro-Russian forces” to use the uncertainties of the presidential changeover in Ukraine and represents another example of Russian revanchism.
He suggests that the Kharkiv case is especially offensive. Grigorenko was someone who “struggled for a free and democratic Ukraine, in contrast to Zhukov who fought for a totalitarian communist one. Grigorenko was also an official of Soviet times, also a general, but he found in himself sufficient bravery to speak out against the Soviet regime.”
In particular, Mr. Viatrovych says, Grigorenko “defended the Crimean Tatars and, at present, when the Crimean Tatars are under Kremlin pressure, it is very important to remember those people who often on their own struggled for the freedom of the Crimean Tatar people.”
With regard to the Kyiv court decision, he continues, Moscow as a street name doesn’t fall under the Ukrainian law about de-communization, but thousands of Kyiv residents asked for the change because in their minds it symbolized Russian occupation. Vatutin, however, does fall under the law beyond any question.
Paul Goble is a long-time specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia who has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau, as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The article above is reprinted with permission from his blog called “Window on Eurasia” (http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/).