As a Russian invasion force tries to turn Ukraine, or at least part of it, back into a Russian colony, Ukrainians appear keenly interested in decolonizing the country’s toponyms. The country got rid of its countless Lenin Streets years ago — but now even once uncontroversial figures like the poet Alexander Pushkin or the novelist Leo Tolstoy are getting the axe of “derussification.”
A Ukrainian author has circulated a petition that calls for renaming all the Pushkin streets in Ukraine in honor of Stephen King, the bestselling horror novelist who has been vocal in support of Ukraine since the invasion. Though it likely won’t garner the 25,000 votes necessary for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to consider it, all kinds of renamings are already taking place. In Vinnytsya, a city in central Ukraine, a street that until recently bore the name of Russian poet Alexander Blok is now Police Heroes Street. The Kyiv City Council recently voted on whether 296 Russia-related toponyms should be replaced, and 6.5 million Ukrainians took part; they backed renaming some of the city’s key thoroughfares, including Leo Tolstoy Street to Ukrainian Heroes Street and Pushkinskaya to Yevgeny Chikalenko street, in honor of a Ukrainian nationalist publisher who lived in the late 19th-early 20th century.
There’s even a bot on the messaging platform Telegram, created by IT professional Oleksandr Kovalchuk and titled sarcastically “And What Did Pushkin Ever Do to You?”, that explains, in Ukrainian, why this or that Russian cultural or political figure is not worthy of being honored with a Ukrainian toponym. Pushkin spent 13 months in exile in Odesa and wrote part of his masterpiece, “Yevgeny Onegin,” there — facts that have saved Odesa’s own Pushkinskaya Street from getting renamed — but the bot denotes him as a “Russian chauvinist” for his support of the Russian subjugation of Poland and the Caucasus, as well as his unflattering depiction of an 18th-century Ukrainian leader in a poem that glorified the empire-building efforts of Peter the Great.
Russian propaganda mocks the wave of renamings as “idiocy.” But even apart from the war, which naturally makes all things Russian — from the language itself to music (which was banned in some Ukrainian cities even before the parliament has considered a bill that would do it nationwide) — toxic in Ukraine, Ukrainians have valid reasons to get rid of Russia-related place names.
Soviet toponymics were hardly the most imaginative in the world: In pretty much any city, the same names cropped up, sometimes more than once. So Kyiv will still have a street named after Pushkin after the current “derussification” — it has two now. “No other country in the world has more than 100 streets named after Pushkin,” Ukraine’s Culture Minister Alexander Tkachenko complained in a recent interview.
As Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian journalist and philosopher, recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “Naming streets in every city, town, and village is just one instrument for an empire to designate and control its colonial space. Every prominent Russian name was a way to exclude a Ukrainian one.” Mass-naming streets after anyone — be that Lenin or Pushkin — does indeed smack of an exercise in control and identity erasure, and Ukraine has enough heroes, poets, scientists and musicians to name lots of towns, squares and lanes.
As a Russian, I don’t find it silly or spiteful that Ukrainians are changing street signs in response to Vladimir Putin’s naked colonial grab. It would have made sense even had Russia left Ukraine well alone: A nation’s toponymy should reflect its history and values, not a neighbor’s. There’s plenty of space in Russia to keep the glorious names alive. And in some cases, there’s simply no reason to honor a historical or cultural figure in a particular place: Chernihiv recently removed a Pushkin statue — but then Pushkin merely passed through the town twice, on his way to exile and back. That’s hardly something to be immortalized. Blok, too, visited Ukraine exactly twice; the St. Petersburg native was as culturally alien to the country as they come — so why all the Blok Streets?Where I take exception is to arguments — voiced by Yermolenko and other Ukrainian and Western intellectuals as well as by that Telegram bot — that have to do with the content of the Russian literary greats’ work and their “imperialist” personal views.
The desire to derive the lineage of Putin’s aggression from the Russian culture that the Putin regime purports to defend from Western and Ukrainian “cancellation attempts” is as understandable as the backlash against, say, Richard Wagner because he was an anti-Semite and Hitler’s favorite composer. In the case of the Russian greats, however, it is tragically misplaced. Almost all of them were men broken by the czarist or Communist regime, and their tortured “imperialism” owed more to post-traumatic stress than to jingoism of the Rudyard Kipling variety (which, I will note, is an insufficient reason to cancel Kipling, too). The Putin regime co-opts them — but that’s baseless propaganda.Pushkin, exiled for his support of the Decembrist rebels and humiliated when Czar Nicholas I appointed himself as his personal censor, held out better than one might expect for a man as volatile as the indefatigable lover and fighter. He did author a few passages glorifying the czar and the empire — but they are some of the weakest in his formidable body of work. Mikhail Lermontov, condemned by Yermolenko for a scabrous early poem making light of a woman’s rape by Russian cavalrymen, died in a silly duel, in exile, when he was all of 27, disgusted by the customs of the military in which he served and deeply sympathetic to the Caucasus natives Russia was trying to subjugate. Dostoevsky, crushed by a stint of hard labor for his revolutionary activities, clutched at his newly acquired conservative views as a lease on life.
The Telegram bot describes Kyiv-born Mikhail Bulgakov as “arguably Ukrainophobic” and some Ukrainians consider him an enemy of the Ukrainian nationalists of his time — but the great novelist, deprived of his livelihood by Stalin, loved Kyiv all his life even as he eked out a living in Moscow. Despite his general support for “derussification,” Tkachenko, for one, has nothing against streets named after the author of “The Master and Margarita.”A case can even be made against Nikolai Gogol, perhaps the greatest writer ever born in Ukraine, a tortured oddball whose early work was written in a heady mixture of standard Russian and then-disparaged Ukrainian. Yermolenko accuses him of trading in his Ukrainian identity “for a Russian imperial one.” But Gogol, unable to serve the imperial government or fit into St. Petersburg society, spent most of his last years in Europe; even if he, a fanatical Orthodox Christian, appeared to believe that Ukraine’s destiny lay with Russia rather than Poland, he was certainly not alone among Ukrainian intellectuals of his time.
Putin can no more own the brilliance and glory of Russia’s great poets and novelists than he can feel or understand the misery and suffering that informed their work. Abused, exiled, cast aside by contemporary imperial regimes, they deserve to be honored wherever they left a lasting trace — which, in the cases of Pushkin, Gogol, Bulgakov and quite a few others, includes Ukraine. In fact, a Ukraine that has fought a bloody war for its freedom may well be a better repository for the memory of their true selves than Putin’s Russia, which uses them to back up its delusions of grandeur.
That’s why I think there will still be streets named after many of these literary giants in a postwar, independent Ukraine, and they’ll still be read there, both in Russian and in Ukrainian. Empires crush individuals and entire nations, but they can’t prevent inner freedom from breaking out — and their inevitable collapse cannot cancel the ideas and stories that survived their worst excesses and resonated across borders.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”
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