Connect with us

News

Ukraine wages its own war against Russia’s cultural icons

When war rages, streets bearing the names of famous Russians become discordant for Ukraine

Published

on

Pyotr Tchaikovsky is living a difficult afterlife in a war-torn Ukraine.

One of the numerous Russian cultural, political, and historical personalities whose lives and contributions are commemorated in place names and statues in cities and villages across Ukraine is the 19th-century Romantic composer, known around the world for his compositions “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.” Tolstoy and Chekhov have streets and metro stations named after them, while statues to the Russian Empress Catherine II are dotted across expansive metropolitan plazas and lush public parks.

But nearly five months into Moscow’s full-scale invasion — a brutal assault that has caused thousands of civilians and soldiers to die and be injured, and forced millions to flee their destroyed homes — such commonplace reminders of an empire’s imprint have turned into an intolerable affront for many Ukrainians.

Bohdan Tykholoz, a Ukrainian professor and author who runs a literary museum in the western city of Lviv, declared that “Russian culture is toxic right now.”

Advertisement

Several weeks after the invasion on February 24, work to rename dozens of Ukrainian sites started. These impromptu efforts, which were made in the midst of a war that upended lives, eventually came together to form a creaky bureaucratic structure. Commissions and advisory boards were established at both the local and national levels to address the issue of what nomenclature to keep and what to replace it with.

More than 50 streets, from meandering alleyways to major thoroughfares, are being evaluated for name changes by city officials in Lviv, which has long been regarded as a cultural capital. One of these is the tree-lined Tchaikovsky Street, a lengthy, gently curving stretch of cobblestones in the heart of the city.

The street nevertheless emanates a peaceful elegance with elegant balustrades adorning apartment houses, artistic boutique window displays, stained-glass signage, and a hip cafe and wine market. A McDonald’s restaurant marks the turnoff into the road.

The Lviv National Philharmonic’s concert hall, a charming honey-colored building at the center of the street, has resumed its regular concerts despite the war’s displacement of numerous musicians and support personnel, many of whom were sent to the front.

Advertisement

Volodymyr Syvokhip, who has been the symphony’s director for the past 17 years at the age of 57, once felt uplifted by the ferocious and sorrowful tones of a Tchaikovsky concerto. just not right now.

The work of the Russian composer, which was once a mainstay of the repertory, “needs to be dismissed,” he stated. He acknowledged that there might be some ground for reconsideration “after our victory.”

Tchaikovsky, though, is a challenging example. Despite being of Ukrainian descent, he was born in Russia; his great-grandfather was a Zaporozhian Cossack who served in an army in what is now east-central Ukraine. The name Chaika, which originally meant “seagull” before being Russianized, belonged to the family. The compositions of Tchaikovsky are thought to have been influenced by traditional Ukrainian folk songs.

A plan to remove the composer’s name from the National Music Academy in Kyiv, the nation’s capital, ignited controversy since it was seen by some as a “emblem of Russian imperial chauvinism.” Some teachers responded angrily, writing in a letter that Tchaikovsky’s ebullient musical abilities transcended ethnicity.

Advertisement

All of this might seem insignificant in a nation where heartbreaking stories of death and damage are reported every day. Several towns and cities distant from the eastern and southern war lines have recently been bombarded by Russian missile strikes, killing hundreds of people in what Ukrainian officials claim is a systematic campaign of terror against civilians. Moscow disputes that it intentionally targeted non-military objectives.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of cultural pride in the nation’s wartime ethos, even in the face of such a situation. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, announced that Ukraine does not even exist as a country as a prelude to the invasion. A Ukrainian military resistance that has so far resisted a much more powerful foe at great cost was fueled by outrage in the face of the Russian leader’s condescending dismissiveness.

That sense of unity is frequently embodied in cultural touchstones all over the nation: painstakingly sandbagged statues of revered Ukrainian leaders; passersby spontaneously joining street buskers in a rousing performance of the national anthem; priceless works by Ukrainian artists hidden away deep in underground vaults for safety; and a premium placed on the reopening of iconic spaces like the renowned opera house in the Black Sea port of Odesa.

After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Ukraine gained its independence, although it has previously experienced waves of renaming and reclamation that included the destruction of monuments honoring Communist and Soviet figures. Following what Ukrainians view as the beginning of the current conflict, eight years ago, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and instigated a separatist conflict in the industrial east, more of these counter-commemorations took place.

Advertisement

But memory and history are entwined in intricate and painful ways, Sofia Dyak, a historian who serves on a national advisory group established by the Ministry of Culture, said. Meaning can even be acquired from horrific previous associations. With colleagues from all around the nation, she spends hours in staticky, occasionally heated Zoom meetings discussing name changes as a part of what she and other historians view as a bigger process of “decolonization.”

She admitted, “For myself, personally, I might not seek to rename a boulevard that was named after Chekhov. “But I wouldn’t grieve over that either; I’d cry over someone slain in this conflict,” the speaker continued.

The Kremlin’s relentless victim narrative can be used to fuel public rejection of Russian place names, Ukrainians who are acutely aware of the drumbeat of Kremlin propaganda that has driven the invasion know.

As has become customary, Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, tweeted last week about continuous efforts to “cancel” Russian culture. That sparked a wave of indignant responses, some of which were accompanied by gloomy images of a missile attack that same day in Vinnytsia, a peaceful provincial city in the country’s center, which claimed the lives of at least 23 people, including three children.

Advertisement

Turning away from Russian memorial titles, according to many in Ukraine’s cultural and political circles, is an assertion of Ukrainian identity rather than a criticism of the accomplishments of specific persons, particularly those in the artistic realm.

Andriy Moskalenko, a deputy mayor of Lviv who oversees a committee advising the city on street renaming efforts, said, “We have our own history, and our own heroes.”

He had hurried to the funeral of a local man he had known, a father of five who was killed at the front, which was one of the day’s customary back-to-back military memorials held at a nearby church, a short time earlier, in the interlude following an air-raid alert that sent City Hall workers into shelters.

But bad habits persist. Valeriya Chernova, a 22-year-old waiter at a coffee shop on Tchaikovsky Street, claimed she never thought about the cafe’s address. She was reminded of her hometown, the bomb-ravaged eastern city of Kharkiv, where she frequently traveled a street named for the renowned Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, but, as a result of the anticipated name change on the street where she works.

Advertisement

Being only 25 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv has historically been a Russophone city and has been under siege since the beginning of the war. Chernova asserted that the name would likely endure due to familiarity rather than any lasting feelings of attachment to the nation that bombed large portions of the city into ruin.

No matter what, she said, “I think we’ll keep thinking of it as Pushkin Street, and keep calling it that.” The simple fact that we always have.

Roman Chmelyk, director of the Lviv Historical Museum, argued that this is all the more of a reason why the renaming initiative should have been implemented years or decades ago. He asserted that vigorous resistance to Russian cultural control ought to have started much earlier than it has, without waiting for the dreadful spark of war.

Really, we ought to have completed all of this sooner, he said.

Advertisement

Instead than automatically honoring mostly men, especially those in the political sphere, some historians, like Dyak, would prefer to see more variety in replacement names. She wants to see more tributes to women, more remembering of the thriving Jewish population that was decimated during World War II, and more acknowledgment of the historical connections between Poland and Ukraine.

Some of the new tributes that have been proposed stretch into more unusual cultural spheres. To replace a monument to Catherine II, sometimes known as Catherine the Great by Russians, in Odesa with a memorial to the late American gay adult-film actor Billy Herrington, campaigners launched a petition drive.

The Lviv Philharmonic was rehearsing for a homage to Myroslav Skoryk, a contemporary Ukrainian composer who passed away in 2020, as a June evening faded into dusk on Tchaikovsky Street. The doors to the auditorium were expectantly awaited by concertgoers, some of them were dressed in their finest formal attire while others wore jeans and T-shirts.

The music hall doubles as a relief supply center, like so many Ukrainian public buildings these days. Boxes of donated items, including medicine, diapers, and toiletries, are stacked high in the anteroom and even hidden away in certain areas of the performance space. To get to their seats, customers had to weave through the stacks.

Advertisement

Attendee Damian Peretiatko, 30, stated, “Listening to Ukrainian music with others is a pleasant feeling. “It helps in these times.”

House lights started to fade. The music got louder. The spectators sighed.

It appeared that Tchaikovsky would have to wait.

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Advertisement
Advertisement