Ukraine is waging its own war against Russian cultural icons in its midst

AT wartime ukrainePyotr Tchaikovsky has a stormy afterlife.

The 19th-century romantic composer, world-famous for Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, is one of dozens of Russian cultural, political and historical figures whose life and work are immortalized in place names and sculptures in cities across Ukraine. Streets and metro stations bear the names of Tolstoy and Chekhov; Monuments to the Russian Empress Catherine II dot the wide city squares and verdant public parks.

But almost five months in Moscow full scale invasion – a brutal onslaught that left entire cities disfigured by the bombardmentkilled and maimed thousands of civilians and soldiers, forced millions flee destroyed houses – such everyday reminders of the imperial imprint have become an unbearable insult for many Ukrainians.

“Right now, Russian culture is toxic,” said Bogdan Tikholoz, a Ukrainian scholar and writer who runs a literary museum in Lvov, in the country’s west.

Within a few weeks after Feb. 24 invasions began attempts to rename dozens of Ukrainian sites. In the midst of the upheavals of war and the upheavals of life, this one-time effort gradually escalated into a creaky bureaucratic structure: the creation of commissions and advisory boards at both the municipal and national levels to decide which nomenklatura to remove. and what to put in place.

In Lviv, long considered a cultural capital, city officials are weighing or calling for more than 50 streets to be re-named, from winding lanes to major thoroughfares. One of them is the tree-lined Tchaikovsky Street, a gently curving cobbled surface that stretches for several long blocks in the city center.

A McDonald’s restaurant marks the turn onto the driveway, but the street nonetheless oozes calm elegance, with ornate balustrades adorning residences, artful boutique display windows, stained glass signs, a trendy cafe and a wine market.

    A pianist and violinist on a stage lit by the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Aleksey Semenenko on violin and Antony Baryshevsky on piano play together during the “Unplayed Concerto” broadcast live from the Lviv National Philharmonic on March 24, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine.

(Joe Radle/Getty Images)

In the center of the street is the concert hall of the Lviv National Philharmonic, an elegant honey-coloured building where regular performances have resumed despite dozens of musicians and support staff displaced by the war or sent to the front.

The once wild and melancholic sounds of a Tchaikovsky concerto could lift the heart of Vladimir Sivokhip, who, at 57, has been the director of the symphony for the past 17 years. But not right now.

“It needs to be rejected,” he said of the Russian composer’s work, which was once the mainstream repertoire. He admitted that there might be some room for reassessment later – “after our victory.”

Tchaikovsky, however, presents a difficult case. Although he was born in Russia, his family roots were in Ukraine; his great-grandfather was a Zaporozhye Cossack who served in a combat unit in present-day east-central Ukraine. Before Russification, the original surname was Chaika, which means “seagull”. Scholars point to the likely influence of traditional Ukrainian folk melodies on Tchaikovsky’s works.

In the capital, Kyiv, where the National Academy of Music bears the composer’s name, controversy erupted over the abandonment of his name, which critics called “an emblem of Russian imperial chauvinism.” This caused a strong protest from some teachers who signed a letter stating that Tchaikovsky’s free-spirited musical talents transcended nationality.

Ukrainian National Academy of Music named after Tchaikovsky in Kyiv.

The Ukrainian National Tchaikovsky Academy of Music is located on Independence Square in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

(Gennady Minchenko/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

All of this may seem secondary in a country where every day brings heartbreaking reports of death and destruction. In recent weeks, Russian missile strikes have hit cities and towns far from the eastern and southern front lines, killing dozens of people in what Ukrainian officials say is a systematic campaign terror against civilians. Moscow denies intentional targeting of non-military targets.

However, even against such a backdrop, it would be difficult to overestimate the role of cultural pride in the zeitgeist of a wartime country. Russian President Vladimir Putin anticipated the invasion by saying that Ukraine as a nation did not even exist. Outrage in the face of the Russian leader’s derisive snubs helped ignite Ukrainian military resistance, which has so far held off a much stronger enemy, albeit at a huge cost.

Across the country, this sense of solidarity often finds expression in cultural touchstones: statues of revered Ukrainian figures meticulously crafted with sandbags; a crowd of onlookers spontaneously joined buskers in an upbeat rendition of the national anthem; priceless works of Ukrainian artists, hidden deep in underground vaults for safekeeping; an award for the rediscovery of iconic places such as the famous opera house in the Black Sea port of Odessa.

A man rides a bicycle in front of a sandbag statue.

A man drives past a statue of Grand Duchess Olga of Kyiv, which is covered with sandbags in case of shelling, in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 28, 2022.

(Vadim Girda / Associated Press)

Ukraine, which became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, has gone through previous waves of renaming and reclamation, including the removal of monuments dedicated to communist and Soviet figures. More such counter-memories followed what Ukrainians consider the start of the current war eight years ago, when Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and ignited a separatist battle in the industrial east.

But memory and history are intertwined in complex and painful ways, and meaning can be drawn even from painful past associations, says Sofia Diak, a historian and member of the national advisory board set up by the Ministry of Culture. She spends hours holding static, sometimes contentious Zoom meetings with colleagues from across the country over name changes, part of what she and other historians see as a larger “decolonization” process.

“Personally, I would not insist on renaming the street named after Chekhov,” she said. “But I wouldn’t cry because of that either — instead, I would cry because of someone who died in this war.”

Well tuned in to the drumbeat of the Kremlin propaganda behind the invasion, Ukrainians are aware that public rejection of Russian place names can be used to fuel Moscow’s relentless narrative of casualties.

In keeping with a longstanding tradition, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Moscow’s foreign ministry, posted an offended tweet last week about ongoing attempts to “cancel” Russian culture. This prompted an avalanche of violent objections, some of which were accompanied by grim photos of the same day’s rocket attack on Vinnitsa, a sleepy provincial town in the center of the country, that killed at least 23 people. including three children.

A firefighter stands near burned-out cars and a building with broken windows.

A firefighter at the site of a deadly Russian rocket attack in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, on July 14, 2022.

(Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

Many in the cultural and political circles of Ukraine say that the rejection of Russian memorable names is not an attack on the achievements of specific figures, especially in the artistic field, but rather the assertion of Ukrainian identity.

“We have our own history and our own heroes,” said Andriy Moskalenko, deputy mayor of Lviv, who chairs the advisory body that coordinates the campaign to rename city streets.

Shortly before this, in the interim after the air raid alert that sent City Hall workers into hiding, he hurried to a funeral—one of the usual war memorials of the day held at a nearby church—by a local man he knew, a father of five children who died at the front.

But old habits die hard. At a coffee shop on Tchaikovsky Street, waitress Valeria Chernova, 22, said she never thought about the cafe’s address. However, the expected change in the name of the street she works on reminded her of her hometown, the bomb-ravaged eastern city of Kharkov, where she often walked along the street named after Alexander Pushkin, the famous Russian poet.

Kharkiv, under attack since the early days of the war, has traditionally been a Russian-speaking city located just 25 miles from the Russian border. But Chernova said it was familiarity, and not some kind of long-standing attachment to a country that bombed entire sections of the city into oblivion, that probably kept the name alive.

“I think, no matter what, we will continue to think of it as Pushkin Street and continue to call it that,” she said. “Just because we’ve always had it that way.”

Moreover, the impetus for the renaming should have taken place several years or even decades ago, says Roman Chmelik, director of the Lviv Historical Museum. According to him, Russian cultural dominance should have been decisively challenged long before that, without waiting for the terrifying momentum of the war.

“Indeed, we should have done all this much earlier,” he said.

Some historians, such as Diak, would like to see more variety in replacement names, rather than defaulting to mostly male homages, especially those from the political world. She would like more women to commemorate the thriving Jewish community decimated in World War II, more hints at Ukraine’s intertwining past with neighboring Poland.

Some of the proposed new givens reach unexpected cultural realms. In Odessa, activists have launched a petition for the demolition of a monument to Catherine II, whom Russians call Catherine the Great, in favor of the late American gay adult film actor Billy Herrington.

On Tchaikovsky Street, as the summer evening turned to dusk, the Lviv Philharmonic tuned in to pay homage to Myroslav Skorik, the contemporary Ukrainian composer who died in 2020. The audience, some in jeans and T-shirts and others in their finest formal suits, waited patiently for the hall doors to open.

    Volunteers clear boxes of donated clothes

Volunteers sort boxes of donated clothing by gender and age group at a concert hall used as a distribution center in Lviv, Ukraine, May 2, 2022.

(Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Like many public buildings in Ukraine these days, the concert hall doubles as a supply hub, where boxes of donated goods — medicines, diapers, toiletries — are stacked in the hallway and even tucked away in the corners of the concert hall. Visitors made their way between the stacks to find their seats.

“It’s a good feeling to listen to Ukrainian music together,” said 30-year-old member Damian Peretyatko. “It helps these days.”

The lights went out in the house. The music boomed. The audience sighed.

Tchaikovsky seemed to have to wait.