The decolonization of Ukraine
by Vladimir Rozanskij

Kiev parliament debates toponymy law to delete references to Russia. Process started with "de-communistization." For Putin, the Ukrainian nation and its people never existed. The ambiguity of an undefined legacy remains.


Moscow (AsiaNews) - A draft law proposing a ban on naming geographical targets (including cities, mountains and rivers) with "designations that exalt, make permanent, propagandize or symbolize the occupying state or its notable features, memories, historical and cultural places, localities, cities, dates and events" has been under consideration in the Ukrainian parliament since late April. The authors have called the bill the "toponymy decolonization law," and the discussion is still very much on.

This is actually a process that has been going on in Ukraine for several years, and until 2016, when the city of Dnepropetrovsk was renamed simply "Dnepr," it was basically de-communistization: in fact, the city was named after Soviet politician Grigory Petrovsky. After the start of the Russian invasion in February, in Kharkiv the statue of Marshal ┼Żukov was torn down, in Kiev they dismantled the monument to the Russian and Ukrainian "Friendship of the Peoples," in Ternopol the monument to Pushkin, and so on, in what the Russians call "the attempted erasure of common history."

The issue was well described by a speech at the UN by Kenya's representative Martin Kimani, while discussing Russian recognition of the Donbass: "Our country, like almost all African countries, was born as a fragment of one of the colonial empires. Our borders were not drawn by us, but by officials in the capitals of some distant metropolis." He pointed out that "today on the other side of these borders, in each of our countries, live compatriots with whom we have strong historical, cultural and linguistic ties. If we had claimed them when we proclaimed independence, we would still be immersed in the blood of endless wars."

Decolonization is a term first used in 1836, but it came into common usage in the 1950s-60s with the rise of nationalisms in Asia and Africa. The question concerns the level of maturation of sovereignty to which each country rightly claims, and how well it is able to keep the territory it claims united: after the end of British rule, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were born from its huge Asian colony.

Ukraine today seeks to free itself from what it believes to have been Russian colonial domination, which ended with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, in what several scholars call the "fourth wave of colonial wars," following 18th-19th century America, World War I in Eastern Europe, and Asia and Africa after World War II. The Soviet Union was the heir to the Russian Empire, which according to the definition of the 1977 Constitution rewritten by Bre┼żnev expressed a now final reality: "A new historical community of human beings was formed, the Soviet people."

Based on that "anthropological theory," the USSR refused to be considered an empire; rather, it stood as a champion of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. In his July 2021 programmatic article, Putin declared that "the Ukrainian people and nation never existed," a reason that provided the rationale for the "special military operation" against Kiev. After the Euromaidan and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the mass removal of monuments to Lenin that still towered in the squares of all cities had begun in Ukraine, and today it came down to Pushkin.

Pushkin lived for a long time in Odessa and Ukraine, as did several other great Russian poets and writers, whose greatness of work is not rejected, but whose nationality is. There remains the ambiguity of a legacy yet to be redefined, beyond some symbolic culling: Gogol, for example, is the first great Ukrainian writer, but also the most Russian of Russian writers.