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Symbols of Russian rule, and the empress who founded Odesa, are ever-present in this Black Sea port – but the war has led Ukrainians to rethink which ones should stay or go

A monument to Russian empress Catherine the Great stands in Odesa, the Ukrainian port city that she founded in the late 18th century. Sightseers have to keep their distance from it as parts of the central city are closed off due to security restrictions amid the Russian invasion.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

The bronze likeness of Catherine the Great stands on a square named after her, in the city she founded, surrounded by walls of concrete and sandbags. She looks out over Odesa’s normally scenic waterfront, now scarred by yet more fortifications meant to deter a Russian assault.

In the short term, the threat to Catherine’s statue comes from the Russian rockets that are occasionally fired into this Black Sea port, striking seemingly indiscriminately at targets that have included the city’s airport, residential buildings and a shopping mall. One exploded over the city centre last month, shot out of the sky by Ukrainian air defences.

The longer-term threat comes from Odesa residents who increasingly question why a statue of a Russian empress stands in the centre of a Ukrainian city.

It’s not just Catherine. Across Ukraine, statues, streets and public squares are dedicated to Russian political, military and cultural figures, a legacy of Moscow’s centuries-long colonial rule over this country. Four months into a Russian invasion that has seen cities destroyed, tens of thousands of people killed and millions driven from their homes, a spreading campaign is removing the remaining symbols of the time when Russia and Ukraine were one country.

“We have streets here in Odesa named after Russian princes – Aleksander Nevsky, the prince of Novgorod, and Dmitry Donskoi, the first prince of Moscow – it’s crazy to have these streets in Odesa now. We have a lot of Soviet monuments and monuments to Russian writers,” said Peter Obukhov, a member of Odesa’s city council who is compiling a list of street names and statues that will be put up for public discussion.

Peter Obukhov is an Odesa city council member helping to lead the debate about street names and monuments.Anton Skyba /The Globe and Mail

A statue of Lenin in Odesa, remade in the likeness of Darth Vader, bears a plaque that reads: 'To the father of the nation, from your thankful children and stepchildren.'Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Such a discussion echoes Canada’s recent reconsideration of its own past. Statues of long-revered figures such as Sir John A. Macdonald and Queen Victoria have been toppled – or have had their commemorative plaques modified – amid the growing recognition that they were seen by many Canadians as colonizers, not heroes.

Ukraine has already gone through an extensive period of de-Sovietization that accelerated after the country’s 2014 revolution, when statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders were yanked off their plinths. (Odesa, famous for the comedians it has produced, added a unique twist, with a statue of Lenin reshaped to resemble Darth Vader.) But monuments and street names associated with the Russian Empire were largely left untouched. Now the need to celebrate even the likes of famed writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoevsky is up for debate.

In Kyiv, where an eight-metre-high statue celebrating Russian-Ukrainian friendship was pulled down in April, the city council has asked for public input on the fates of hundreds of street names around the capital. An online poll saw tens of thousands vote in favour of bestowing new names on boulevards and avenues that currently honour Russian cities and cultural figures. The most popular proposal would see Volgograd Street – named after the Russian city formerly known as Stalingrad – rededicated to Roman Ratushnyi, a civic activist who was recently killed fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Other ideas with widespread support would see streets currently named for Russian generals Nikolai Vatutin and Pyotr Bagration changed to honour the reservist Territorial Defence Forces, which have played a key role in resisting the Russian invasion, and Max Levin, a Ukrainian photographer killed by Russian troops in March.

There was less online support, however, for removing the names of Russian writers such as Mr. Pushkin and Mr. Tolstoy.

A Russian serviceman walks near a sign welcoming visitors to Mariupol, painted in the colours of the Russian flag, at the entrance to the city, June 12.YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images

A bullet hole is seen through the bust of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in the main square of Borodianka, Ukraine, on May 15.Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Some Ukrainian cities and towns seem ready to replace Russified street names with very Western ones. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih is holding hearings on the fates of 180 streets named after Russian places or people. The proposed replacements include streets named after U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Kashirska Street, named after a town near Moscow, could soon become Canada Street, “in honour of the country of Canada and its people, which provide support to Ukraine in Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine.”

Russia has similarly tried to remake conquered Ukrainian cities in its own image. The spelling of “Mariupol” on the sign welcoming travellers to the port – where tens of thousands of people died in a prolonged siege – was recently changed from Ukrainian to Russian, and at least two Lenin statues have been re-erected in the partially occupied Kherson region. In Borodyanka, a town near Kyiv that fell under Russian control early in the war, a metal bust of Taras Shevchenko – a 19th-century poet who helped popularize the Ukrainian language – was shot in the temple, execution-style.

“Look at the first things Russians try to do in the occupied towns: Change the name signs to Russian, bring back Soviet monuments, rename streets and attempt to change the school curriculum. That’s their tools of occupation,” said Olena Halushka, a prominent Ukrainian civil society activist currently based in Warsaw. “Today’s developments prove that decommunization and decolonization via breaking ties with the Soviet past and Russia should have started much earlier than in 2014.”

Changes such as the ones being considered in Kyiv would be more controversial in Odesa, a predominantly Russian-speaking city that has long been proud of its cultural ties to Russia.

Alexander Prigarin, an anthropologist in the city with pro-Russian views, said a “quiet majority” of Odesa residents still look favourably upon the Russian language and culture even as they are appalled by the war.

“It’s absolute nonsense and a crime,” he said of the move to rename streets and remove monuments. “We have a serious war going on right now and we’re fighting with Pushkin and Dostoyevsky instead of the real enemy.”

An Odesa statue honours Alexander Suvorov, the general who, on empress Catherine's orders, conquered the Ottoman fortress where the city now stands. Catherine later ordered a port town to be built here and named after an ancient Greek colony, Odessos.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

This mosaic near the Suvorov monument shows Nicholas II, the last czar, who was made a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

But Mr. Obukhov says now is exactly the time to debate the historic Russification of Ukraine’s cities.

Sitting in a café in Odesa’s Leo Tolstoy Square, he said he didn’t see a problem with the city having streets named after totems of Russian literature. “I believe that those who were great writers should remain. For instance, Leo Tolstoy was great. But we don’t need so many. We are a Ukrainian city and we should have Ukrainian street names.”

Most Odesans, Mr. Obukhov acknowledged, would also probably prefer that Catherine the Great’s statue continue to stand where it is. But he hopes city council votes to add more information to the plaque on her plinth, to inform residents and tourists of Catherine’s role in suppressing the Cossacks and Ukrainian nationalism.

At a minimum, he said, he hopes council will take down the statue of Alexander Suvorov, the general who conquered the Odesa region for Russia in an 18th-century war against the Ottoman Empire and rename the city’s Suvorov district. “He’s a symbol of Russian imperialism,” Mr. Obukhov said.

Ms. Halushka said that changing which heroes are honoured on street names and monuments changes the way a country looks at itself. Street names saluting Ukrainian cities that resisted the Russian invasion, such as Mariupol, should take the place of those celebrating Russian and Soviet military victories, she said. “The new generations of Ukrainians living at Mariupol Heroes Street since their birth will be asking their parents different questions than what we had asked ours.”

People walk along the street in central Odesa named after Catherine the Great.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

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