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Ukraine's Decommunization Gets Boost As 175 Towns, Villages Renamed

  • Pete Baumgartner

A crowd demolishes a statue of the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in Kharkiv. Scores of Lenin statues were pulled down in Ukraine in 2015 but hundreds more are still standing.

A crowd demolishes a statue of the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in Kharkiv. Scores of Lenin statues were pulled down in Ukraine in 2015 but hundreds more are still standing.

The so-called decommunization of Ukraine edged forward on February 4 as parliament approved the scrapping of 175 names of towns, villages, and districts across the country and replaced them with non-Soviet alternatives.

The latest changes are part of a massive process in which thousands of streets, squares, towns, villages, companies, media outlets, sports clubs, and other social entities and geographical locations must be renamed under controversial laws, passed in May, that condemn the Communist Soviet and Nazi German regimes and ban any propaganda, symbols, or names associated with them.

The changes mainly involve small villages, many of which were simply named October in honor of the month in 1944 when Ukraine was liberated from Nazi troops.

Many of the "new" names are based on a return to old, pre-Soviet names or new ones based on a local place or object or a prominent historical figure -- noncommunist, of course.

For instance, the city of Artemivsk is officially known now as Bakhmut -- the name it took in the 16th century based on the Bakhmutka River on which it sits. The city was renamed in 1924 after Comrade Artem, a Russian revolutionary, Soviet politician, and friend of Josef Stalin who is buried in the Kremlin wall's necropolis.

Other name changes were more cosmetic, with the small town of Krasny Liman dropping the Krasny, which signifies the communist red color, to be known simply as Liman.

Mykola Fedoruk, the head of the parliament's subcommittee on local territories and authorities, said all of the new name changes were approved by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.

Fierce Opposition

But the decommunization plan is fiercely opposed by many Ukrainians -- particularly those in the southern and eastern parts of the country, many of them ethnic Russians -- who believe the country and its politicians should spend their time on more important issues than replacing communist toponyms or who don't want to erase everything associated with the Soviet era.

More than a few public hearings on renaming streets and other places have degenerated into near-riots and been called off.

Some officials are even attempting to keep the old names by officially renaming places after unknown or uncontroversial personalities with the same names as famous but discredited Communists.

For example, Kharkiv officials have recommended renaming the district of Dzerzhinsky -- named after Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the first Soviet secret-police organization -- after Vladislav Dzerzhinsky, a neurologist and brother of Feliks who worked for a short time at Kharkiv University in 1915.

Authorities in Kharkiv have also suggested renaming the Frunze district labeled after Bolshevik military commander Mikhail Frunze in honor of Timur Frunze, Mikhail's rather unremarkable son.

It's not clear how the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory or the country's parliament will react to such ploys by pro-communist officials.

Part of Ukraine's decommunization is the removal of monument status to the hundreds of busts and statues of people like Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin that still dot the country's town squares and university courtyards so that they can be legally removed or -- as occurred with a statue of Hryhoriy Petrovsky on January 29 -- unceremoniously pulled down.

WATCH: Petrovsky Statue Torn Down In East Ukraine (natural sound)

The Ukrainian government said on February 2 that 139 monuments of "officials from the communist totalitarian regime" were dismantled in 2015, including 40 Lenins.

That's a significant number, but since there are still some 770 statues of Lenin alone still standing in Ukraine, the decommunization efforts have a long way to go.

Last month, the popular Komsomolskaya Pravda -- a communist-era newspaper saddled with a very Soviet name -- officially rechristened itself KP.

Even the soccer club Illichivets Mariupol, which is named after a mammoth steel mill that took its name from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, has to change its name. Among a choice of seven new nicknames, fans have so far voted on a website to change the club's name to either Metallurg or FK Mariupol, though overall enthusiasm for a name change for the team was not overwhelming.

But the biggest problem facing Ukrainian officials may be for the city of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine's third-largest city, which is stuck being partially named after Petrovsky, the man whose statue came crashing down in the city center just a few days ago.

Petrovsky headed the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic for many years in the 1920s and '30s and is known as one of the architects of the mass famine, referred to as the Holodomor, that killed millions of Ukrainians.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukraine Service
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