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Kharkiv Fights Tooth And Nail Against Ukraine Decommunization Process

  • Volodymyr Noskov

An crowd of protesters enthusiastically pulled down a huge Lenin statue in Kharkiv last year, but removing other communist symbols and toponyms from the city's streets is proving a lot more fractious.

An crowd of protesters enthusiastically pulled down a huge Lenin statue in Kharkiv last year, but removing other communist symbols and toponyms from the city's streets is proving a lot more fractious.

KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Towns and cities across Ukraine pressed hard to meet a November 21 deadline for identifying streets, squares, enterprises, and other places that fall under a sweeping "decommunization" law that came into force in May.

Local communities were also submitting suggestions for new names to replace literally thousands of ubiquitous toponyms like Lenin Avenue or Dzerzhinsky Square. In addition, they were tasked with identifying monuments and artworks that are suffused with Soviet symbols and ideology that should be dismantled under the legislation.

Over the last six months, the country has passed through a process of public hearings and open debate that has revealed deep divisions over how to deal with the lingering legacy of more than 70 years of communist rule from Moscow. In some cases, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the country where significant parts of the population identify with Russia, the local authorities have been less than enthusiastic in implementing the new law.

"I think that in general our politicians have acted rather irresponsibly," said Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. "Many in their electorate, especially in local elections, are people of the older generation, and instead of reporting to them the demands of the law and the necessity of implementing it, they have been playing on their sentiments. They tell them it isn't necessary and somehow they can resolve the issue and that they are against renaming and that, if elected, they will do what the voters say. Acting in this way is a direct violation of the law."

The northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest with a population of about 1.5 million, has been a case in point.

Heated Process

Local hearings on the renaming process there have been contentious and heated, with activists who pushed to implement the law saying the government packed the events with conservative, elderly pensioners and state-sector workers.

"It went exactly as expected," wrote local writer Serhiy Petrov on Facebook following a November 11 meeting at Kharkiv’s Kyiv district administration building. "A whole roomful of budget-sector workers was herded in -- primarily teachers (for example, I saw several teachers and the director from the school I went to). It was the typical exercise of administrative resources, using teachers like slaves."

Petrov added that he saw the teachers meeting after the hearing was over to be thanked by city officials.

Other public-sector workers were also out in force.

"We read about the public hearing in the newspaper," a nurse who identified herself as Olha told RFE/RL. "We work in Municipal Maternity Hospital No. 3. Why are you provoking us? We came here on our own." Olha prevented the other women in her group from speaking with journalists.

"I'd like to emphasize that I don't think renaming streets is the main problem here right now," she said.

Sources at one city kindergarten told RFE/RL that employees there had been ordered to attend the hearing.

Activists with the nongovernmental Kharkiv Toponym Group carried out their own research into the renaming issue.

"We looked at 263 streets, which is many more than the official commission," said group activist Maria Takhtouloviy, who at one point was reduced to shouting from the back of the hall. "Every name [we suggested] was well grounded -- either a return to an old name or a new one that is based on local geography or a specific local object or figure. This is work of a completely different category than what was proposed by the city authorities."

'Dangerous' Public Hearings

Two other attempts to hold public hearings on the issue were cancelled when they threatened to turn into riots. In one case, a group of unidentified young men took over the podium and began a tussle.

Kharkiv Deputy Mayor Ihor Terekhov took the microphone and said: "Considering the situation, it appears it has become dangerous for all those in the hall. We are closing the public hearings. Further actions will be taken according to the law."

The city's official list includes 173 toponyms with proposed changes, although some of them seem to be an unsubtle effort to subvert the law.

The city, for instance, proposes "renaming" the city's Oktyabr district -- which honors the 1917 Bolshevik revolution -- as Oktyabr, in honor of the official October 28 holiday marking the liberation of Ukraine from German troops in World War II.

Officials propose renaming the Dzerzhinsky district -- which honors the founder of the Soviet secret police, Feliks Dzerzhinsky -- after his brother, Vladislav Dzerzhinsky, a neurologist who was briefly a professor at Kharkiv University in 1915.

The Frunze District, named in honor of Bolshevik military commander Mikhail Frunze, is to be rechristened in honor of Timur Frunze, the son of Mikhail Frunze and a Hero of the Soviet Union who died in combat in 1942.

"As far as what you call the ambiguous context of these names, let's talk about the law and how we are fulfilling the letter of the law," Deputy Mayor Terekhov told RFE/RL. "There are people who deserve to be memorialized. Whether we like it or not, the people of Kharkiv do not support renaming. And we will do whatever we can not to let them down."

Less Specific Soviet Names

A July poll by a Kharkiv institute found that a majority of city residents oppose the renaming. Likewise, a majority oppose naming city locations after the Heavenly Hundred, as the Ukrainian government refers to the victims of police violence during the 2013-14 Euromaidan uprising against then-President Viktor Yanukovych. He fled to Russia in February 2014 and was replaced by a pro-Western government, whose ties with Moscow have been further strained by its takeover of the Crimea region and its military support for separatists who control parts of two provinces south of Kharkiv.

In addition, the city of Kharkiv has ruled that many places with less specific Soviet names like "Proletariat" or "Communist International" do not fall under the scope of the law and do not need to be renamed.

The Ukrainian government in Kyiv has until February 21 to respond to the local lists, setting up a likely collision between the central authorities and the administration of Kharkiv Governor Hennadiy Kernes.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague and RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Levko Stek contributed from Kyiv