Ukraine Says Goodbye to Red October

Kiev is making a sweeping bid to purge the national map of its Soviet-era place names.

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If Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine happens to be your hometown, returning there is hardly an exciting affair: little changes in its bleak landscape of industrial machinery and residential high-rises. But these days, I’m hearing more and more talk of an impending change from family and friends: it looks like my hometown is about to get a new name.

In early April, the Ukrainian parliament passed a set of four laws which — because they prescribed measures to do away with the political and ideological legacy of the Soviet period — the media promptly christened as the “decommunization package.” One of these laws condemns the Soviet regime as “criminal,” declaring that it had “exercised [a] policy of state terror,” and prohibits “propaganda” of its symbols. Among these symbols, apparently, are city names: starting next year, no “geographic locations” that commemorate Soviet leaders or organizations will be allowed to remain.

The passage of this law was spearheaded by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINM), a government agency which implements state policy on historical issues. According to UINM’s data, 28 Ukrainian towns and 800 villages — some 3 percent of the country’s localities — must now be renamed. This includes villages with names like Red Tribune and Dawn of Communism, dozens named after Lenin, and a whopping 115 called “October” or “Red October” in both the Ukrainian and Russian spellings (commemorating the Bolshevik October revolution).

And it’s not just towns or villages, but also their streets and squares that must find new names: it was customary to name main squares after Lenin, for example. Some streets are named after particular Communist Party gatherings (like 23rd Party Congress Street in Poltava). Unlike in western Ukraine, few mayors or activists in the east — which is ethnically, linguistically, and culturally closer to Russia — bothered to rename anything after Ukraine gained independence in 1991. The “decommunization laws” leave them no choice: if they don’t do it themselves, Ukraine’s parliament will. And this means a reckoning with their history — however unwelcome it may be to some — is coming.

By far the biggest city facing such a reckoning is Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s fourth-largest, and a crucial outpost in its war in the east. Dnipropetrovsk got its hard-to-pronounce name in 1926 from a combination of the mighty Dnieper River, on which the city is situated, and the last name of Grigoriy Petrovskiy, a Communist party functionary from the city. Petrovskiy is notorious for having abetted the Soviet policy of Holodomor: forced requisition of food from Ukrainian peasants that resulted in mass starvation and the deaths of an estimated 3 to 5 million Ukrainians in 1932-1933. Even as a quarter of the Dnipropetrovsk region’s population was wiped out by the artificial famine, Petrovskiy proclaimed triumphantly in September 1933 that “the collective farm system has finally defeated all its enemies.” Dnipropetrovsk’s present name is thus a testament to how long its authorities ignored — and even memorialized — the most horrible pages of its Soviet history.

Many Russian media outlets, and even some Western authors, portray Ukraine’s decision to press forward with decommunization as a move to “erase” its twentieth-century history, or even as an inherently anti-Russian step. But the renaming of Dnipropetrovsk is not about “revenge” against the Russians (he was a “local,” after all). Nor is it an attempt to oust the Communists from the current political landscape: they garner a meager 1 percent of public support. Instead, it is a long-overdue moment of honest reckoning with the city’s history. Most Ukrainians (as well as at least 17 countries) recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. But in a glaring example of ignorance and political inertia, relatively few in Dnipropetrovsk had known or thought about Petrovskiy’s role in the disaster. It is only after the passage of the law that discussions about renaming the city and removing his monument began in earnest.

In its condemnation of Soviet crimes, the law offers a way to legally channel the anti-authoritarian streak that emerged during the Euromaidan revolution in the winter of 2013-2014. In those days, protesters toppled hundreds of Lenin statues across the country in a rejection of its Soviet legacy. Activists in Dnipropetrovsk were ahead of the curve that spring when they renamed the city’s central Lenin Square in honor of those killed in the revolution against the Yanukovych regime, which had eagerly exploited Soviet historical myths for political purposes. Today, many in this predominantly Russian-speaking city — though not all — are ready to substitute the tainted Soviet pantheon with symbols that reflect Ukraine’s aspirations for independence and democracy.

To implement the changes, local councils are instructed to hold “public hearings” within six months of the law’s entry into force; that deadline expires in mid-November. Dnipropetrovsk’s “renaming commission” was promptly set up in April by city authorities. Though it was initially supposed to include only a dozen scholars, it grew as more local activists volunteered to join. Vadym Shebanov, a city council official, also invited representatives of the city’s ethnic minorities — Jewish, Armenian and Polish — to participate. That bid to ensure inclusiveness lends legitimacy to what many opponents see as a politicized and bureaucratized process.

The renaming of Dnipropetrovsk has not escaped controversy. After dozens of suggestions, the main candidates suggested by patriotic historians are the rather lofty-sounding Dniproslav (meaning “one who glorifies the Dnieper”) and Sicheslav (a tribute to the Zaporizhian Sich, a seventeenth-century Cossack proto-state). Many locals would prefer to adopt the simplified and relatively apolitical “Dnipro,” as the city is colloquially called. Some activists advocate retaining the name while cleverly changing the semantics (so that “Petro” would stand for St. Peter). The idea of returning to the city’s pre-Soviet name, Katerynoslav, is hardly viable in the current political landscape, as it would commemorate the Russian empress Catherine the Great. Amid this raft of proposals, calls for holding a local plebiscite to approve a new name are growing louder.

The deliberations within Dnipropetrovsk’s “renaming commission” are just another example of how Ukrainians know exactly what they don’t want, without being quite sure of what it is they do want. Still, the newfound willingness to confront painful history is gradually replacing the aversion to change which has been so pervasive in Dnipropetrovsk and eastern Ukraine at large. Once the local authorities finally settle on a new name for the city, Ukraine’s parliament will have three months to officially approve it. Whatever the new name will be, it can’t possibly offend the memory of millions of Ukrainians as badly the current one does.

Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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