David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press. He tweets @DVKirichenko.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forged a new sense of nationalism, signaling a remarkable change in the “memory wars” that have long been fought in the country.
Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian cities have alienated even those who previously supported closer ties with Moscow. And even Odesa, a city with an historically pro-Russian outlook, has embraced the movement toward Ukrainization, further underlining the loss of influence of Russian imperialism.
Odesa, a city founded in 1794 by Russian Empress Catherine the Great, played a strategic role in the Russian empire and later in the Soviet Union. It has long been renowned as a diverse, culturally rich city, with Mediterranean-influenced architecture still standing today. And Catherine the Great remains an iconic figure in Odesa’s history, symbolizing the city’s significance within the Russian empire.
A statue of Catherine the Great was first erected at the heart of Odesa in 1900, only to be dismantled in 1920 under the Soviets, as the new government wanted to destroy the heritage of the old Czarist regime. Then, in 2007, a new statue honoring Catherine’s rule was unveiled, in turn sparking a contentious debate over Ukraine’s history following the 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution.
While then President Victor Yushchenko’s government was working to honor figures of Ukrainian independence, Odesa’s decision to build the statue was seen as a protest against Kyiv’s move away from Russia — and a celebration of the city’s imperial Russian past.
However, when Ukraine began a campaign to decommunize the country and started taking down thousands of monuments related to the Soviet era following Russia’s initial invasion in 2014, the monuments and street names associated with the Czarist era remained largely untouched. Odesa’s Catherine monument wasn’t targeted.
Yet, Ukrainians in Odesa still had mixed views regarding the Catherine monument, and it sparked political debate about the “memory wars” of the past — a political and cultural conflict fueled by differing perceptions of shared history.
Catherine’s rule was one marked by controversy due to her actions — such as the destruction of Ukrainian autonomy, the implementation of serfdom in Ukraine and the country’s colonization. Additionally, her government actively sought to suppress the Ukrainian Catholic church, and it is arguable that during the 18th century, Ukraine experienced a significant loss of statehood under her rule.
However, for some in Odesa, Catherine’s symbol represented a sense of pride in the city’s importance.
But during the ongoing memory wars since Russia’s full-throttle invasion of Ukraine last year, Odesa displayed a significant change in its previous support for Russia and its imperial legacy.
While Ukrainians are trying to work to reconcile their history and remove remnants of Russian colonization, Russia is actively trying to erase all traces of Ukrainian identity on Russia-occupied land. For example, One of the first actions taken by Russian forces in occupied cities and towns has been to change signs to Russian, restore monuments to leaders like Lenin and name many streets after Soviet leaders. They also burned Ukrainian history books, destroyed archives documenting Soviet repressions and forced teachers to teach in Russian.
And in the face of the violence, there has been a change in the attitudes of many Odesites, and public opinion has shifted toward the removal of Catherine’s statue as well. The monument has been vandalized several times, with red paint repeatedly doused over it, an executioner’s cap placed on the empress’s head and a hangman’s noose attached to her hand.
By September, the Odesa City Council had not yet made up its mind about the monument, but in late November, the council voted to dismantle it and temporarily move it to a local museum. The city’s mayor, Hennadiy Trukhanov, had initially been against the removal, but he voted in favor of taking it down due to the visible change in public sentiment.
And this symbolic action, taken in a previously pro-Russian stronghold such as Odesa, is demonstrable proof that the Ukrainian identity is being revitalized, and the grip of Russian imperialism is weakening.