This large city in the northeast has already changed three street names and unbolted a statue of Alexander Nevsky, a Russian medieval hero celebrated for his military victories. Eventually, nearly 200 names of current toponymy are in the crosshairs.
Attacked from the first hours of the Russian invasion on February 24 because it is located near the border, Kharkiv suffered weeks of deadly bombardments, before the Ukrainian troops regained ground. But the city, which had some 1.4 million inhabitants before the war, remains threatened.
“The names are associated with a nation, with a country. What is this country doing? We have seen what they are doing. Everything that is Russian outside”, launches Laryssa Vassylchenko, a 59-year-old engineer.
Mykyta Gavrylenko, a soldier, gets carried away in front of the pedestal where the statue of Alexander Nevsky was enthroned a few days ago, torn by a truck which broke cobblestones from the sidewalk: “these people are against Ukraine, they attacked, kill our citizens, hurt us, humiliate us”.
For Yuri Sidorenko, head of communication in Kharkiv, “the time has come”. “With regard to Russian toponyms – squares, streets, villages – our position is clear: they will no longer appear on the city map,” he asserts.
The town hall does not want to skip the stages, however: “There are a lot of names at stake, I cannot say how many because the authorities must discuss it and it must be debated publicly,” said Mr. Sidorenko.
The question is not as simple as it seems. If the avenue and the place of Moscow or the avenue of Belgorod, Russian city from which arrived the attack of February 24, are “obvious” choices, others – Russian artists or writers of the past –, have nothing to do with recent or Soviet history.
– Pushkin or not Pushkin –
“We have to change a whole Russian imperialist culture. They imposed their culture, their writers, everything on us…”, assures a passerby, who refuses to say his name. If he says he has nothing against Alexander Pushkin, the legendary Russian poet, he adds: “this street is called Pushkin because he is Russian”.
In this “Puckine Street”, there are now graffiti by the Ukrainian street-art artist Gamlet.
This one wrote the name “British Street” under several signs. “British” because it is commonly accepted in Ukraine that Britain is currently one of the country’s biggest supporters in its war against Russia.
In Moscow Street, residents had gone before the town hall, and affixed a false sign “Avenue Grigori Skovoroda”, named after the 18th century Ukrainian philosopher, in place of one of the old signs, most of which are still visible. The geolocation application Google Maps, on the other hand, has already changed the name of the street to that of the “Heroes of Kharkiv”.
“I like the name, it’s better than Moscow Avenue. I’ve been saying it for a long time that these names had to change”, agrees Yulia Boutenko, craftswoman.
However, the matter quickly becomes complicated: Nicolas Gogol, a 19th century writer claimed by both countries, “he wrote about Ukraine … but in Russian”, she admits. Ditto for the very appreciated Soviet author Mikhail Bulgakov, born in kyiv and died in Moscow. “They must be taught” in schools, slice Ioulia.
As for composer Piotr Tchaikovsky, “he didn’t do anything to Ukraine, but it’s Russian culture,” she continues. The writer Ostap Vychnia was Ukrainian, “but pro-Soviet!”, fumes Yulia.
“Everything is ambiguous. Me, I’m worried about Pushkin Street. I like Pushkin,” she adds.
And to conclude: “Today I didn’t buy Russian cheese (a kind of white cheese, editor’s note) because it’s Russian…. it’s strange, when you think about it, we could have already changed names”.