(Post-)Soviet Transition, Memory Politics, and the Postcolonial Lens

The Street (Re)naming in Zhytomyr between late 1980s – the beginning of 1990s

The full-scale Russian aggression has led to questioning the memory politics in Ukraine, which raised intensive debates about the appropriacy of imperial and Soviet memorials, monuments, and other sites of memory which had marked the country’s landscapes since the pre-independence times. A new wave of renaming has brought thousands of new names to cities, towns, and small villages. This process is still ongoing because of its massive scope. Still, it has already become a part of longer competitions over sites of memory, which started in the last years of Soviet Ukraine, and fluctuated until recently. The very first of the waves of the late 1980s-early 1990s is often considered as an unfinished attempt to restructure memory politics together with the regime change. This essay looks at that attempt through the lens of one Ukrainian city, whose geographical position, political composition, and activists’ community led to the negotiation and creation of hybrid space in the middle of (post)-Soviet transformations.

The memory boom of the 1990s increased the awareness of public and private practices related to collective and individual memory, of which the changes in the lieux de mémoire continue to receive significant attention.((Pierre Nora conceptualizes lieux de mémoire as “the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persist.” For him, every site which may remind us about the past has the potential to become a site of memory. Even though he does not mention street names among these sites, they nevertheless may be also linked to this phenomenon (see Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring 1989): 7-24.)) Still, in many aspects scholars tend to focus primarily on official political practices, such as legislation or shifts in governmental memory politics, while the diversity of actors involved in collective memory remains in the shadow of their interests. I aim to nuance the approach to studying memory politics from the perspective of the authorities by discovering the heterogeneous nature of the process of street renaming. Looking at the process of street renaming in the city of Zhytomyr during the last years of the Soviet rule and the first years of Ukrainian independence through a postcolonial lens, I present the actors involved in the decision-making process on the local level during a late Soviet and early post-Soviet transition. I pay particular attention to these actors’ impact on the removed and added street names in order to clarify the inclusion, silencing, and completeness of the decision-making process.

Zhytomyr is a regionally significant postindustrial city in Central Ukraine, a region whose appearance was caused by the necessity to look beyond the dichotomies of Western and Eastern Ukraine in public debates and scholarly work in the past decade. It marks the space which includes several regions on both banks of the Dnipro River and can be characterized by postindustrial development of urban areas and active contestations between various political and memory actors on the local level.((See Oleksandra Haidai, Kamianyi Hist. Lenin U Tsentralnii Ukraini. Druhe Vydannia. [The Stone Guest: Lenin in Central Ukraine, 2nd edition] (Kyiv: K.I.S., 2018), 6-9.)) The city of Zhytomyr is situated 130 kilometers to the West of Kyiv and is one of the most evident examples of those complex experiences in Central Ukraine. Contrary to the major urban centers in the west of Ukraine, it was neither affected by the massive decommunization of the city space in the 1990s,  nor did it conserve the memory of the Soviet Union in its landscape, evident in the cities in the eastern part of the country. Its space was partly changed during the period of perestroika and the first years of independence, but the changes were not sufficient enough to remove all the reminders of the Soviet era or the earlier imperial past. They continued to form an image of the city for its inhabitant and the outsiders who interacted with the streets, monuments, and other lieux de mémoire.

This text is primarily inspired by two texts – Jenny Wustenberg’s introductory chapter to the edited volume Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany and Homi Bhabha’s Location of Culture. Wustenberg highlights the gap in presenting grassroots agency in memory studies and indicates the presence of memory work and memory protest in the context of relatively democratic regimes. She points out that the contestations between the state-sponsored memory activities and more independent memory activism are not always present and asks a question about situations when civic activists have an opportunity to enter the state institutions.((Jenny Wustenberg, ‘Civil Society Activism, Memory Politics and Democracy,’ in Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 26.)) Although the process of democratization started in Zhytomyr only in the late 1980s when Gorbachev came into power in the USSR, the point about a situation of hybridity in local memory politics seems to be also applicable to the development of the city in the late Soviet era and the period of early independence.

This hybridity is not limited to the interactions between various actors; it also may be visible in the moments when cultural differences are simultaneously articulated, as Bhabha argues. At the same time, Bhabha points out that attempts to go beyond the borders of differences usually mean the displacement of the reality constituted by those differences.((Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York & London: Routledge, 2004), 2-6.)) In the case of studies on street renaming, this issue may appear when scholars are focusing on the general trends related to the process, linking those trends primarily to regime change and ignoring cultural differences manifested on the local level. Those differences are less connected to class and gender and more intertwined with the political positions of the local actors, but Bhabha’s argument is helpful because it may help to understand the contested nature of the changes in street names. Additionally, Bhabha’s remark about the transformation of historical agency through the signifying process, as well as her reference to the concept of ‘unhomely’ help to clarify the position of the city dwellers when the city text is being rewritten.((Bhabha, 14-20.)) Street names are always both public and private, and their changes also mean changes in the personal stories of people who lived there because the established associations disappeared in these changes. Personal identifications might have also been shifted because of that, but this shift is also overlooked in the studies of street renaming, although a brief overview of the existing literature is needed to specify the context of (post)-socialist and (post)-Soviet transformations in Central Eastern European memory politics.

Street renaming is a political process of changing the city text. By referring to the “text,” I mean the corpus of street names and monuments that form the symbolic space of a settled area. The text is incorporated into the everyday life of citizens who associate with the locations around them by referring to the visible signs. Maoz Azaryahu presents street names as popular political symbols and argues that this fact was not previously recognized, using the case of GDR’s capital in order to show the importance of the changes in these names.((Maoz Azaryahu, “Street names and political identity: the case of East Berlin,” Journal of Contemporary History 21 (1986): 582-587.)) This process had two sides – the decommemoration of one name and the commemoration of another.((Maoz Azaryahu, “The Purge of Bismarck and Saladin: The Renaming of Streets in East Berlin and Haifa, a Comparative Study in Culture-Planning.” Poetics Today 13, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 361.)) However, in showing the complexities of renaming these streets, he ignores the role of the broader public in street name changes. For him, the main aim is to examine how the past becomes “a basic component of the official culture” and presents the “cultural construct of primary importance.”((Maoz Azaryahu, “Renaming the Past: Changes in “City Text” in Germany and Austria, 1945-1947,” History and Memory 2, no. 2 (Winter, 1990): 32.))

A similar oversight of the agency of various actors is evident in studies about street renaming in Central Europe and in studies connected to the street renaming processes in contemporary Ukraine, in particular where the ideas are less neutral in terms of analysis. Particularly, this is evident in the sign that has become more visible after the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-2014. Ilya Gerasimov calls the revolution postcolonial, arguing that the revolution was not simply a rejection of the colonial past but also created of new identities. For him, a value-oriented imagined community emerged as a result of the protests.((Ilya Gerasimov, “Ukraine 2014: the Postcolonial Revolution,” Ab Imperio 32 (2015): 29-33. See also Ilya Gerasimov and Marina Mogilner, “Deconstructing Integration: Ukraine’s Postcolonial Subjectivity,” Slavic Review 74, no. 4 (Winter 2015): 715-722. See also Andriy Liubarets, “The Politics of Memory in Ukraine in 2014: Removal of the Soviet Cultural Legacy and Euromaidan Commemorations,” Kyiv-Mohyla Humanities Journal 3 (2016): 197-214.)) Additionally, in his article published several months after the revolution, Georgiy Kasianov argues that the events of the Euromaidan led to a massive iconoclasm and a war on memories of which Leninopad, a massive demolition of Lenin’s monuments, was the most obvious sign. He puts the roots of this tendency back to the 1990s when the Ukrainian “history and historians were mobilized to perform a major task: to construct (or to reconstruct) a picture of the past that would explain the present and that would legitimize the new nation-state and its titular nation.”((Georgiy Kasianov, “How a War for the Past Becomes a War in the Present,” Krytyka 16 (2014): 149.)) The last point is quite ambiguous. On the one hand, the newly established nation-state wanted to legitimize its past and thus needed to have grand narratives. It utilized history and tended to change the politics of memory. On the other hand, Kasianov ignores the debates that existed among the historians from the early 1990s onward. Thus, his analysis lacks the complicity and instead presents criticism of the unliked practices.

The most recent academic discussions about street renaming in Ukraine are connected to the so-called decommunization law that banned Nazi and communist symbols which the Ukrainian Parliament passed in 2015. David R. Marples argues that new conditions led to the undermining of “the central role of the Holocaust in the formation of modern Europe and threatens Ukraine’s future place in the European Union.”((David R. Marples, “Decommunization, Memory Laws, and “Builders of Ukraine in the 20th Century,” Acta Slavica Iaponica, 39 (2018): 21-22.)) However, Barbara Törnquist-Plewa and Yuliya Yurchuk point out that simplified positions like those presented by Marples ignore the broad contexts of politics of memory in Ukraine. Instead, they claim that the post-revolutionary ideologization of history should be considered within the lens of hybridity. They consider these transformations to be postcolonial and highlight the possibility of dialogue between national and Soviet past.((Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, and Yuliya Yurchuk, “Memory politics in contemporary Ukraine: Reflections from the postcolonial perspective,” Memory Studies 12(6) (2019): 701-709.)) Thus, the official politics of memory also became multi-layered in order to manage the ongoing changes in the public space. However, the authors do not touch on the agencies of people who were involved in the process of street renaming, and they ignore the early post-Soviet changes in memory politics and different city texts, which does not help to understand the dynamic of changes in a diachronic perspective.

Finally, it is worth mentioning Orysia Demska’s study on contemporary Ukrainian toponomy published in 2016. Demska admits the importance of decommunization in the city text as the tool of decolonization and its realization from its totalitarian past. At the same time, she questions the possibility of realizing the past without transforming it into a certain experience. For her, a simple act of street renaming is not enough to transcend the toxic heritage. Moreover, Demska points out that a lack of comprehension in regard to collective memory leads to an actualization of the Soviet past in the present time.((Orysia Demska, “Suchasnyi Toponimnyi Landshaft Ukrainy: Mizh Pamiattiu i Spohadom,”[Contemporary Toponymic Landscape of Ukraine: Between Memory and Recollection] Slavia Orientalis LXV, no. 3 (2016): 601–611.)) True decommunization requires more effort than a cheap renaming of the streets. In her another study, Demska points out that the parallel usage of new and old (Soviet) names is typical in the post-Soviet space.((Orysia Demska,“Politychnyi Symvolizm Toponimichnykh Praktyk Mista,”[Political Symbolism of City Toponymic Practices] Mova: klasychne-moderne-postmoderne 5 (2019): 5-21.)) Thus, the official introduction of new names does not lead to the immediate transformation of the city text. While the previous signs might be preserved in the public imagination, the questions of agency and silence again remain unanswered in these cases.

Both questions of agency and silence may be addressed in the process of changing the city text of Zhytomyr in the late 1980s – the beginning of the 1990s in two different ways – in connection to the replaced and added street names and to the people’s involvement in this act.  This period was important not only because of the political transformations in the region but also because of the establishment of the commission of toponomy in the city at the time. In 1993, Heorhii Morkrytskyi, a local scholar and journalist, published a short overview of the work of the commission in which he also touched on the principles that the commission used for street renaming. Morkytskyi was in charge of the commission, so the text he published may be seen as a position of the city authorities.  However, at the very beginning of his narrative, the author mentions that in the early 1980s, the commission was originally established as an initiative from below to represent the past of the city in the street names.((Heorhii Mokrytskyi, Novi ta Pereimenovani Vulytsi Zhytomyra [New and Renamed Streets of Zhytomyr] (Zhytomyr: Zhytomyskyi Visnyk, 1993), 8.)) Its position was hybrid from the very beginning because it institutionalized the work of local memory activists on an official level, but this institutionalization did not lead to the complete detachment of its members from their previous activities. The case of the commission’s chief is the most prominent because Morkytskyi also established a periodical Zhytomyrskyi Visnyk in 1989, where the questions of street renaming were widely discussed.((See Mokrytskyi, New and Renamed Streets of Zhytomyr, 27)) Zhytomyrskyi Visnyk was published by the regional branch of the Union of Journalists of the Ukrainian SSR, an official body which united all local journalists. Thus, it was connected to the Soviet power structures but, at the same time, it preserved a possibility for presenting alternative opinions so far as the editorial board was interested in closer interaction with their potential readers.((“Shcho Mozhe Visnyk?”[What is Visnyk Capable of?] Zhytomyrskyi Visnyk, February 3, 1989, 3.)) The periodical’s operations as well as the activities of the topography commission showed that the perestroika of the late 1980s brought not only some freedom of opinion to the public sphere of a regional urban center but also allowed official institutions to create a hybrid space for the exchange of thoughts.

Morkytskyi’s book makes the ambiguity of the changes in the memory politics of the time visible. On the one hand, the author argues that the task of the toponymy commission was to “return historically valuable names” to the streets and he criticizes the previous practices of the Soviet authorities, which did not pay attention to the local contexts and instead renamed streets “according to the ideological dogmas.”((Mokrytskyi, New and Renamed Streets of Zhytomyr, 8-9.)) The argument about returning to the previous memory practices are often found in the debates around contested sites of memory, and Morkytskyi uses it to justify the decisions made by the commission. Later in the text, he provides 28 names of the streets renamed in 1987-1993, and they mostly correspond with the principles of ‘returning to the past.’ For instance, Lenin Street was renamed to Kyiv Street in 1992, which brought back the name used for the street since the nineteenth century, which also may confirm the intention to de-ideologize the city space and make it less contested.((Ibid, 21, 33.)) The renaming of Zhovtnevyi [October] Boulevard to Staryi [Old] Boulevard is another example of such renaming because the commission aimed to de-ideologize the site and highlight its age because the boulevard was described as one of the oldest in Ukraine.((Ibid, 30.))

On the other hand, the argument about ‘valuable historical names’ becomes complex once in relation to the new street names. Many of them were named after persons who were supposed to be connected to the city’s history but these people simultaneously belonged to different historical narratives. For instance, one of the small streets was named after Vatslav Dlouhi, a mason who participated in building Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow, while another was named after Ivan Ohienko, an Orthodox Metropolitan and a Ukrainian politician who translated the Bible into Ukrainian and had to flee the country after the revolution of 1917-1921.((Mokrytskyi, New and Renamed Streets of Zhytomyr, 31, 33. In his articles in one of the local newspapers, Mokrytskyi highlighted the importance of having a street named after a worker in the place where the names of military and political figures were predominant (Heorhii Mokrytskyi, “Vulytsia Imeni Robitnyka,”[The Street Named after a Worker] Zoria Komunismu, March 11, 1989, 8).)) The case of Ivan Ohienko Street is fascinating because after the name was assigned in 1993, the street was officially ‘baptized’ with the participation of city authorities.((Heorhii Mokrytskyi, Vulytsia Ivana Ohiienka: Istoryko-Kraieznavcha Fotorozpovid [Ivan Ohiienko Street: Historical-Local Photostory] (Zhytomyr: Zhurfond, 1997), 10.)) The Soviet tradition of official public gatherings was combined with the traditionally Christian practice of baptism, which created a new hybrid historical agency constituted through the “signifying process.”((Bhabha, Location of Culture, 17-18.))

However, the new signs in the street names did not mean a complete rethinking of the city text. The choice of new markers was quite exclusive and male-centered as there was only one street named after a woman – Kniahyni Olhy Street – while 30 new street names assigned in 1987-1993 were dedicated to male figures. Women’s presence in the sites of memory in Zhytomyr was also limited before, and the new changes in memory politics did not break the established picture. Additionally, despite some efforts of the toponomy commission, the majority of Soviet street names were left untouched.((See Heorhii P. Mokrytskyi, Vsi Vulytsi Zhytomyra: Topohrafichnyi i Toponimichnyi Dovidnyk z Povnokolorovoiu Skhemoiu ta Kliuchem Dlia Poshuku Usikh 821 Vulytsi, Provulka, Maidana, Shose ta in. Toponimichnykh Obiektiv Mista [All Streets of Zhytomyr: Topographic and Toponymic Handbook with Colored Scheme and Legend to Seek for all 821 Streets, Lanes, Squares, Highways, and other Toponymic Objects of the City] (Zhytomyr: Volyn, 2003).)) Moreover, the names introduced under the Russian imperial rule were not even mentioned in any of the documents or texts related to the changes in the cityscape. They seemed to be a part of the city’s history, which created a situation of hybridity where some contested names were questioned and renamed while others were unproblematic and thus invisible to the commission.

At the same time, the process of introducing new names in the city texts is not a completely one-sided story that unfolds around the toponomy commission. In the above-mentioned book, Mokrytskyi pays attention to the fact that some of the street names were changed because their old names assigned during the Soviet times were not even used by local people. The author mentions the example of Zaliznychyni Post 100-i Kilometer Bystreet, which was renamed to Khytryi Rynok [Cunning Market] Bystreet, the name that had been informally used by locals.((Mokrytskyi, New and Renamed Streets of Zhytomyr, 21.)) This remark shows that the voices of city dwellers, to a certain extent, mattered in the affairs of memory politics. In April 1993, the city executive committee (re)named 57 streets, and commenting on this occasion, Morktytskyi pointed out that it was a sign of returning “natural” names to the city space.((Heorhii Mokrytskyi, “Iak Nazvaly Novonarodzhennykh?”[How the Newbord were Called] Zhytomyrskyi Visnyk, April 30, 1993, 3.)) Sometime before the decision was made public, the periodical Zhytomyrskyi Visnyk published an open letter from the city dwellers who asked to change the street names dedicated to the Soviet leaders who were presented as responsible for the Holodomor, the artificial man-made famine in the 1930s, in Ukraine. They proposed to introduce the names of Ivan Bohun, a leader of Cossacks in the 17th century, and Oleh Olzhych, a Ukrainian nationalist killed by the Nazi in 1944, both of whom were connected to the city.((I. N. Tereshchuk, O. Stremilova, V. A. Nessen, V. Vasylchuk, F. Shcherbakov, I. V. Lobos, “Vidkrytyi Lyst,”[Open Letter] Zhytomyrskyi Visnyk, April 23, 1993, 4.)) The toponymy commissions did not conduct the renaming in this specific way, but both names nevertheless appeared in the city space as well, as the two streets named after Soviet officials received new names.((Mokrytskyi, New and Renamed Streets of Zhytomyr, 21-23.)) The situation is significant because the history of the Holodomor was silenced during the Soviet era until the end of the 1980s, but after the proclamation of independence in the early 1990s, the topic became urgent, and memory activists and scholars began investigating it in order to “restore the historical justice.”((Heorhii Kasianov, Rozryta mohyla: Holod 1932—1933 rokiv u politytsi, pamiati ta istorii (1980-ti—2000-ni)[The Digged Grave: Famine of 1932-1933 in Politics, Memory, and History] (Kharkiv: Folio, 2018), 8.)) The authors of the above-mentioned open letter seemed to be aware of this change in discourse, and their voices were heard this time without any obstacles.

The lens of postcolonial studies is fruitful for studying memory politics during the transition from a state of dependency to an independent state. Massive street (re)naming that follows this process presents excellent material for examination, even though scholars tend to focus on the formal aspect of the phenomenon while ignoring the variety of contexts and people involved in the process. Even those who acknowledge the potential of postcolonial frames do not pay attention to the people who created the situation of hybridity during the transition. The case of Zhytomyr in the late 1980s-1990s has shown that such ignorance may hide the important trends that were occurring on the local level where people were able to participate in the decision-making process while addressing their voices to official institutions. The establishment of the topographic commission which included local activists as well as the appearance of semi-independent periodicals created spaces for such negotiations. At the same time, the notion of hybridity also helped to identify the complexity of changes in street names themselves when new names were introduced by replacing the problematic figures, while non-problematic Soviet and imperial names were left untouched. The inscription of new streets to the city text could be followed by additional ritualized practices, as evidenced by the baptism of Ivan Ohienko Street. However, in this new hybrid contexts, women were still almost ignored in the new sites of memory, creating a situation when their voices could only partly been heard in public space and were generally still subaltern in the city text.