The action late Friday was the latest in a series of steps by Ukraine to distance itself from a long legacy of Russian domination.

By Jeffrey Gettleman and Olha Kotiuzhanska

The New York Times

April 22, 2023


President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has signed two laws that strictly reinforce his country’s national identity, banning Russian place names and making knowledge of Ukrainian language and history a requirement for citizenship.

The moves late Friday were Ukraine’s latest steps to distance itself from a long legacy of Russian domination, an increasingly emotional subject since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last year. They also show how forceful Kyiv’s government has become about protecting its cultural identity in a conflict shaped by President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to wipe it out.

Already, countless streets across Ukraine have been renamed and statues of Russian figures like Catherine the Great have come toppling down in what officials have called “decolonization” or “de-Russification” projects. While such efforts to scrub away old Russian names have been going on since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have picked up pace since the war began in February 2022.

A law that Mr. Zelensky signed on Friday prohibits using place names that “perpetuate, promote or symbolize the occupying state or its notable, memorable, historical and cultural places, cities, dates, events,” and “its figures who carried out military aggression against Ukraine.”

The law will come into force in three months, according to a statement posted on the Telegram messaging app by Ukraine’s Parliament, after which the local authorities will have six months to “free public space from the symbols of the Russian world.” A national board will draw up a list of what it considers questionable names and then local councils in cities and towns must change them. If elected members of the local bodies cannot agree, the law says that the head of that body will have the authority to change the name.

Vakhtang Kebuladze, a philosophy professor at the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, said it was about time for such a measure. He, like many other Ukrainian intellectuals, supports the erasing of Russian names, even those of great writers like Leo Tolstoy. “It’s not about literature,” Mr. Kebuladze said on Saturday. “It’s about the imperialistic presence of Russia in our streets and our cities.”

He added: “We should read Tolstoy, we should investigate his literature. But why do we need to have a Leo Tolstoy Street in the center of Kyiv? (In March, Kyiv changed Leo Tolstoy Street to Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi Street, after a Ukrainian leader from the early 20th century.)

Mr. Kebuladze also welcomed the new citizenship law signed by Mr. Zelensky on Friday that requires knowledge of Ukrainian language and history. Many Ukrainian citizens are native Russian speakers — including Mr. Zelensky. An estimated one in every three Ukrainians speaks Russian at home, according to researchers, but many of them — outraged by the violence of Russia’s invasion — have been switching to Ukrainian as a show of defiance. Yet Mr. Kebuladze, who speaks Ukrainian, Russian and Georgian, said it was fine for people to continue to speak what they want at home.  “It’s not about private language,” Mr. Kebuladze said. “We have only one state language, Ukrainian,” he added. “And if people want to become citizens, they should know this language. It’s part of our identity, our culture, our history.”

As important as identity is to Ukrainians, it has also been a huge part of Mr. Putin’s justification for the invasion. Before ordering his troops to cross the border last February, Mr. Putin accused Ukraine of trying to “root out” Russian language and culture. He cited the need to protect Russian speakers as part of his spurious justification for the war and has repeatedly asserted that Ukraine is not a real state and that the Ukrainians are not a real people, but actually Russian.

In territory seized by Mr. Putin’s forces since then, Moscow has been trying to stamp out Ukrainian identity and tighten Russia’s hold through intense Russification efforts. Pressuring Ukrainians to get Russian passports has been one facet, as were attempts to enforce a Russian curriculum in schools and replace the Ukrainian currency with the Russian ruble like the Russian occupation authorities tried to do in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine occupied by Moscow’s forces for more than eight months last year.

Russian troops retreated from Kherson in November, but took up positions just across the Dnipro River and have continued to relentlessly shell the city. For months after the retreat, remnants of Russification efforts still remained — like faintly visible signs on billboards that read: “Russia is here forever.”


Cassandra Vinograd contributed reporting from London. Christopher F. Schuetze and Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Berlin.

Jeffrey Gettleman is an international correspondent and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of “Love, Africa,” a memoir. @gettleman • Facebook