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A statue of 19th-century novelist Nikolai Gogol overlooks one of the main boulevards in Dnipro, Ukraine.

A statue of 19th-century novelist Nikolai Gogol overlooks one of the main boulevards in Dnipro, Ukraine. (Anastasia Vlasova/The Washington Post)

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Serhii Sternenko says he has executed several daring nighttime missions against Russian targets since armed conflict broke out in 2014 between Ukrainian nationalists and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, including a raid a few months before Russia invaded.

The targets, though, were statues. He and his friends tore down one Soviet military commander, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, several years ago and vandalized another, Gen. Ivan M. Tretyak, just before the war.

"The monuments of the Soviet regime and the Russian empire remind people of all the atrocities that Russia and the Soviet Union did to the people of Ukraine," said Sternenko, a YouTuber with nearly 900,000 followers who has posted some of his exploits online. "When I see a monument of Catherine the Second in Odessa it seems for me like a monument of Hitler in Israel."

The onset of war has hastened Ukraine's efforts to remove the names of famous Russian and Soviet figures from metro stations, streets and landmarks. There's even an app. The only reason more Russian statues haven't been toppled lately, Sternenko said, is that Ukrainians have been too busy fighting a war.

"After we win the war, we will have time and we will clear all the Soviet and Russian imperial monuments from Ukraine," said Sternenko, a former regional head of the ultranationalist militant group Right Sector who said his sights are set on a monumental statue of Catherine the Great in his hometown, Odessa.

Ukrainians have seized on the importance of asserting their own historical legacy with more urgency since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the war on their country Feb. 24.

The Ukrainian reckoning has echoes in the debate over removing Confederate statues, reappraising American colonial history and ditching racist vestiges of the past, from professional baseball team mascots to Aunt Jemima's syrup.

"This is an interesting characteristic of our time in general, that we began to comprehend history so sensitively," said Anton Drobovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. He said that for Ukraine, however, the process of unearthing its history from under years of Russian and Soviet rule is relatively new.

Reminders of Russian and Soviet dominion can be found almost everywhere in Ukraine. A street in Bucha is named after Alexander Pushkin, a poet revered by Russians as their Shakespeare. The 19th-century novelist Nikolai Gogol — who was born in Ukraine but claimed by Russia as one of its greatest authors because he wrote in Russian — overlooks one of Dnipro's main boulevards from a pedestal. The boulevard itself — though renamed years ago for a prominent Ukrainian historian — still has at least one stone plaque showing that it had once been Karl Marx Avenue.

Yaroslav Hrytsak, director of the Institute for Historical Studies of Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, said that when he was growing up, the ubiquity of Russian and Soviet markers became a kind of imperial wallpaper.

"I accepted it as a dull Soviet landscape," Hrytsak said. It was as if street by street and square by square, the Soviet Union had all but lobotomized historical memory in Ukraine and other former republics, he said.

"Ukrainians were denied any kind of memory that would make them different from Russians," Hrytsak said. "The politics of the Soviet Union toward Ukraine was a total amnesia."

The effort to recover Ukraine's cultural heritage has picked up speed in recent weeks.

The mayor of Mykolaiv announced Saturday on Telegram that a Pushkin memorial had been removed because, he said, it needed protection from vandals. Earlier this month, Kyiv Metro said five stations will be renamed, including the stop at Leo Tolstoy Square, while Kharkiv's city government voted to rename three streets and an entire neighborhood.

A commercial breadmaker, Kyivkhlib, said this month that it had renamed its popular, custardy dark bread from Belorussian to Otamanskyi in a nod to the Zaporozhian Cossacks who ruled the lower Dnieper River basin (though the Cossack past includes its own dark chapters, including one of the largest pogroms ever carried out against Jews).

A new social media tool called "What did Pushkin do to you?" offers mini-tutorials on why various Russian figures should stay or go.

Tap Puskhin's name, and the Telegram bot spits out a verdict writing him off as a "Russian chauvinist" who glorified czarist imperialism. It says much the same about Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mikhail Bulgakov, the Soviet author of "The Master and Margarita," is also a "ni" (the Ukrainian "nyet") because — though born in Kyiv in 1891 — he maligned Ukraine's national aspirations and had the gall to disparage its mother tongue.

Two other giants of Russian literature — Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov — get passes because of their humane and empathetic approach to almost everything they wrote. But the bot says it still wouldn't be a bad idea to phase them out for Ukrainian historical and cultural figures.

Who might those be? Ukrainians such as Vasyl Semenovych Stus, a poet who died in a Soviet gulag while on a hunger strike in 1985. Or Levko Lukianenko, another Soviet dissident who spent years in prison and wrote modern Ukraine's Declaration of Independence. Or Myroslav Skoryk, a composer whose lyrically mournful work includes inflections of folk music. Or even the late Israeli leader Golda Meir, who was born in Kyiv.

A mirror image of the process has also been unfolding in eastern Ukraine, where Russian separatists argue that their culture has been oppressed by Kyiv and westernized Ukrainians.

A video posted on Telegram last week shows Russian singer Yulia Chicherina in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region for the unveiling of a bust of Alexander Zakharchenko. He headed the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic before his assassination in 2018.

"The issue of historical memory in Ukraine is extremely politicized," said Elise Giuliano, a political science professor at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. She said ridding Ukraine of most vestiges of its Soviet and Russian past has sometimes been divisive, and not just in the breakaway east.

Many Ukrainians, especially older people, embrace patriotic narratives around the Soviet Union's role in the victory over Nazi Germany, Giuliano said. She said there have also been intense battles over how — or whether — to memorialize Stepan Bandera, whose Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists fought for independence against the Soviets but also collaborated with Nazis.

Worrying about street names and monuments may seem quaint with a war going on, but scholars say the stakes are high as Ukraine seeks to unify. False history and myth helped lead Russia into war, they argue.

"Putin has weaponized history," said Drobovych, with the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. "The things he says have nothing to do with actual history. We, as an institution, do not falsify the past in our process. We try to show the past as it was, without imposed myths and fakes."

Drobovych's institute has led efforts to recover Ukraine's history by digging through KGB archives and elevating the stories of Ukrainians who were persecuted or silenced. The institute has also been evaluating Russian figures such as Pushkin and compiling a list of Ukrainians and Ukrainian things that might take their place in memorials, particularly lesser-known Ukrainians.

The list includes the late Hollywood star Jack Palance — he of the one-handed, Oscar night push-ups — whose parents were from Ukraine. It also includes "Oi u Luzi Chervona Kalyna," a patriotic Ukrainian song that Pink Floyd recently sampled to show support.

As a child growing up in Soviet-controlled Lviv in the 1970s, Hrytsak hoped a day like this might come. He said he even had a swap in mind: "Lenin down, and John Lennon in his place."

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The Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan and Anastasia Vlasova contributed to this report.


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