It is a 50 cm high bust, which sits at the top of a column, in a pedestrian alley lined with flowers. It is in the center of Zhytomyr, a city of 250,000 inhabitants located 100 km west of kyiv. The bust represents Alexander Pushkin in an officer’s uniform. The statue was unveiled in 1899, for the 100th anniversary of the Russian poet’s birth. But today, since Russia bombed Zhytomyr, a certain number of inhabitants wish to get rid of it.
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“I don’t want to see this monument anymore… Any sign of Russian presence now bothers me. We have our own writers who are best honored”says Oxana, 50, a doctor and resident of Zhytomyr. “I understand this rejection. But it’s a classic…”moderate Sergei, engineer, forties. “The Russians are destroying our culture, so it would be better to destroy itslice Paulina, 25, while waiting for her bus not far from the monument. We don’t want to have any ties with Russia anymore, and it doesn’t matter that they had brilliant artists. The Russians are killing our children…”
The mayor delays
The fate of this monument is the subject of intense discussion on social networks, since a large number of Ukrainian cities have undertaken to store the statues of Russian writers and poets, following the offensive of the February 24. This is the case in Ternopil, Ouzhhorod, Chernivtsi, Berdytchiv… In kyiv, the public transport administration has for its part launched a consultation on the Internet to find out whether the Leon-Tolstoï station should be renamed.
In Zhytomyr, while a petition has started to circulate on social networks, the mayor, Serhiï Sukhomlyn, wants to keep reason. He receives us in his office transformed into a fortress. The windows of the town hall are obstructed by sandbags. Armed soldiers camp in the hall. All the staff have put on military dress and a bulletproof vest is casually thrown over the back of their chair.
The elected official explains that he proposed to organize a local referendum to decide the fate of the monument. “But after the war, he specifies. Today we have more urgent tasks…”
4,000 displaced people from the East welcomed
Opposite the town hall, on the other side of the square, a school received a bomb which completely destroyed it. Fortunately, the building was empty. There were no casualties. The city is hosting around 4,000 displaced people from the east of the country, who have had to be housed.
The mayor is not afraid to say that statues like those of Pushkin “have been used by Russian propaganda to say that Ukrainians and Russians are one nation” and that this “served as a base to invade our country”. But he gets a little annoyed: “Waging war against monuments is not the most difficult thing…”
Russian television, in fact, is making a big splash out of these statue removals. Vladimir Putin’s whole speech consists precisely in saying that Ukraine is ruled by a handful of extremists who want to eradicate Russian culture, and that therefore it is necessary to intervene militarily to protect it… So, is the moment right? to deal with this issue? Vakhtang Kipiani is nevertheless convinced of this.
Ukraine in the process of decolonization
This Ukrainian intellectual is editor-in-chief of La Vérité historique, a general public site that publishes contributions from historians. For him, these monuments to Russian poets and writers are a legacy of Ukraine’s colonial past. “Zhytomyr has no connection with Pushkin, a city he has never set foot in. If this monument is there, it is because Imperial Russia wanted to install its presence as a sign of its domination., he said. For him, the current war is a conflict of decolonization which also involves the fight against all signs of forced Russification of Ukraine.
Long before the start of this war, Vakhtang Kipiani was already campaigning for the replacement of statues and the change of street names referring to Russian classics. “At the time, these ideas were very much in the minority. Nobody even wanted to hear about it”, he acknowledges. But, since February 24, minds are changing very quickly. “From now on, the question is no longer when the statues will be removed, but which ones will be put in their place. » And he quips: “All of this would never have happened if Putin hadn’t invaded Ukraine. So if the Russian nationalists have complaints to make, it is to the Russian president that they should send them…”