My whole life before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was pretty much lived on Krasnotkatskaya (Red Weavers’ Street) in Kyiv.
Like so many aspects of the Soviet era, the street’s name was unromantic and functional, deriving from a fabric enterprise founded in 1936 in accordance with a five-year plan to advance the USSR’s economy. Some 30 years later, the plant was awarded the Order of Lenin and, a decade afterward, was rebranded in honor of the Great October Revolution, none of which saved it from the economic turmoil of the 1990s, when it closed.
But the street remains central to local inhabitants with a school, an outpatient hospital, a post office, an administrative building, and shops. And so, long after the communist experiment failed, the neighborhood was an everyday reminder of the tireless work (and low rewards) of that time.
So it was a shock to discover that the red weavers had now been replaced by the great archetype of muscular democracy, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Plaques bearing his name will soon be added to every Khrushchevka (the five-stored brick apartment buildings constructed in Nikita Khrushchev’s times as temporary housing, but still widely in use.) I stared at the electricity bill bearing the new name and could almost hear the crashing sound as another piece of the Soviet past clattered into history’s trash bin, and something new and (as the Russian propagandists say) Anglo-Saxon drew us closer to the future.
This is a tectonic shift for a so-called “socialist town” (Sotsgorod), a Soviet urban planning concept from the 1920s and 1930s created as an accompaniment to the industrialization program designed to build communism and develop a “collectivist person.” Back then, all the best architects, state and public employees, scientists, hygienists, and other specialists contributed to a typical Sotsgorod development.
Just nine buildings of this particular Sotsgorod survived World War II, explaining the need for so many 5-storied Khrushchevkas as replacements. And even though, in the last two decades, the area has been turning into a standard dormitory district with new and more comfortable residential buildings, the past is always cropping up.
Symbols matter. They are a constant reminder of myths defining societal norms that, in turn, define our everyday life and fate. Myths may even become a cornerstone of the self. That is why the main character of the fabulous movie, Goodbye Lenin, constructs a totally new reality for his sick mother, who he fears would not survive news of East Germany’s fall.
Ukrainians survived profound societal changes in 1991, but it took another two decades to initiate Leninfall — the iconoclastic campaign of 2014 that saw 700 Lenin monuments demolished as a protest at Russia’s attempts to preserve its influence — and ultimately to destroy Ukraine. The wave of monument removal once again provided an echo of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The de-communization in Ukraine has long been interpreted by Russian propagandists as a harmful nationalistic movement distorting the memory of the “joint glorious past” and which merely separates “fraternal nations.” Only after Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity did the effort to scrape off the Soviet past become visible. And it took another eight years to create the Council on De-Russification, Decommunization and Decolonization, which coordinates the dismantling of monuments and changing of toponyms. Only last year, 10,000 streets were renamed, including one named after Ivan Kudria, who was the leader of Kyiv’s underground Chekist group and a Hero of the Soviet Union. Now it is proudly named after the US senator from the state of Arizona and warmly remembered friend of Ukraine, John McCain. Work continues; just this month, the Soviet hammer and sickle on Kyiv’s 330-ft high Motherland Monument is being replaced with the Ukrainian trident.
Such things matter, but no one gives their life for a road sign. The true motivation is the dream of a better life with a new social contract rooted not in a Soviet state glorying in the bones of its citizens, but the notion of universal human values and freedoms. These high matters are discussed on political platforms and in academia.
But how does a bonfire of Soviet symbols feel in the everyday lives of ordinary people?
It feels refreshing. Like the first days of spring. Because finally the local municipality is not part of a huge repressive mechanism; hospital and post office employees cannot simply wield petty power over ordinary visitors; the ghastly mash served up as in public schools is not tolerated; a shop is no longer a statement of resilience during the heroic fight against the evil West, but a temple of good taste and visual esthetics, the good life today.
“Devastation is not in the closets, but in the mind,” says a character of the Kyiv-born writer Mykhail Bulgagov, who witnessed the creation of the Soviet Union and very truthfully depicted a distorted mentality of its “new world” creators.
The ongoing war in Ukraine is also a fight against the attempt of the Russian Federation to bring back this grey and smelly Soviet past with its lack of freedoms, oppressive or non-functional institutions, concentration camps, and psychiatric hospitals for dissent. Our Ukrainian war is a struggle against the powerlessness of the individual, conformism, rudeness, hopelessness, and squalor.
Thus, for all those in the West romanticizing a Russia that still very much resembles the Soviet Union, after reading long-dead Russian writers or who have spent vacations in Moscow or St. Petersburg, it would be wise to understand the less glamorous but much more widespread everyday realities; a ruthless Soviet heritage of valuing a human being as much as last year’s snow.
And, by the way, that Soviet fabric enterprise that gives its name to Winston Churchill Street is currently an “Art-plant Platforma,” a working, creative, and educational space.
Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) Her work is focused on analyzing opportunities for Ukraine-Russia reconciliation with regard to fascism and totalitarianism in Russia and their effects on Russia. She is an experienced researcher, who in 2022 conducted the studies ‘The Work of the Ukrainian Parliament in Wartime’ and ‘The War of Narratives: The Image of Ukraine in Media.’
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.