As Russia’s Onslaught Continues, Odessa Seeks to Eliminate Russian Culture

On Wednesday morning, residents of the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa woke up to a new but controversial art installation. Within sight of the Potemkin Stairs in the historic heart of the seaside town center, someone had redecorated the local monument to Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great – covering her bronze head with a scarlet executioner’s hood and placing a noose in his outstretched left hand.

The event, which inspired public discussions similar to those surrounding the issue of the removal of public monuments to Confederate generals in the southern United States, served as a reminder that not all Ukrainian citizens wish to see their state declare cultural independence. vis-à-vis Russia.

But those who oppose the cultural transition are now a minority in Odessa, the result of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

On the morning of November 2, 2022, Green Leaf activist Vladislav Balinskyi redecorated a local monument to Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great by placing an executioner’s hood over her head and an executioner’s noose in her hand. A majority of local citizens are in favor of removing the statue.

“When the mayor’s office conducted a poll last month, just over 50 percent of local citizens were in favor of removing the monument from the square,” said Odessa city council member Petro Obukhov. Newsweek. “It’s actually a milestone because when a similar poll was done in May, support was just 14%.”

The cause of the sudden shift in public opinion was not difficult to decipher for elected municipal officials.

“With every Russian rocket launch, every suicide drone attack, every airborne warning siren and funeral of a loved one, support for the removal of the monument has grown,” Obukhov said.

Residents who suddenly found themselves in the minority, however, were ever present in the small crowd of locals who stopped to take selfies in the shadow of the hooded monument.

“It’s absolutely terrible. Without her [Catherine the Great]there would be no Odessa,” says Olga, who was passing by with her granddaughter. Newsweek, before offering five minutes of conspiracy theories about Germany transporting Ukraine’s black soil out of the country and the Japanese government conducting secret negotiations to replace Ukraine’s population with its own.

Igor, a sailor, feared that “when the Russians see what the fools in our town have done to their beauty, they will really screw us up”.

Odessa street
Ukrainian flags hang in the streets of Odessa, Ukraine on March 5, 2022, just over a week after the full-scale Russian invasion began. Despite expectations in Moscow that the population of Odessa would welcome Russian soldiers as liberators, public opinion in the largely Russian-speaking port city turned decisively against Russia.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Vadim, who was chatting with Igor, was surprised to learn that the current monument was a replica of an earlier statue, which was removed by Bolshevik authorities in 1920. The modern version was erected in 2007.

“I still think we should preserve it,” Vadim said. “It has artistic value.”

After a group of middle-aged people carrying cans of pre-mixed cocktails finished posing for photos in front of the monument, a reveler who declined to share her name said she disapproved of the art installation.

“These activists are trying to rewrite history,” she said. Newsweek. “First they took Lenin away, then they banned the Russian language, and now they say Odessa was never even part of Russia.”

Obukhov, a member of the city council, who spoke with Newsweek in the Russian language, disagree.

“It is true that Catherine the Great signed an ordinance which led to the development of Odessa, and Tsar Alexander I further stimulated the growth of the city by making it a free port,” he explained. “Such historical facts are textbooks, but that does not mean that the Russian Imperial leaders who did these things deserve to have a place of honor in the middle of our city in the year 2022, in the middle of a real war between Russia and Ukraine.

Despite backlash from some segments of the local community, those responsible for drawing attention to the issue of historical memory believe Wednesday’s events provide an opportunity to educate the public. Among those in the square were Vladislav Balinskyi, head of the NGO Green Leaf and the man who that morning climbed the ladder to redecorate the controversial monument, even as the air-raid sirens blared background.

“By doing a scene like this, we are helping to draw the audience’s attention to historical facts,” Balinskyi said. Newsweek. “Many people who oppose the removal of the monument simply do not know that it was erected only a few years ago, or that there was a settlement on the Odessa site long before that the Russian armies do not arrive and take it in battle.”

“It is important that citizens understand these things,” he added, “so that the removal of the monument is accepted as legitimate.”

While Balinskyi criticizes the mayor’s party for refusing to vote in city council on the issue of the monument’s removal, he remains certain that the issue of the monument’s fate can only be resolved through democratic means.

“This issue will ultimately be resolved by uniting public opinion around the removal of the monument,” he said. “After that, the public can do whatever they want with the statue itself – melt it down and use the bronze for something, put it in a museum, let someone take it home – whatever. “

“The important thing is that everyone is committed to making the decision in a civilized way,” Balinskyi added.

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