Ukraine’s Cultural Counteroffensive: Shunning Russian Symbols Amidst War


As the echoes of war continue to resound in Ukraine, a parallel battle for cultural identity has emerged, shaping the nation’s landscape and literature. The war, which began in 2022, intensified an ongoing campaign to purge Soviet and Russian symbols from public spaces while nurturing a stronger Ukrainian identity. This cultural counteroffensive can be seen in the renaming of Soviet-era streets, the removal of statues, and the banishment of Russian literature from bookshelves. In this article, we delve into the depths of Ukraine’s “de-Russification” efforts and their profound impact on society and culture.

The Heart of the Resistance: Kharkiv

Kharkiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking border region in northeastern Ukraine, embodies the spirit of this cultural transformation. The city, which endured the brunt of Russian attacks at the onset of the invasion, bears the scars of war on its walls and the closures of its art institutions. The city’s famous art museum, marked by shell-scarred walls and boarded-up windows, serves as a poignant testament to these attacks.

In a symbolic gesture, the museum promptly erased the word “Russian” from the name of its key department, “Ukrainian and Russian Art,” in response to the invasion. Paintings by artists regarded as Russian were quietly relocated to a secret location, awaiting an uncertain fate. “The city is in pain. The city is grieving,” says Maryna Filatova, an official at the museum, emphasizing the rejection of Russian art by the local population during these trying times.

Art Reflects Reality

Within the museum’s walls, a shift in artistic expression is evident. The art on display now portrays the harsh “war reality,” as depicted by local artist Viktor Kovtun. His works capture the essence of a city under siege, offering a stark portrayal of life during wartime. In addition, the museum showcases installations crafted from the remnants of Russian munitions that struck Kharkiv, serving as a visual reminder of the ongoing conflict.

In a powerful display of resilience, a poster bearing the message “Kharkiv is a hero city” stands proudly before the State Industry Building, an architectural marvel completed in 1928 as the Soviet Union’s inaugural modern skyscraper. This poignant scene unfolds at Freedom Square in Kharkiv, where history and defiance merge. Kharkiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking border city in northeastern Ukraine, found itself at the forefront of the invasion, making it a symbol of Ukraine’s resolute cultural counteroffensive. Photo Credit: SERGEY BOBOK/AFP

Defacing the Icons

The de-Russification movement is most visible in Kharkiv’s public spaces, where statues of Soviet and Russian cultural icons have been torn down or defaced. Among them are figures like Alexander Pushkin, the 19th-century poet, and Alexander Ostrovsky, the renowned playwright. This removal of cultural symbols serves as a stark statement of Ukraine’s desire to break free from its Soviet past and Russian influence.

Local reports suggest that Soviet and Russian authors, including Fyodor Dostoevsky and Mikhail Lermontov, will be removed from the school curriculum. For many Ukrainians, these literary giants represent the expansionist rhetoric of their neighbor, Russia.

Language as Identity

In the pursuit of de-Russification, many residents of Kharkiv, even those who grew up speaking Russian and have family ties across borders, have chosen to embrace the Ukrainian language. The shift to Ukrainian, once considered by some as a “peasant language,” is now seen as an expression of patriotism. Mykola Kolomiets, the head of a children’s art studio in the city, admits that using Russian words now leaves him with “an unpleasant taste,” akin to having “eaten something rotten.”

However, this linguistic boycott has sparked resistance from those who argue that language should not be tied to nationality. Mayor Igor Terekhov, who spoke to AFP in Ukrainian but communicated with his staff in Russian, believes that forcing the language shift upon people who have spoken Russian all their lives will only provoke resistance. He acknowledges that the transition is particularly challenging for the older generation, deeply entrenched in the Russian language.

A Long-Term Process

De-Russification in Ukraine has been a gradual process, dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and it gained momentum with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Rostyslav Melnykiv, head of the Ukrainian literature department at a leading Kharkiv university, remarks that the current efforts mark a “point of no return” in the cultural transformation.

The Resurgence of Ukrainian Culture

Oleksandr Savchuk, a publisher, observes that the invasion has sparked an unprecedented interest in Ukrainian cultural figures, particularly those who were suppressed during the Soviet era. His publishing house, despite losing many books in a fire caused by a Russian strike, has witnessed a surge in sales of Ukrainian language books since the invasion. “We don’t want people to just switch their language,” Savchuk states. “We want them to feel more Ukrainian.”


In the midst of a harrowing conflict, Ukraine’s cultural counteroffensive is a testament to the resilience of its people and their determination to forge a distinct identity. Through the removal of Russian symbols, the rejection of Russian literature, and the embrace of the Ukrainian language, Ukraine is shaping its narrative and asserting its independence. As the war rages on, these cultural changes will continue to evolve, leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s history and identity.

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