President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine has signed two laws that strictly reinforce his country’s national identity, banning Russian placenames and making knowledge of Ukrainian language and history a requirement for citizenship.
The moves late on Friday were Ukraine’s latest steps to distance itself from a long legacy of Russian domination, an increasingly emotional subject since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last year. They also show how forceful Ukraine’s government has become about protecting its cultural identity in a conflict shaped by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s efforts to wipe it out.
Already, countless streets across Ukraine have been renamed, and statues of Russian figures like Catherine the Great have come toppling down in what officials have called “decolonisation” or “de-Russification” projects. While such efforts to scrub away old Russian names have been going on since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have picked up pace since the war began in February 2022.
A law that Zelenskiy signed on Friday prohibits using placenames that “perpetuate, promote or symbolise the occupying state or its notable, memorable, historical and cultural places, cities, dates, events” and “its figures who carried out military aggression against Ukraine”.
The law will come into force in three months, according to a statement posted on the Telegram messaging app by Ukraine’s parliament, after which, local authorities will have six months to “free public space from the symbols of the Russian world”. A national board will draw up a list of what it considers questionable names, and then local councils in cities and towns must change them. If elected members of the local bodies cannot agree, the law says the head of that body will have the authority to change the name.
As important as identity is to Ukrainians, it has also been a huge part of Putin’s justification for the invasion. Before ordering his troops to cross the border last February, Putin accused Ukraine of trying to “root out” Russian language and culture. He cited the need to protect Russian speakers as part of his spurious justification for the war and has repeatedly asserted that Ukraine is not a real state and that the Ukrainians are not a real people, but actually Russian. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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