In Odesa, a bronze statue gazes over the city’s famed Potemkin Steps towards the Black Sea, ensconced to its chest in protective sandbags.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, citizens across the country rushed to shield their prized heritage from bombardment. The monument to the Duke of Richelieu, a 19th century governor who helped transform this Black Sea port into a modern cosmopolitan city, was considered worth protecting.
But 200 yards away, another monument – this one to Catherine the Great, the Russian empress who founded Odesa – provokes more ambivalence. A petition calling for its removal received over 26,500 signatures, forcing the president to respond earlier this month.
In February, the threat to Odesa was existential – with the streets blockaded and the beaches mined against anticipation. For Vladimir Putin, Odesa’s Russian heritage made it a key target, returning it to a renewed Russian empire would cut Ukraine off from the sea.
Six months on the threat of invasion has receded and this summer the war in Odesa is cultural, being fought by Ukrainians who have turned against anything Russian (even making it politically incorrect to write Odesa in the Russian way). But other Odesans see this cultural purge as threatening the unique soul and identity of Ukraine’s third-largest city.
Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov now finds himself in a delicate position. In a war that has turned much of Ukrainian society against everything Russian, his city must decide what links to the city’s Russian past are worth preserving.
“I am Ukrainian and a patriot – most Odesans are the same – but we can’t rewrite the history of Odesa in just a couple of years,” the Russian-speaking mayor told The Telegraph on Friday from his office in a sandbagged city hall.
Once the pride of the Russian empire, Odesa today is a vibrant cultural hub whose cobblestone streets are filled with Baroque and Rococo architecture, trendy bars and restaurants and a world-renowned opera house.
Many of the fortifications installed in March to defend the city in the event of street fighting have been removed and life goes on with a semblance of normality. Municipal workers in blue overalls and yellow tops repair streets in which bollards and planters are painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
Its one-million inhabitants are mostly Russian speakers, who are proud of their Odesan accent and their city’s unique heritage. Statues and street names celebrate Russian writers with links to Odesa, such as Alexander Pushkin, who spent two years living in the city, and Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol, who wrote his classic Dead Souls while living here.
Earlier this month, President Volodymyr Zelensky referred the petition calling for the removal of the Catherine the Great statue to city authorities, which have formed a commission to consider the future of local landmarks honouring Russian figures.
“Personally I don’t support a monument war at a time when our country is at war,” said Mr Trukhanov, arguing that with emotions inflamed any attempt to rewrite history could be polarising.
But he will put his own views to one side, he said, as the commission considers whether monuments and sculptures should be moved from squares and street corners to a monument park.
A deputy in Odesa’s city parliament, Peter Obukhov, has drawn up a list of statutes and street names he would want to remove as part of the city’s “derussification”. A statue to 18th century general Alexander Suvorov and the district named after him should go, he believes, as representing a symbol of Russian imperialism. Historical figures with a strong connection to Odesa should stay, he believes, including Pushkin and Gogol.
“Putin created this situation where Ukrainian society hates everything Russian – history, art, music – so now we’re seeing these things in a new light,” Mr Trukhanov said, explaining how the public mood had soured on Odesa’s Russian heritage.
“But we also need to think about what we would replace them with; we need to choose things that we’re not going to need to replace again in 10 years time,” he said.
Cornerstone of national identity
Since the Euromaidan uprising of 2014, the Ukrainian language has emerged as a cornerstone of a national identity increasingly at odds with Russia, with the Ukrainian government introducing laws aimed at promoting its use.
Ukrainian is mandated as the language to be used in most aspects of public life, including schools, while new laws this year have restricted the availability of Russian books and music and required print outlets registered in the country to publish in Ukrainian.
Separatists in eastern Ukraine have argued that Russian speakers are victims of growing discrimination and Moscow cited suppression of Russian language as part of its justification for the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Watchdog groups have raised concerns about insufficient safeguards of minority languages.
But if Mr Putin’s invasion was – as many Ukrainians believe – an attempt to eradicate an independent identity distinct from Russia, it has backfired badly.
Ana Furtak, who on a recent afternoon was out with her two young children in an Odesa park, said that since the war she had found a greater range of Ukrainian songs and media available online for her children.
“I want my grandchildren to be ignorant of the Russian language,” she said, speaking in Russian herself.