On February 11, the Russian state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti published an op-ed criticizing Ukraine’s renaming of towns and other toponyms in accordance with the country’s law on de-communization.
RIA Novosti’s headline read: “’Not Odessa, but Kotsyubeyev!’ Why does Kyiv erase the real names of cities.” According to the article, Alexander Vasiliev, a former deputy of the Odessa (Ukrainian: Odesa) city council and historian, implies “Ukrainian nationalists” would prefer Odessa be called Khadjibey-Kotsyubeyev, as it was known before the Russian empire conquered it from the Ottomans in the late 18th century. Although he admits that it’s unlikely that anyone will actually decide to change the name. Vasiliev does not identify the Ukrainian nationalists (or any Ukrainians at all, for that matter) who supposedly prefer the old name. Polygraph.info found no indications that anyone in the Ukrainian media, or among Ukrainian politicians or government officials, have discussed such a proposal regarding changing Odesa’s name. In fact, the idea seems to have been absent from Ukraine’s public discourse.
The changing of names is part of the Law of Ukraine No. 317-VIII “On condemning Communist and National-Socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes in Ukraine and banning propaganda of their symbols,” adopted in 2015. Under this law, the names of cities and other geographic features originating from the Soviet period must be changed. In some cases, the names have reverted back to their pre-revolutionary names, but in other cases new names have been devised, as the law does not require the new names to be historic names. For example, Dnipropetrovsk, named for both the Dnipro river and the Ukrainian Bolshevik leader Grigory Petrovsky, did not revert to its last pre-revolutionary name, Yekaterinoslav, which was in honor of Russian Empress Catherine the Great (Yekaterina in Russian) and thus reflected the legacy of Ukraine’s colonization by Russia. Instead, the city was simply renamed simply Dnipro.
The RIA Novosti article also questioned a recent initiative to rename Dnipropetrovsk region — named after Dnipropetrovsk city — to Sicheslavska region. It noted that the Rada deputies who proposed the name change claimed that in 1918-1921, residents of then Yekaterinoslav intended to change the city’s name to Sicheslav — derived from the term “sich,” which denoted a military-administrative organ used by Zaporozhian Cossacks.
The town of Komsomolsk in the Poltava region was renamed in 2016 because it was named after the Komsomol — the Communist youth league of the Soviet Union. In accordance with Law No. 317-VIII, it was renamed Horishni Plavni. In this case, the city had no pre-revolutionary name, given that it was founded in 1960 as a mining town.
Incidentally, the same cannot be said for Odessa: while the city was renamed under Catherine the Great, the name derives from the ancient Greek city of Odessos, which is believed to have been located in that region.
Ukraine’s decommunization law and many of its provisions have been criticized both inside and outside the country. Legitimate complaints tend to focus on its top-down implementation and the substitution of Soviet-approved history with equally distorted, politicized narratives. Still, it is ultimately up to each country to decide how it names its cities and geographic features.
It’s also worth noting that Russia has also changed the names of many cities, particularly when they conquered them as the Tsardom of Moscow expanded and evolved into the Russian Empire. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some cities such as Leningrad and Sverdlovsk were changed back to their pre-revolutionary names of St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. In the Soviet era, Stalingrad was given the generic name of Volgograd (city on the Volga) rather than its historic name, Tsaritsyn.