Ukraine removes the traces of the Russian Empire

After the ‘decommunization’ now begins the ‘de-imperialization’ of Ukraine. In Odessa, Tsarina Catherine disappears into the museum; during their flight from Kherson, the Russians took with them the remains of Prince Potemkin. “If we live in the past, there is no future.”

Michael Driebergen

Ah, the fate of the empress and her wartime love…

She, the crowned tsarina, boasted until recently the most beautiful place in Odessa. With her left hand, Empress Catherine gestured to the sea as if loosely inviting her to descend the famous Potemkin Stairs to the harbor. A warm sea breeze came to her; she was never cold, surrounded as she was by beautiful Italian architecture.

Now the statue of Catherine the Great is invisible because it is surrounded by wooden partitions. And she is about to be banished to a museum.

He, Prince Potemkin, rested in the most beautiful place in Kherson. The marshal may have been favored as a lover by the empress, but his health was poor and so he gave up prematurely. His remains were in a coffin in the crypt of St. Catherine’s Church. Tourists loved to visit his tomb and his statue in the central park.

Now only the plinth remains of Grigory Potemkin’s monument. The casket containing his remains has been stolen.

Reverse resurrection

“One day the Russians came – I don’t remember exactly when – and they took the coffin,” says priest Ilya of Saint Catherine’s Church in Kherson. The reverend rolls aside a heavy blanket, opens a hatch and descends into the depths – a process that resembles a kind of reverse resurrection. He raises his head above the floor again and waves his visitor. “Here was Potemkin’s coffin,” he says in the crypt, pointing to an empty concrete plinth. “Why they took it, they didn’t say.”


The plinth in Odessa, on which Potemkin stood until recently.Picture michiel driebergen

In late October, the Russian-appointed ‘governor’ of then-occupied Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, reported that Potemkin’s remains and statue had been ‘evacuated’ to the left bank of the Dnipro. “They are sanctuaries that we must protect,” declared the collaborator. He thus prepared for the departure of the Russian troops, who actually fled the city on 11 November.

“The occupiers even cared about the imperial past,” explains priest Ilja, who is dominated by a sense of exasperation. In Kherson, the Russians were not only enthusiastic about the imperial history, but also about the Soviet past: for example, the celebration of the October Revolution was forced on the residents. Precisely during the Soviet era, Potemkin’s remains were removed from the church, says the priest. The communists turned the church into a ‘museum of atheism’ and exhibited the marshal’s skull there. “The two stories are in conflict with each other. What is going on in these people’s heads?”

The priest has to recover from the obsession anyway. Every Sunday, members of the FSB, Russia’s security service, attended the sermon. “We saw them,” says priest Ilja. “We preach exclusively about the gospel, but if you have pro-Ukrainian ideas in your soul, you are constantly afraid that everyone will notice. It is scary.”

New debate since the invasion

Since the Russian invasion, a new debate about statues and monuments has raged in Ukraine. In 2014, as the Russians exploited nostalgia for the Soviet past to dispossess eastern Ukraine, a process of “decommunization” began; meanwhile, all statues of Lenin have been removed from the country. As the Russians use the imperial history to legitimize their invasion of southern Ukraine, a process of “de-imperialization” is beginning – although that word has not yet been coined.

Empress Catherine, the incarnate imperator, has also been invisible in Odessa since March. The port city, 150 kilometers west of Kherson, was not occupied but is unmistakably a target for Putin. Initially, the statue was protected from the shelling with sandbags; until February, many Odessans appreciated the city’s prominent place in Russian imperial history. The statue was an attraction for tourists.

But after the port city was bombarded with Russian drones and missiles for months, a group of citizens started a signature campaign. Tsarina Catherine was “a tyrant” who subjected Ukraine to “aggressive colonization”, says MP Oleksiey Goncharenko in a local newspaper. He points out that Putin likes to use ‘Novorossia’, or ‘New Russia’, a term Katarina used for the areas of southern Ukraine colonized by Potemkin. The imperial myth serves as historical justification for Putin’s conquest of Ukraine.

On November 30, the city council responded to the call of several tens of thousands of citizens: the statue was dismantled and placed on the grounds of a museum.

This development of demolishing and moving statues is not appreciated by everyone. “It’s stupid to fight the past,” says Vitali Oplatshko, a sailor and shipping entrepreneur who has been in Fidelity commented on events in his city. The 84-year-old walks by the statue almost every day with his dog, but now meets at the statue of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko – which is located close to his apartment.

Patriot of Ukraine

The removal of monuments is “an excuse for real deeds,” says Odessite. For example, he raised funds for heated soles for Ukrainian soldiers and raised ten thousand euros in a few weeks. “Am I a patriot? Yes, I am, but I should whisper that word,” he says. “Patriotism is an intimate quality, like love for your mother or your family. If you boast about it, you are not sincere. I am a person of Russian culture, but I am a patriot of Ukraine,” he said. “And I have stopped convincing compatriots that it is possible.”

The erasure of the traces of imperial Russia shows that Ukraine is in a ‘formative process’, says Oplatshko. And the Ukrainians are just getting started. “At the moment, we are all mobilized to fight for our fatherland. We have only one idea: fight against Russia.”

Maksym Groedsky with his striking car.  Picture michiel driebergen

Maksym Groedsky with his striking car.Picture michiel driebergen

The key question is whether post-war Ukraine will develop into a ‘liberal bourgeois state’ or an ‘ethnic nation under the guise of democracy’. “Not only Ukrainians live in Ukraine,” warns Odessite. “Look at me: my father was Ukrainian, my mother was Russian. There are countless people like me. We cannot divide ourselves in two.”

If Catherine the Great disappears, more monuments will have to disappear, Opltatchko fears. Such as the French nobleman De Richelieu, who was mayor of Odessa under Catherine’s successor, Tsar Alexander the First, and also governor of Kherson. The statue of the ‘Duke’, as the Odessans always affectionately call him, stands proudly at the top of the Potemkin Stairs. “Let’s accept that the past is the past.”

While the discussion in Odessa rages, few people in Kherson are losing sleep over Prince Potemkin’s forced departure. “Few people talk about it,” explains Maksym Grudsky (39), a resident of Kherson, who looks like someone bragging about his patriotism with a large Ukrainian flag on his cap. But expressions of love for his country are mainly a result of the occupation, it turns out: During an interrogation by the Russians, he was forced to strip naked, after which they checked him for nationalist tattoos. “It’s a shame that Potemkin is gone, because he was of historical importance to Kherson. A relic, so to speak,” he says. “But what do we do about it? They took him, so he’s gone.” Then, after some thought, you add, “The Russians have no history, so they steal it elsewhere”.

Why go back to a bad life?

Groedsky was also annoyed by the attitude of the Russians. “They came here with Soviet flags, they took our cars from us and wrote USSR on them. Why should we go back to a bad life when we just made life better?

He hopes his ten-year-old daughter Mariana, who likes to have her picture taken with her father and his car, will be taught about Potemkin at school. “We need to know the history of our city. But the real history, not the propaganda.” He concludes: “If we live in the past, there is no future”.

Priest Ilya discovered an important difference between Ukrainians and Russians during the occupation. “Ukrainians see the past as something you can tell a story about, but the past remains the past. The Russians want to revive the past and find their justification for their aggressive actions.”

The church can do without the remains of the prince. “Potemkin was not a saint, so it means nothing to remove his remains. We pray as before,” said the priest. He expects the coffin to disappear to Russia and that no one in Ukraine is interested in returning it. The crypt can be used for another who meant a lot to Kherson, he believes. “New era, new heroes.” He does not yet know who will be buried under St. Catherine’s Church.

According to Chersonnite Groedsky, Potemkin’s place in the park will also be occupied again. Who can stand up on the plinth? “The soldiers who tried to defend Kherson in the first days and died. And the soldiers who died during the liberation,” he says.

Novorossia forever out of favor

Prince Grigory Potemkin (1739-1791) became known for the so-called Potemkin villages: to please his Empress Catherine the Great (1729-1796), whom he also loved, he would have decorated the facades of villages to show how prosperous the southern countries were . Ukrainian territories under his leadership.

Except this legend, with Potemkin as marshal and diplomat, knew Empress Catherine to colonize the entire southern part of present-day Ukraine. At the behest of his empress, Potemkin (co-founded) the cities of Kherson and Odessa.

Until now, Catherine the Great and her favorite prince were also recognized as such in the Ukrainian cities, but now that Putin has changed the history of the imperial ‘Novorossia’ used as legitimation for the invasion, the appreciation of the Russian Empire in Ukraine is gone forever.

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