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Ukrainians debate the future of Russian identity and culture within their society


Meanwhile, Ukraine's army is fighting intense battles in the east and the south to stop Russia's invasion. And while the war rages on, there is a debate happening over the future of Russian identity and culture within Ukrainian society. Some say it's time for Ukraine to shake off Russian influence and dismantle monuments that celebrate Russian culture. NPR's Brian Mann has the story.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Oleksandr Babich walks through the center of Odesa, a city of baroque architecture now reshaped by sandbag checkpoints and daily air raid alerts.

OLEKSANDR BABICH: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: He points to a house where the writer Nikolai Gogol lived while writing "Dead Souls," one of the great novels of Russian literature. The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin stayed on the other side of the street.

So how deep is Russia in the roots or the DNA of this city?

BABICH: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "Odesa has always been a melting pot," Babich tells me. "Jewish, Russian, Ukrainian - it's difficult to say exactly whose city it is," he says. As one of Odesa's leading historians, Babich is part of a conversation happening at all levels here - in government, on social media, in literary journals, and in cafes - over how Russian identity should fit into the future of this city. The city was built by the Russian Empire and, like most people in Odesa, Babich grew up speaking Russian. It's still his primary language. But he's fiercely committed to Ukrainian independence and furious about the carnage being caused by Russia's army. This is something I hear a lot from Russian speakers here - a sense of betrayal - confusion over what to think about their own heritage and history.


ATEM DOROKHOV: All the good stuff that we know about Russian art, literature, etc. - it has been wiped out by the current deeds of the current regime.

MANN: Atem Dorokhov (ph) is a young online marketer I meet over coffee. Like a lot of people here, he doesn't just speak Russian; he has deep family and historic ties to Russia. He says this debate over how Russianness fits within Ukrainian society started simmering eight years ago, when Putin ordered the invasion of Crimea and the Donbas.

DOROKHOV: Of course, events of 2014, the current events - they made this gap larger between Russian and Ukrainian speaking, right? But it's normal. It's understandable.

MANN: A big question here in Odesa is what to do with all those big cultural markers. There's a huge statue of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, a woman viewed by many Ukrainians as an oppressor. The famous Potemkin Stairs, one of the city's must-see tourist sites, are named after a Russian battleship. Dorokhov compares the debate here to the fight over Confederate monuments in the American South.

DOROKHOV: The U.S. example was very good - very good. The history is very complicated, with a lot of oppression, a lot of mass killings. Same here. Ukrainian culture has been pressed by Russia over hundreds of years.

MANN: Many monuments from the Soviet era have already come down in Odesa. The city created a commission to sort out what to do with remaining markers of Russian identity. Many of the Russian speakers I talk to say they hope to see the city's Russian heritage reinterpreted and put in a new context, not torn down. Volodymyr Yermolenko, one of Ukraine's leading philosophers and journalists, agrees.

VOLODYMYR YERMOLENKO: I think it's time to talk about it. I'm not a big fan of a war with monuments.

MANN: Based in Kyiv, Yermolenko, too, spoke Russian as his first language. He thinks, for a city with deep Russian roots like Odesa, the monuments are less important than modern influences like the internet and movies and pop music.

YERMOLENKO: They should be in the Ukrainian culture and information space and not in the Russian culture and information space, you know? That means the music that you listen to; that means the movies that you watch; the books that you read.

MANN: It's important to note this conversation is happening when people in Ukraine are frightened and angry. Russian cruise missiles have struck Odesa repeatedly. Ukrainian officials say some Russian speakers have been detained for allegedly aiding Moscow or sharing pro-Russian propaganda. Officials declined to tell NPR how many are held or on what charges. Still, a remarkable thing about this debate over Russian identity is how thoughtful it sounds - how nuanced. The historian Oleksandr Babich says that's possible because Ukraine is free and embraces its multicultural identity.

BABICH: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "If Odesa were captured, this conversation would not be possible," Babich tells me. He points to the houses where Pushkin and Gogol stayed and says, "the Russians would hang me from one of these buildings."

Brian Mann, NPR News, Odesa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.