Zelensky Signs Law Banning Russian Place Names

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has signed two laws that strictly reinforce his country’s national identity, banning Russian place names and making knowledge of Ukrainian language and history a requirement for citizenship.

The moves late 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.

Already, countless streets across Ukraine have been renamed and statues of Russian figures like Catherine the Great have come toppling down. 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 in a process called “de-Russification.”

A new law that Mr. Zelensky signed on Friday prohibits using place names that “perpetuate, promote or symbolize the occupying state or its notable, memorable, historical and cultural places, cities, dates, events,” and “its figures who carried out military aggression against Ukraine.”

Vakhtang Kebuladze, a philosophy professor at the Taras Shevhchenko National University in Kyiv, said it was about time. He, like many other Ukrainian intellectuals, supports the erasing of Russian names, even those of great writers like Leo Tolstoy.

“It’s not about literature,” Mr. Kebuladze said on Saturday. “It’s about the imperialistic presence of Russia in our streets and our cities.”

“We should read Tolstoy, we should investigate his literature. But why do we need to have a Leo Tolstoy Street in the center of Kyiv?” he added.

(In March, Kyiv changed Leo Tolstoy Street to Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi Street, after a Ukrainian leader from the early 20th century.)

Mr. Kebuladze also welcomed the new citizenship law signed by Mr. Zelensky on Friday that requires knowledge of Ukrainian language and history.

Many Ukrainian citizens are native Russian speakers — including Mr. Zelensky. An estimated one in every three Ukrainians speaks Russian at home, according to researchers, but many of them — outraged by the violence of Russia’s invasion — have been switching to Ukrainian as a show of defiance.

But Mr. Kebuladze, who speaks Ukrainian, Russian and Georgian, said it was OK for people to continue to speak what they want at home.

“It’s not about private language,” Mr. Kebuladze said.

“We have only one state language, Ukrainian,” he added. “And if people want to become citizens, they should know this language. It’s part of our identity, our culture, our history.”