One of the streets in Hoholiv—a town just east of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv—bears the name of Mikhail Lermontov, a 19th-century Russian poet. Lermontov never visited Ukraine, and only a few of his poems touch on Ukrainian topics. But streets all over Ukraine are still named for him and other Russian cultural figures, a heritage of its Soviet imperial past. Hoholiv, which saw heavy fighting in March, similarly honors Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Aleksandr Pushkin. Naming streets in every city, town, and village is just one instrument for an empire to designate and control its colonial space. Every prominent Russian name was a way to exclude a Ukrainian one. Street names were a tool to erase local memory.
Russia’s literary greats, however, didn’t just lend their names to their country’s imperial project. Much more than is commonly recognized, their writings also helped shape, transport, and ingrain Russia’s imperial ideology and nationalist worldview.