On December 28, 2022, a monument to the Russian empress Catherine II was dismantled in Odesa (the official name of the monument is «Founders of Odesa»). This was preceded by active discussions already during the full-scale invasion of Russia on the territory of Ukraine and many years of disputes in Odesa itself and far beyond its borders. In this article, we will try to explain why a seemingly ordinary episode of city life turned into a real disinformation operation.
Russian propaganda about the monument
Of course, Russian propaganda could not avoid the topic of dismantling the monument. Thus, Leonid Slutsky, head of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs of the Russian Federation, wrote in his Telegram channel that the demolition of monuments in Ukraine was the reason for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:
«This war of the Kyiv regime with monuments to those to whom Ukraine, in fact, owes its existence, looks both comical and tragic. «Ivans who don’t remember their relatives» and brought the situation to the point where Russia was forced to start a special military operation».
Popular Russian propaganda media, such as ria.ru., gazeta.ru, and tass.ru, also picked up on this quote.
No less odious is the assessment of the former resident of Odesa, now a citizen of the Russian Federation and member of the State Duma, Anatoly Wasserman, who is known for his anti-Ukrainian statements. He noted that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, and its citizens are Russians. The demolition of the monument to Catherine II, in his opinion, is an attempt to destroy the memory of its founders. Anatoly Wasserman does not mention the transfer of the monument to the museum.
Russian political scientist Viktor Litovkin said that by demolishing the monument to the Russian empress, «Ukrainian nationalists proved that Odesa is not a Ukrainian city.»
Moving the Monument: The New Practice of Digital Democracy in Wartime
The decision to relocate the monument was made on the basis of an electronic vote of the city’s residents, which ended on October 20, 2022. As reported by the local publication «Izbirkom», 7,796 adult members of the city’s territorial community, whose place of residence is registered on the territory of Odesa, took part in the survey. A total of seven options for the future fate of the monument were proposed, of which the proposal for its complete dismantling won (3,914 votes).
Already on November 30, 2022, deputies of the Odesa City Council voted to dismantle the monument.
History of the monument
How did the monument to Catherine II appear in Odessa? In the «Conclusion» regarding the expediency of removing the monument to the «Founders of Odessa» (Catherine II), Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor of Ilya Mechnikov Odesa National University Taras Goncharuk describes its history. We will present the main theses for understanding the situation.
The monument to Catherine II was neither the first structure on the square nor the structure that was there longer than all the others. From 1873 to 1900, there was a fountain at this place. As a result of the Bolsheviks finally coming to power in Odessa (February 1920), in May 1920 the monument to Catherine II was dismantled. The sculptures, including the empress, were moved to the museum.
Instead of the monument to Catherine II, a bust was first erected, and then a monument to Karl Marx. In 1965, a monument to the participants of the uprising on the battleship «Potemkin» of 1905 «Descendants of Potemkin» was erected on Kateryninska Square.
Only in 2007, a monument to the founders of Odesa reappeared on the square. The sculpture of Catherine II herself was badly damaged, so it was recreated and is not an authentic monument.
The money for the construction of the monument was allocated by Odesa deputy Ruslan Tarpan, who is now suspected of misappropriating budget funds during the construction of the «Deep-water discharge» facility in the Black Sea and is hiding from Ukrainian justice. However, there is also a version regarding the installation of the monument at the expense of the Kremlin organization «Rossotrudnichestvo» (Russian Cooperation in English), which was sanctioned by Ukraine for smuggling.
Why was the monument to the Russian empress moved?
Among the opponents of dismantling the monument, there are arguments about the extremely important role of Catherine II in the history of Odessa. Is it really so?
Almost all the cities in the south of Ukraine, which were founded during the time of Catherine II, as noted by historian Taras Goncharuk, did not creatio ex nihilo. Odesa was also no exception.
At the time of the signing of the decree by Catherine II on the alleged founder of the city, the Khadzhibey settlement was located in its place, with about 3,000 inhabitants and 600 houses. The first written mention of Khadzhibey appears as early as 1415.
Odesa during the reign of the Russian empress was a small city, and its transformation into an important economic, primarily trade center and the fourth largest city of the Russian Empire took place already after the death of Catherine II when the city was headed by the French Duke Richelieu.
In addition, it should be added that Catherine II can hardly be considered a positive ruler in Ukrainian history. It was she who finally abolished Cossack’s autonomy in 1764 and ordered the destruction of Zaporizhzhya Sich in 1775. But perhaps the most negative consequences for millions of people were the decision to introduce serfdom in the territory of Ukraine which was part of the Russian Empire.
As the encyclopedia «Britannica» notes, 95% of the population of the Russian Empire in any case did not benefit from the empress’s rule.
Deputy of the Odesa City Council, Petro Obukhov expressed his position regarding the monument. In particular, he noted that no one is proposing to republish all history textbooks and history books or to edit the Wikipedia article about Odessa to remove the mention of Kateryna. He emphasized that the monument is not history, but a tribute: it is inappropriate to honor the Russian tsar in Odessa, so the monument should be removed.
The monument to Catherine II is a «Russian imperial narrative», said Serhii Bratchuk, the spokesman of the Odesa Regional Military Administration. He also added that it was Putin who put an end to the debate about the monument when he mentioned the Russian empress as the founder of Odessa, speaking at the Valdai Forum on October 27, 2022.
The further fate of the monument
Mayor of Odesa, Gennadiy Trukhanov believes that the monument to Catherine II may be moved to the park of the imperial past in the future. But for now, as «Ukrainian Pravda» reports, it has been decided to place the pedestal with the sculpture of Catherine II in the Odesa Fine Arts Museum, while the other figures of the ensemble — Jose de Rybas, Franz de Volan, Grigory Potemkin and Platon Zubov — will be kept in the funds.
What will Catherine Square look like without a monument to the Russian empress? The deputy of the Odesa City Council, urbanist Petro Obukhov tried to answer this question. He is in favor of holding an architectural competition after the war, which should determine the project of the future reconstruction of the square. But architects Kyrylo Verbych and Dmytro Sivak have already proposed their vision of reconstruction, which involves turning the square into a pedestrian area and a large fountain at the place of the monument, as well as planting new trees.