On May 9, when Russia celebrates the USSR’s victory against Nazi Germany, several regions across the country announced that they were renaming local streets in honor of soldiers and political figures from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). For example, the cities of Grozny, Yakutsk, and Omsk dedicated streets to Alexander Zakharchenko, the DNR’s leader until his assassination in August 2018. Other cities announced streets named after Vladimir Zhoga, also known by his nom de guerre “Vokha,” who commanded the Sparta Battalion, a pro-Russian separatist force in Donetsk, until his death in March 2022 in combat with the Ukrainian military. Also on May 9, Zhoga’s father met personally with Russia’s president. Meduza has learned that these dedications and Vladimir Putin’s sit-down with Artem Zhoga are parts of a strategy developed by the Kremlin to “prime public opinion” for Russia’s annexation of the separatist “republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Governors and city managers across Russia timed their announcements about local streets named after Donetsk separatist figures Vladimir Zhoga and Alexander Zakharchenko to coincide with Victory Day celebrations on May 9. For example, in a post on Telegram, Sakhalin Governor Valery Limarenko described Zakharchenko as a “true patriot of his Fatherland” who “took up arms to defend his homeland’s independence.” (Limarenko even claimed that Zakharchenko had been awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation medal, though he’d only received the DNR’s equivalent.) Revealing that a street in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk will now bear Zakharchenko’s name, Governor Limarenko said the dedication was a response to “numerous appeals from public and veterans’ organizations” (though he didn’t identify a single one).
Writing on social media on May 9, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called Zakharchenko “an outstanding statesman and DNR military figure.” Announcing the street dedication in Grozny, Kadyrov said, “The memory of heroes must never fade! It will live on in the hearts of future generations!”
Zakharchenko, whose assassination the Russian authorities blame on a Ukrainian infiltration team (though Kyiv says Russia’s own special forces killed him), is also getting streets named after him in Kursk (announced by Mayor Igor Kutsak), Penza (promised by Governor Oleg Melnichenko), and the Oryol and Bryansk regions, according to the governors there.
Meanwhile, in Rostov-on-Don, Vladivostok, Maykop, and several other Russian cities, streets are being renamed in honor of DNR separatist commander Vladimir Zhoga. “He died heroically, liberating the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics from Nazism,” Primorsky Krai Governor Oleg Kozhemyako declared in a speech on Victory Day.
Both Omsk and Kyzyl announced streets renamed in honor of both Zhoga and Zakharchenko. “The head of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the legendary Sparta Battalion commander gave their lives for the truth and for peace without Nazism! These heroes courageously defended the people of the Donbas from Ukrainian nationalists. Their act of valor will forever remain in our memory and the memory of future generations,” Omsk Governor Alexander Burkov wrote on his Telegram channel on May 9.
That same day, Vladimir Putin met with Zhoga’s father, Artem, and awarded his son a posthumous Hero of the Russian Federation medal. “Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us. He’s left our ranks, but he lived his life brightly and beautifully, and died as a hero, literally using himself to shield women, children, and his own compatriots and countrymen. He gave his life for his homeland,” Putin said, shaking Artem Zhoga’s hand.
Three sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the Kremlin’s own Public Projects Department, headed by Sergey Novikov, is responsible for developing these initiatives. “The concept itself belongs to Novikov’s deputy, Alexey Zharich and his people,” explained one source. President Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, did not respond to Meduza’s questions about this campaign.
According to Meduza’s sources, the Kremlin offered three main options to regional officials:
- Rename a street after Zakharchenko;
- Rename a street after Zhoga; or
- Rename a street (or a school) in honor of Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine.
“Mostly, [the local authorities] chose Zakharchenko and Zhoga to avoid drawing attention to the Russian army’s losses [in Ukraine]. It was particularly enterprising to combine both Zakharchenko and Zhoga. For the national republics, the idea of going with local soldiers also worked,” a source close to the presidential administration said.
Indeed, there are fewer reports about streets being renamed after Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. But some cities have gone this route. The town of Zarinsk in the Altai Krai says it’s dedicating a road to the Defenders of the Donbas. In Kamchatka, Governor Vladimir Solodov announced plans to “memorialize the defenders of the Donbas — the Russian servicemen who participated in the special operation in Ukraine.”
Meduza’s sources say one of the main goals of renaming streets after “heroes of the Donbas” is to cultivate symbolism that unites the war in Ukraine and the war against Nazi Germany: “[The war in Ukraine] also needs to have heroes who fought against Nazism. And renaming streets is something that’s been familiar to older and middle-aged generations since Soviet times.”
Another source said the renaming campaign has a more concrete aim: “They’re priming public opinion for the entry of the DNR and LNR into the Russian Federation. They’ll allocate federal money to reconstruction in the republics, but people are already struggling because of inflation [in Russia]. So, they’ll see this as spending not on foreigners but on their own compatriots. You create a common identity by renaming streets, overcoming the division between ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
As Meduza reported in late April, “referendums” on joining the Russian Federation were planned in the DNR and LNR for mid-May (Western media outlets later reported this, as well, citing U.S. intelligence). Kremlin officials admitted, however, that setbacks on the frontlines could cause delays. Meduza’s sources with knowledge of the Putin administration’s decision-making now say the annexation process has been postponed until the fall.
In the meantime, some in the Putin administration are reportedly concerned that Russians remain skeptical about additional budget allocations to the Donbas. Citing the Kremlin’s private sociological data (you can read more about this here), one of Meduza’s sources said that most Russians don’t consider the people in the DNR and LNR to be their compatriots. Another source emphasized that many Russians still don’t understand the mission to “liberate” the Donbas.
“The issue doesn’t go over well,” said the source.
Even published data from the Russian Public Opinion Research Center at least partially confirm this assessment. According to a survey released in late March: 46 percent of respondents understood the main goal of the “special operation” in Ukraine to be defending Russia and disarming Ukraine to prevent NATO from deploying bases there; while 19 percent mentioned “changing Ukraine’s political path” and “cleansing Ukraine of Nazis.” Only 18 percent of those who answered the poll said the point of the war is to protect the people living in the DNR and LNR.
The “Donbas issue” apparently “doesn’t go over well” even for the regional officials who joined the Kremlin’s naming initiative. Most of what’s been dedicated to Zakharchenko and Zhoga are roads now under construction on the outskirts of towns. “It’s like they reported in [to the presidential administration], but they picked streets that wouldn’t draw too much attention or raise too many questions about what it is or why,” said a source with ties to a regional government in the Volga Federal District.
A political strategist who advises the Kremlin told Meduza that he doubts many people even noticed the renamed streets. And even if they do notice, they’re unlikely to ponder the fate of the Donbas as a result. “There are a lot of streets still named after figures from the Soviet era,” said the source. “Stop somebody on one of these roads and ask who any of these people were, and most of them won’t have an answer.”
Story by Andrey Pertsev
Translation by Kevin Rothrock