Place names defy tradition, distressing the Russian spirit

by Andrey Borodaevskiy

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a countrywide campaign of toponymic change brought back many historic names — first of all in Moscow and in Leningrad (which in due course was returned to its proper name St. Petersburg). Soon after, however, these spontaneous activities abruptly stopped, and the subject was dropped, ostensibly forever.

Yet, after two decades, the issue of restoring original historic names of streets and squares in the capital, in St. Petersburg and in other big and small places around Russia seems to have returned to the public agenda, this time as a topic widely discussed on the Internet.

The initiator of hot public debate on this subject was the new minister of culture, Vladimir Medinskiy, who is said to have been preoccupied with this delicate issue for years. In a speech during the opening of the international event “Russia in the Holy Land” at the Manege — Moscow’s main exhibition hall — in June, he ardently urged the city administration to consider some new steps in this direction.

In particular, he noted that, until now, there are many cases where the toponymy perpetuates the names of Russian “terrorist-revolutionaries” of the 19th century (like Stepan Khalturin and Andrey Zhelyabov), as well as of Bolshevik bosses (like Yakov Sverdlov or Pyotr Voykov) who ordered and performed many infamous punitive acts in the 20th century including the unlawful murder of the members of the Russian Imperial family.

In contrast, he noted, there are practically no memorial signs devoted to the victims of these “butchers and murderers” — for example, to Grand-Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (brother of Czar Alexander II), who played a visible role in Russian history, and to his wife Elizaveta Feodorovna (later canonized as an Orthodox saint). Both suffered violent deaths — the first at the hands of terrorist Ivan Kalyayev (whose name disappeared from the Moscow map in the first wave of renamings), and the second was executed by a direct Bolshevik order.

According to Medinskiy, there are five streets in Moscow named after Pyotr Voykov plus a subway station and a recreation park , an outrageous fact in his view (which I ardently share). In all, there are 25 named places immortalizing this ruthless butcher of the czar and his family around the country, compared to only 19 streets and squares named after Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov — the victorious hero of the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon.

Of course, this is a sensitive issue. Public opinion varies dramatically. For example, the well-known cleric from St. Petersburg, Gennadi Belovolov, expressed his high opinion of the minister’s initiative calling it timely and of great importance. In contrast, one of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Ivan Melnikov, proclaimed it a “provocative attempt to destabilize the situation.”

In turn, the director of the Chancellery of the Head of the Russian Imperial House, Alexander Zakatov, expressed the official opinion that the streets bearing the names of the “participants of the Red Terror” must be renamed.

However, it would be better to give such streets some neutral new names. As to honoring the members of the Romanov House, it would be more correct to give their names to some new streets.

In my humble view, undertaking bold far-reaching moves in dealing with the intricate and, by far, unresolved issue of national symbols — which, by the way, stretches far beyond mere topographic renamings — may be exactly what the country badly needs now.

In the absence of a specific national idea, we should receive unequivocal messages at least from the realm of culture.

We, Russian citizens, should at last decide who we are — mere “post-Soviets” or a great modern people with more than a thousand years of history!

In many cities main streets and other important landmarks are still named after Lenin and other members of his camarilla, after “Soviets,” “Red Army,” “Komsomol” (“All-Union Leninist Communist League”) and the like. All around the country big and small Lenin figures go on stretching and pointing their arm to the bright future of the mankind.

In the historic heart of Moscow, in the Red Square, there is a genuine cemetery for chosen high party bosses and state officials, including Lenin himself, who lie mummified in his mausoleum (which he had to share for a while with Josef Stalin) for over 80 years. It represents a quite unnatural and barbaric phenomenon contradicting both national traditions and — in the case of the “leader of the world proletariat” — the will of his own descendants.

In Kursk, which happens to be the “family nest” of my own noble kin, the two central streets leading to the city’s main cathedral Znamenskiy bear the improper names of Lenin and Dzerzhinsky, the ingenious creator of Lenin’s punitive tool — the infamous “Extraordinary Commission,” or “Cheka.” The city is literally littered with archaic names which go back to the early years of Soviet power.

On the canal that connects Moscow River with the Volga, one may see — with distress and confusion — white four-deckers named after, say, the famous Russian composer Igor Stravinsky or the great writer Anton Chekhov, sharing the fairway with vessels no less beautiful but bearing such odious and misleading names as “Felix Dzerzhinsky” or “Oktyabrskaya Revolutsia” (October revolution).

Of course, each historic period has the moral right to put its imprint on its way of life for future generations. Our national heritage can and should include contributions stemming from different times. Many great persons and events from past Soviet decades also deserve being included in the treasury of our national memory.

Scientists of the caliber of Ivan Pavlov or Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, poets and writers like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak or Mikhail Bulgakov, brave polar pilots of the 1930s, heroes of the Great Patriotic War, and the first cosmonauts led by Yury Gagarin — all of them and many others deserve being immortalized not only in books, on canvases and in marble but also in city and street names.

On the other hand, it is a great injustice and disgrace that the more than 7-centuries -old (originally German) city of Koenigsberg, where one of the greatest thinkers of all times — Emmanuel Kant — was born, is still called Kaliningrad — as it was in 1946 in memory of the then just deceased apprentice of Stalin.

In contrast with Medinskiy, our new/old president seems to have no clear-cut preferences. It looks like he favors the tricolor and the two-headed eagle all-right, but he also adores red banners and pentagrams. It was he who has initiated the reuse of the more frightening than awe-inspiring music from the former Soviet anthem (originally chosen by Stalin) in an unsatisfactory combination with “actualized” words written by Sergei Mikhalkov.

In fact, it was the third variant compiled by this well versed maestro in the course of more than half a century, and each of those “masterpieces” was met by the applause of the then ruling political boss.

Putin’s own imagery is at times rather peculiar, even puzzling. For example, white ribbons attached to the attire and cars of many Muscovites serve as the token of the peaceful protests against rigged elections in December and March. Putin has characterized them as shamelessly exhibited condoms, with all the corresponding negative connotations attached to their bearers.

Some days ago, the Internet brought interesting news of Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to the Middle East. The head of the national administration of Palestine gave the order to rename one of the streets of Bethlehem after Russia’s current president just as a street in Jericho, some months earlier, had been named after then President Dmitry Medvedev.

Should we regard this as a harbinger of a new trend?

Thank God, we do not have any “Putin-Strasse” anywhere in our own country yet … Or maybe we do already?

Andrey Borodaevskiy (annabo36@mail.ru), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007.