Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Window on Eurasia: To the Renaming of Streets in Post-Soviet States, There is No End – of Problems

Paul Goble

Baku, February 5 – Uzbek officials have renamed 1500 of the 3473 streets in its capital city of Tashkent since 1991 not only to eliminate references to the Soviet past but also to promote Uzbek nationalism and the agenda of that country’s president Islam Karimov.
But while Tashkent may represent an extreme case of this propensity, it is far from unique, and there are indications that a new round of name changes in some places may both promote demands for more and spark greater anger among those who feel their past is being dishonored.
In an article on the Ferghana.ru portal, Aleksei Volosevich details what has happened in Tashkent and discusses how other post-Soviet states are doing the same
Immediately after Uzbekistan gained its independence, Volosevich says, most of the remaining was intended to eliminate references to Soviet leaders like Lenin and communist ideas like the proletariat. But after a few years, he says, Uzbekistan moved to change other names for other reasons.
First of all, the authorities there sought to eliminate references to any non-Uzbek personality, dropping the name of Ukrainian Bogdan Khmelnitskiy from one street and eliminating references to Kazakh Dinmukhamed Kunayev on another, even though Karimov himself had described him as among “the best friends” of the Uzbeks.
(The only communist “survivors” among street names are those with names of Uzbek communist leaders, Volosevich points out. Sharaf Rashidov and Gafur Gulyam continue to grace the names of several major streets because like Karimov, they are recognized as Uzbeks rather than communists.)
Then, the republic and city government moved to eliminate references to those whose children grew up to oppose the Karimov regime, even if the parent involved remains in good standing otherwise. Thus, Giyos Umarov Street was immediately renamed Khiyobontep Street after Umarov’s son became an opposition figure.
In addition, some of the renaming has allowed Karimov to call attention to his and Uzbekistan’s new friends. Over the last few years, several streets have been renamed to honor Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the city of Bratislava in the Slovak Republic, with which Tashkent has had relatively warm ties.)
And finally -- and this may be one way in which Uzbek leaders have gone further than anyone else -- it has moved to rename streets whose names were given to them even before 1917 and do not present a problem except to the extent that their names occupy signs that could be filled by more obviously ethnic Uzbek ones.
Two years ago, Volosevich notes, the Tashkent authorities renamed 30 streets all at once. Not one of the new names was Russian. But in addition to offending ethnic Russians, this process has generated some criticism in the otherwise tightly controlled Uzbek media.
On the one hand, some journalists are clearly unhappy that they are supposed to use the new names even when writing about events long before they were changed, a requirement that makes many of their stories sound absurd. And on the other, at least one paper has suggested that the renaming process may have gotten out of control.
But there seems to be only one reason to think that the renaming of Tashkent’s streets will slow down anytime soon: the number of them that have not been renamed continues to decline, and most of the remainder already meet the ideological requirements of Karimov and his brand of Uzbek nationalism.
As Volosevich notes, however, this is not something unique to that Central Asian nation. And there are indications that in some places this process and others related to it may be taking on ever more aspects of what to many both there and abroad appears to be a theater of the absurd.
In Mari El, where most streets bear names in both Russian and Mari, officials in the republic capital have demonstrated that they do not know how to translate from one to the other. “Ulitsa Karla Marksa” should be rendered as “Karl Marks urem.” But in almost every case in Ioshkar-Ola, the signs read “Karla Marks urem.”
Such a “translation,” even the local Russian-language paper suggests, violates both grammar and good sense, especially since it is repeated with other names as well
But it is in Ukraine where name changes may generate the greatest number of problems in the near term. On Friday, President Viktor Yushchenko directed the authorities to identify streets and other locations that could be renamed to honor Bogdan Khmelnitskiy (http://unian.net/rus/news/news-234179.html).
That will offend many ethnic Russians who view the leader of Ukraine’s national liberation war in the 17th century as anything but a hero. Nonetheless, there is another location in Ukraine where such battles over names may also be about to heat up: the often renamed city of L’viv.
There, Armenian leaders want to rename the entire city Aryuts to honor their community who they say “laid the foundations of the city,” promote inter-ethnic “friendship,” and simply because the proposed name “sounds good” both in Armenian and Ukrainian (http://en.apa.az/news.php?id=43159).
Were it not the case that this move reportedly enjoys the support of a city councilman, the archbishop of the Armenian church in Ukraine and Yerevan’s ambassador in Kyiv, it would be difficult to believe that anyone would suggest renaming a city that has had so many names in this way.
But at the same time, this effort – which almost certainly will come up short – underscores just how important names are for everyone involved and why the familiar toponyms of today in this part of the world at least are unlikely to remain in place for a long time to come.

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