Friday, May 22, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Renaming in Russia Not Only About Rejection of Soviet Past

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 22 – Most discussions on replacing Soviet-era names of cities and streets with pre-revolutionary ones have focused on the ideological acceptability of Communist names in post-Soviet Russia, on the costs involved of making such changes, and on the confusion it introduces in the minds of some Russians.
But a new discussion now taking place in Irkutsk on the border of Siberia and the Russian Far East suggests that the process of renaming may point to some deeper tectonic shifts, changes that will redefine how people in various parts of the Russian Federation view their country and their relationship to it.
In Irkutsk, the authorities are planning to rename 16 streets and two city squares, replacing Soviet-era names with pre-revolutionary ones and setting up “information stands” in each case to provide information about the names being dropped and the names being restored to lessen the “shock” local people may experience as a result.
As part of this process, “Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda” reported yesterday, officials are paying close attention to the meaning of these changes. Aleksandr Dulov, the head of the city’s toponymy commission, told the paper that “at the start of the 20th century, of the city’s 185 streets, 93 percent stressed the particular features of Irkutsk.”
The city’s streets at that time featured the names of the original settlers and merchants and “thus reflected the realities of history, nature and productive activity” of Irkutsk, he said. But now as a result of the homogenization of names in Soviet times, “of the city’s 700 streets, only 30 percent” have regionally specific names (
Prior to 1920, Dulov said, 38 percent of the streets were named for merchants. Now, none are. But the number of streets named for political figures has increased from two to 11 percent, those named for military figures from zero to eight percent, and streets named after ideological concepts from zero to 12 percent.
In short, the “political” names in the broadest sense increased from 1920 to 1991 from two percent to 31 percent, the onomastician said. And he argued that the city’s plan to restore pre-revolutionary names will give the city back its own face, a matter in the words of the newspaper of simple “justice.”
There had long been a Bolshaya street in Irkutsk until t became Karl Marx Street, and now it will become Bolshaya again. Lenin Street will become Amur Street, Dzerzhinsky Arsenal, Kirov Square will again become Speransky Square, and so on. But there won’t be a blanket ban on any name – and several places in the city will continue to bear Kirov’s name.
Nor will this measure be introduced “Bolshevik-style,” official say. Svetlana Dombrovskaya, who heads the city’s administration for culture, announced that the changes will take place in stages. First of all, signs with the new-old names will be put up alongside those with current ones, and only later will the current ones be taken down.
Once the new names are introduced – and Irkutsk officials told the newspaper that they would launch a major pr campaign to explain what was happening – the people of that city are likely to find themselves reminded more of what sets their city and region apart from the rest of the country rather and less about what unites it with all other regions.
On the one hand, that may contribute to the further de-politicization of names and the identities they supported in the past. But on the other, it may reinforce or even power the rise of regional identities like “Sibiryak” or “Uralets” that the Soviet system worked so hard to undermine in the promotion of national ones.
And consequently, a step which may seem small in and of itself, the renaming of streets, could have far more serious consequences, helping to change the bases of identity within the ethnic Russian community and thus the foundations of political activity in a country that still spans eleven time zones.

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