Thursday, December 6, 2018

Airport Renaming Campaign Says More about Putin’s Russia than Kremlin Intended

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 5 – Over the last three weeks, the Russian media have focused on Vladimir Putin’s campaign to have Russian residents vote to rename airports for various great figures in the Russian past, an effort that opened some unintended but highly revealing windows on the nature of his country. 

            The campaign isn’t over: In five of the 42 cases, there will be a second round of voting because no name won outright (великиеимена.рф/); but despite the hoopla, less than 3.5 percent of the Russian population voted in what most commentators said was a transparent effort to distract attention from current problems (

            Nonetheless, the results already allow for some conclusions about what Russians think and how different their thoughts are from their rulers.  Writing in Vzglyad, commentator Dmitry Bavyrin sums up what he describes as “the startling results” of this latest mass effort (

            First, he says, Russians voted for scholars, inventors and explorers rather than artists and writers (with of course the exception for Pushkin as the new name of Sheremetyevo). Second, they did not support military figures, preferring political ones, despite what many had assumed given the militarism in Russian society today.

            Third, they preferred monarchists to communists, a result at least in part because the competition precluded any figure who had been active in the last century. (That limit allowed Nicholas II, killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, to get in under the wire but not Lenin, Stalin or any other “red.”)

            But the most interesting results came from the non-Russian areas, Bavyrin says. “If in the majority of oblasts with mostly Russian population, the population supported figures who had introduced a significant contribution to the history of Russia, their own region, or the aviation branch, then in republics and autonomous oblasts they voted for poets and writers.”

            And they voted for these ethnically charged figures in surprising numbers. “For the new name of the Ufa airport, 50 percent more people voted than for the name of the airport in St. Petersburg and twice ore than about Moscow’s Vnukovo.”  This suggests that the non-Russians give priority to “the ethnic over the all-Russian.”

            But perhaps the most notorious aspect of this campaign was the attack by a Russian admiral on the very possibility that residents of Kaliningrad might vote for Immanuel Kant as the name of the airport in the region where he once lived. The admiral denounced him as someone who had betrayed his country and therefore totally unacceptable.

            While this attention to Kant is noteworthy – probably never before in Russian history has that name been so actively discussed – it also highlighted two things. On the one hand, as so often before, those who were condemning him clearly hadn’t read him; and on the other, the Kremlin showed just how out of touch it is from what is taking place in Russian society.

            The first was shown by the illiteracy of the admiral and his enthusiastic support for cutting Russian off from the world (; the second, by Putin’s press secretary’s remark that he knew nothing about the admiral’s comments despite their having been the focus of media attention (

            Many commentators simply laughed at the admiral’s remarks, but perhaps the most thoughtful comment was provided by Pavel Skrylnikov who writes on religious and ethnic issues for Moscow’s Nezavisimaya gazeta (

            He observed that “in 2017, draft legislation about a single non-ethnic Russian nation was set aside for an indeterminate time after much discussion. The head of the working group which prepared it, Academician Valery Tishkov, said ten that Russian society was not prepared to accept the concept of a single nation.”

“But,” Skrylnikov says, “it seems that the situation is just the reverse.”  Society is ready to do that, but the country’s rulers are not. 

However, too much should probably not be made of the name changes. Many will continue to call Sheremetyevo Sheremetyevo for a long time to come, just as long-time residents of New York city know that the avenue between Fifth and Seventh is Sixth – and not the Avenue of Americas Nelson Rockefeller sought to introduce a half century ago. 

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