Staunton, March 21 – The decision by Kazakhstan’s new president, as confirmed by that country’s parliament, to rename the capital Astana and the major streets in all the cities and towns across Kazakhstan after Nursultan Nazarbayev, has sparked opposition and derision in that country and dismissive laughter elsewhere.
A petition against this program is already circulating (fergana.agency/news/106044/); and in an indication that the Kazakh authorities will tolerate no opposition on this point, some 20 people have already been arrested (spektr.press/news/2019/03/21/v-astane-zaderzhali-20-protivnikov-pereimenovaniya-goroda-v-nursultan/).
More serious than this open opposition, however, Kazakhs are making fun of this latest move, one that highlights the absurdity of renaming so many places for the same person. One blogger, for example, says if this happens, he will have been born in Nazarbayev, studied in Nazarbayev and worked in Nazabayev, three different places with the same name.
Others say the government’s policy will make it impossible to give directions. If you have to go from one Nazarbayev to another, how will you know which is which? This will undermine the plans of the programs authors (mk.ru/social/2019/03/20/memy-o-pereimenovanii-astany-v-nursultan-zapolonili-socseti.html and business-gazeta.ru/article/417644).
Russian officials and mainstream media have treated this Kazakhstan move with respect (regnum.ru/news/polit/2595754.html), but some Russian commentators have not, instead viewing what the Kazakhstan government is doing as a model for their own country and thus making fun of the entire process.
Anton Orekh, for example, says that what is happening in Kazakhstan can be a real model for Putin’s Russia. Perhaps the government can rename Moscow Putin? Or rename Petersburg Putin? But he suggests that the best option is to rename Vladimir Vladimir (or perhaps Vladimir Vladimirovich) in his honor (echo.msk.ru/programs/repl/2392403-echo/).
To put this renaming drive in Kazakhstan in perspective, three things need to be remembered. First, what can be renamed once can be renamed again. One can easily imagine that some future Kazakhstan leader will move to restore older names precisely to show his departure from Nazarbayev’s approach.
Second, naming cities and streets for someone is no guarantee that the policies of that individual will continue. Stalin took the lead in renaming Petersburg Leningrad but then proceeded to move in a very different direction and even to liquidate most of Lenin’s closest comrades in arms.
And third, and perhaps most important, officials can change names on the map far more easily than they can change names in peoples’ heads. As every native New Yorker knows, the street between Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue is Sixth Avenue, not Nelson Rockefeller’s Avenue of the Americas. Only newcomers and visitors think otherwise.