Monday, January 14, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Russianizes Place Names in Far East after 1969 Clash with China, Resident Recalls

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 14 – In a display of what he calls “Great Russian topographic chauvinism,” Moscow decided three years after the 1969 clash with the Chinese on Damansky Island to replace all non-Russian, Chinese as well as indigenous, place names there with purely Russian ones, an effort that has had only mixed results.

                In an essay on the Svobodnaya pressa portal over the weekend, Vasily Avchenko, who was born in the Russian Far East in 1980, describes how Russianized various place names in his home region, eliminating as much as possible evidence of the presence at any time in history of the Chinese, Korean or indigenous Siberian peoples (

            Prior to the Damansky Island clashes, he writes, “Russians had peacefully co-existed with old non-Russian names on the map – of Chinese, Tungus-Manchurian (‘native’) or more rarely of Korean origin,” even as they imposed new Russian names on places they established in the region on their own.

            But some of the place names established even during the period of Russian rule were non-Russian, often the result of the arrival of members of other ethnic groups from elsewhere.  When Ukrainians settled the Primorsky region, a place they called ‘the Green Wedge,’ they imposed Ukrainian toponyms like Chuguyevka, Kiyevka and Poltavka.

            And then in Soviet times, the authorities changed the map by eliminating names too closely related to religion or by imposing the names of Soviet heroes like Voroshilov. All of this was more or less accepted, Avchenko says, but then the Damansky island clashes with China “changed everything.”

            After those clashes, “it was decided at one go to dispense with all non-Russian names” that might present a challenge and thus deprive the Chinese or anyone else of the basis for claims that this or that territory belonged to them.  Primorsky kray was to be portrayed as an ‘immemorial Russian’ land” with this “kind of baptism” through renaming.

            Moscow’s method was “well known,” Avchenko says.  Koenigsberg became Kaliningrad and Southern Sakhalin places were given Russian names after 1945.  But there was a key difference in the Russian Far East: the places being renamed there “had already belong to Russia –USSR for more than a hundred years.”

            The “’cartographic war’” there began with a directive of the presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet on December 26, 1972, and an order of the RSFSR Council of Ministers three days later.  But in a certain sense, the conflict continues because some of the new names have won but others have lost out to the older ones, at least in the minds of local residents.

            The very youngest or most recently arrived residents of the region perhaps do not remember that “before 1972, the city of Dalnegorsk was called Tetyukhe” (from the Chinese),that Dalnerechensk was named Iman (from the Orochi or Udegey), and that Partizansk was labeled Suchan (from the Chinese).
            Unfortunately, Avchenko considers, “we do not know the names of ‘the god fathers’ who thought up the new names,” but residents of the region still have to live or in some cases live around the results of what in some cases must have been little more than examples of personal taste.

            “The old names” that Moscow dispensed with “are poetic, full of meaning and allow for a double or triple interpretation. Indeed, scholars up to now argue about their origins. These are out toponymic relics, Avchenko says, things “just as valuable an exotic as the Ussury tigers, the only one of our fellow creates who has learned to live in the deep snow and the awful cold.”

            In 1972 and the following year, Soviet officials removed “not only Chinese names but also those from Tungus-Manchurian languages” and thus “memory about the real Primorsky aboriginals who were neither Chinese nor Russian and whose descendants today are called ‘numerically small indigenous’ peoples and who never represented a threat to Russia.”

            It might have been better “from a political point of view” to leave the Tungus toponyms in place. “But this would have been too complicated,” the native of the region says. And consequently, Moscow ordered all names that were not obviously Russian swept off the map of the Far East.

            In perestroika times, there were debate about whether the region should restore these “liquidated names.”  A kray commission on toponymy even characterized the 1971 campaign as “’political mistaken and immoral’” and called for restoring 116 place names. But nothing came of that. And if another Damansky happened, “no one would think about renaming anything.”

            The Chinese continue to use Chinese names in their maps and atlases of the Russian region. Vladivostok is designated as Hai-shen-wey, Khabarovsk as Boli and Bolshoy Ussuriysk as Hey-sy-tsyn-dao.  They even designate Damansky now as Chen-bao-dao, appropriate Avchenko thinks now that it is part of China.

No comments:

Post a Comment