Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What’s in a Name? Russia Must Overcome Its Imperial Place Names, Butakov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 19 – Since the end of Soviet times, many Russians have worked to eliminate the names of communist heroes from the map of Russia; but that is a far smaller and ultimately less important challenge than overcoming the imperial names embedded in the mental maps of Russians, Yaroslav Butakov says.

            “The categories ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ are so deeply imbedded in the consciousness of those living under Russian power that they dictator corresponding political doctrines, political understands and political expectations,” the regionalist writer argues. They must be changed if Russia is to advance (afterempire.info/2018/06/19/names/).

            “Russian geographic nomenclature,” Butakov continues, “over recent centuries has been overfulfilled with terms distorting the spatial picture of the world. Their only assignment is to stress the basic and world-building function of the ‘eternal’ imperial center.”  And that is what they unfortunately have done.

            In an earlier essay, he considered the term “Far East” as it is in appropriately applied to the regions of the Russian Federation along the Pacific (afterempire.info/2018/06/07/fareast/). But similar problems arise if one considers the terminology used for other parts of the country as well, Butakov argues.

            “A resident of ‘Central Russia’ is accustomed to think that he lives in ‘Central Russia,’ but that is only because Moscow is located there.” A quick glance at a map shows that “Moscow is in no way the center of Russia but rather is located on its extreme western borderland,” the regionalist says.

            As Butakov points out, “the geographic center of Russia is located between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk.  Given that, “Moscow and all the European part of the Russian Federation is Beyond the Urals” for this center; and “from the point of view of the Pacific regions, Moscow in general is the Far West.”

            Moving the Russian capital by itself will not solve this problem: it will simply lead to the appearance of another hyper-centralized state focused on a different city.  That is what happened when the capital was shifted to St. Petersburg by Peter the Great and then shifted back to Moscow by Lenin. The essence of the empire wasn’t changed in either case.

            The essential task, Butakov says, is “to liquidate the empire-centric nomenclature together with the empire and to create a polycentric political space.” To promote the latter, he suggests, it will be helpful to promote the former first.

            “Everyone, especially in the regions, awaits changes in Russia in the first instance from what ‘they are saying in the capitals,’” he continues.  But that isn’t necessary. “History shows that even in centralized states changes often begin with political events far from the very largest cities.”

            According to Butakov, “the historical wound, even curse, of Russia is the lack of the majority of regions of their own names. In contrast to the European Tyrol Provence, Alsace, and the various states of the US, in Russia, it has been customary to call regions according to the names of their main cities.”

            This tradition extends back for centuries; and “in principle, it does not exclude the creation of regional self-consciousness. But it does make this process more difficult.”

            “Any Russian oblast is as it were an attachment to the oblast center,” just as the regions are to Moscow. “The exceptions are only the national republics, although even in them, there is always a dominant city. Here we see the complete opposition of the situation in the United States and in Europe.”

            Those Russian regions located along major rivers have done better in terms of identity, Butakov says. “At least, they have the chance to identify themselves not with the central city, ‘the residence of the tsar’s representative’ but with a natural object.  And still better off are those like Kamchatka or Sakhalin which are already embedded in the names of the region.

            “But why not revive some old name, for example one connected with an ethnos that has disappeared or alternatively creatively think up and develop a new one?” Butakov asks. In Europe there are many regions named of peoples who have disappeared: Andalusia, Lombard, Saxony, and Prussia,” to name only a few.

            Some regionalists are promoting this in what is now Kaliningrad and in the area around Moscow.  And “the creation of new regional identities on the basis of well forgotten old ones seems fruitful and prospective.” In the case of Russia, in fact, it may well be the only possible path forward.

            “Regional polycentrism,” he argues, “obviously presupposes not competitive emulation of Moscow by other Russian megalopolises but the liquidation of the very Muscovite-imperial model, when a gigantic ‘capital’ gives commands to a faceless ‘land’” beyond.

            According to the regionalist writer, “when each region acquires its own real geographic name like the American states or the European historical districts, empire-centric thinking will collapse in the consciousness of people.” And consequently, getting rid of imperial names is a task of first importance.

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