Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Udmurts in 1987 Forced Moscow to Reverse Renaming Their Republic Capital

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Dec. 31 – One of the oft-neglected themes of the end of Soviet times is that protests against Moscow’s actions were far more widespread than most people assumed at the time, with protests that didn’t fit into the standard model of demands for democracy or secession largely neglected.

            One of these forms of protest, far more widespread than many assume, concerned the wave of renaming cities and towns that spread across the RSFSR and other republics in the wake of Brezhnev’s rule and during the first years of Gorbachev’s. One of the most well-documented and successful of these came in Udmurtia.

            On January 3, 1985, a week after Soviet Marshal Dmitry Ustinov died, Moscow decided to rename the Udmurt Izhevsk in his honor, a decision that reflected the late military leader’s ties to that important military industry center. Local people were outraged, and ultimately the decision did not stand.

            The Udmurts, a small Finno-Ugric people in the Middle Volga, were outraged because the historical name of their republic capital, Izhevsk, is etymologically linked to the Udmurt word for “father.” Almost immediately protests of various kinds, including petition drives and demonstrations began (russian7.ru/post/bunt-v-izhevske-1985-goda-protiv-chego-vosst/).

            Many of these were massive and led to arrests; and these continued throughout 1985 and into 1986, well before Gorbachev moved to reform the USSR and allowed more public activity to take place. Indeed, it is reasonable to conclude that the Udmurts, often viewed as being at the tail end of such activities were in fact one of the leaders.

            Finally, the communist authorities had to back down. The oblast party committee told Moscow that “90 percent of the residents of the capital didn’t agree with the name Ustinov,” and on June 19, 1987, 900 days after it had moved in the opposite direction, Moscow dropped the name Ustinov and agreed to restore the name Izhevsk which remains to this day.

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