Saturday, June 17, 2023

Non-Russians Must Recover Not Only Their Own Toponyms but Their Family Names as Well, Sakha Activist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 13 – Since the end of Soviet times, efforts by non-Russians to recover the place names that Moscow had replaced with Soviet or Russian ones have attracted a great deal of attention but most often because the names being dispensed with were of Soviet heroes like Stalin with blood on their hands.

            But there has been another more personal albeit less attended to effort by non-Russians to reclaim their family names. In both Russian imperial times and Soviet ones, Moscow officials demanded that representatives of many of the numerically smaller peoples of the North and Far East adopt Russian last names rather than retain or develop their own ethno-national ones.

            As a result, in many of these peoples, the names people use are Russian ones, something that simultaneously confuses the issue as to what ethnic groups are involved in what and puts these peoples on a rapid path to assimilation. After all, if they have Russian last names, some may feel, why shouldn’t they identify as Russians?

            There has been resistance both individual and collective to this, but now a major effort has been launched by Sakha activist Muus Barda, who has been forced to emigrate and now lives in the Republic of Georgia (

            “How do we get our names back?” he asks in despair. “Russian colonizers destroyed tehe system of the Sakha people’s birth, forcing us to accept ‘Russian’ surnames and first names … This is a the beloved system of colonizes, to create a problem for the conquered peoples and then step by step depriving them of their national identity.”

            “As a result, we have been crushed with names like Nikolayev, Petrov, Sidorov and Ivanov.  Myancestors, Barda says, “were given the surname Nikolayev; the ancestors of my father, Ivanovs, and so on.” In fact, our family is Horula,” derived from a national hero. And “if today we gather people from Khorulin by family, I think there are four or five thousand of us.”

            There are three ways to get our real names back: accept the family name from tradition, identify the oldest name known on your paternal side and develop it, or to choose any Sakha surname and first name and adopt it, the activist says.

            At present, making such changes isn’t easy: the Russian authorities throw up all kinds of roadblocks. But when Sakha gains independence, digital technology will make it much easier. “There won’t be any need to run from office to office.” Then, it will be possible to make the change with a single declaration.

            “I don’t expect that all Sakha people will recover their names within a single year. But if in ten years, half of all of them will do so, that would be a huge accomplishment. The people will thus get a guarantee that they will not disappear like water into sand.” There must not be any compulsion, but there must be encouragement from the authorities to get this process going.

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