The Toponymic Commission Strikes Back

smolninsky rayonThis is part of a 1967 public transportation map of Leningrad’s former Smolny District. The red lines and numbers indicate tramlines. Nearly all of the line were decommissioned in the late 1990s and 2000s, although they were an important lynchpin in the entire tram system, which was once the largest in the world in terms of the sheer length of tracks. In the late noughties, Tram Park No. 4, located at the spot marked by the encircled red number five on the map, was demolished to make way for a flying-saucer-topped monstrosity known as the Nevsky Rathaus, developed by a company owned by Sergei Matviyenko, son of then-Petersburg Valentina Matviyenko. The Rathaus’s ostensible purpose was moving all of the city government’s far-flung committees into a single office building, but since many of the most powerful committees occupy prime downtown real estate in their own gorgeous 19th-century buildings, there is no evidence that things have gone to plan. In turn, the completion of the Rathaus has set off a storm of redevelopment in the immediate vicinity, much of it involving the construction of needlessly large and invariably ugly “elite” housing blocks. Map from the collection of the Russian Reader

“Today, November 24, the [Petersburg] Toponymic Commission will decide whether the Soviet [Sovetskye] Streets will again be called the Christmas [Rozhdestvenskye] Streets, and Insurrection Square [ploshchad Vosstaniya] will be redubbed Church of the Sign Square [Znamenskaya ploshchad]. It will finally become clear who won the Russian Civil war, the Whites or the Reds,” wrote Petersburg’s best-known pop historian in the business daily Delovoi Peterburg the other day.

Forgive me for restating obvious historical truths, but most sane people know the Reds won the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks emerged victorious from the October Revolution, and the Soviet Union, in concert with its allies the United States and Great Britain, won the Second World War, known in Russia as the Great Fatherland (or Patriotic) War.

The reactionaries on the Petersburg Toponymic Commission could restore the “old” names to every street in the city, including streets that appeared on the map only during the Soviet period, but they cannot alter the outcomes of historical events, especially events such as the ones I have just mentioned, which had overwhelming consequences for Russia and the world, however negatively, positively or indifferently we evaluate them today.

Besides, real local historians and history enthusiasts know that the names of many streets changed several times even during the city’s tsarist period (1703–1917), not to mention the Soviet regime, where the same thing also happened quite often as the Party line and public sentiment changed from one decade to the next.

First Soviet Street, for example, had several names during the period 1766–1923: New Carriage Street [Novaya Karetnaya], Carriage Street [Karetnaya], Old Carriage Street [Staraya Karetnaya], First Christmas Street [1-ya Rozhdestvenskaya], First Street, and, finally, First Christmas Street again, before it was renamed First Soviet Street by the Bolsheviks in 1923.

If historical justice were the Toponymic Commission’s real concern they would restore the street’s original name, New Carriage Street. Right?

Twenty years ago or so, perhaps, the Toponymic Commission was doing vital work, but nowadays it is a tool of the blackest, most virulent political reaction.

Indeed, it was also a tool of reaction twenty years ago, too, and I thus am eternally gratefully to my late father-in-law, who never deigned to call Sophia Perovskaya Street and Zhelyabov Street by their newfangled “old” names of Greater and Lesser Stable Streets [Bolshaya Konyushennaya and Malaya Konyushennaya].

Officially empowered experts who can seriously contemplate changing Insurrection Square’s name after a hundred years (a decision they ultimately nixed, although they did rename Insurrection Street [ulitsa Vosstaniya], which runs north from Insurrection Square and Nevsky Avenue to Kirochnaya Street, Church of the Sign Street [Znamenskaya ulitsa]) are sending an unambivalent message to Petersburgers that from here on out their God-given right to rebel and rise up tyrants and thugs has been confiscated, as it was, however murderous and criminal the current and subsequent regimes are.

But it is ludicrous to think it will never occur to people to revolt simply because there is no longer an Insurrection Street or Insurrection Square in their city, one of whose nicknames, in Soviet times, was the Cradle of Three Revolutions.

It is just as queer to feign that, by redubbing the Soviet Streets the Christmas Streets, there was never any Soviet period in the city’s history. The signs and symptoms of the Soviet regime—good, bad, neutral, and controversial—are literally everywhere you look. Completely erasing these signs and symptoms from the collective memory and the visible cityscape will not accelerate real democracy’s advent. On the contrary, it will probably push that happy day farther into the future.

It is the Toponymic Commission itself that should be abolished. It has long been busy rewriting history, not engaging in the non-science of toponymy. In this respect, it has aped the current regime, doing its dirty deeds under the guise of restoring what was lost or doing rhetorical combat with nonexistent malevolent forces that, allegedly, have wanted to revise the outcome of the Second World War or something equally hilarious, impossible, and utterly imaginary.

What the Toponymic Commission and the current regime really want to do is transfigure history, the study of history, and collective and individual historical memory into a total, inedible muddle. If they succeed in pulling off this trick, or so they imagine, it will be easier for them to manage and manipulate people and society, and diminishing their will to write and make their own history.

nevsk rathausThe Nevsky Rathaus and its telltale flying saucer, as seen at the far end of one of the now officially former Soviet Streets. Photo by the Russian Reader

P.S. It was oh so vital to immediately rename Petersburg’s long-suffering Soviet Streets. Of course, all good Christian men and women have rejoiced in this collective decision on the part of corrupt city officials and the city’s loyal opposition. But did anyone even peep when Tram Park No. 4 on Degtyarny Alley (in the same part of town, the Sands neighborhood, that was home to the now-disappeared Soviet Streets) was demolished and, before this, nearly the entire tram network there was dismantled?

What have Petersburgers received in compensation for the deliberate destruction of public transportation in their city? What will they receive to make up for this clear attempt to erase the Soviet past while preserving Soviet decision-making methods and leaving all of the least progressive aspects of the Soviet mindset firmly in place?

First, there was the UFO aka the Nevsky Rathaus, built by the former governor’s son. Now we have been gifted with a gift none of us really wanted, the Christmas Streets, as if this city of five million or more were populated solely by wildly devout Orthodox toponymic history enthusiasts.

In the near future, like a triple layer of icing on a sickly sweet holiday cake, we will be treated to the total “reconstruction” of the Church of the Nativity of Christ in the Sands. This is yet another unwanted gift, a gift made possible, once again, through demolition, in this case, the destruction of the cozy, pretty square at the intersection of Sixth Soviet Street and Krasnobor Alley. Local residents campaigned against this so-called urban planning decision. But who the hell are local residents, and what are their opinions worth when the current reactionary regime has been intent on beating it into everyone’s head that its own provenance is nearly divine?

What is worse, the city’s semi-official historical preservation mob indulges the regime in its “religious” aspirations.

This is yet another amazing story about how the nearly perpetual muddle in the heads of the city’s “finest people” (as one commentator called them when I published an earlier version of these remarks on Facebook) produces circumstances in which Petersburg is practically defenseless against urban planning stupidities and revisionist toponymic interventions. You can visit whatever truly satanic outrages on its tender flesh you wish, and most of the so-called opposition and its mostly silent, invisible supporters will either sign on to your crazy undertaking, keep its mouth shut or immediately surrender without putting up a fight.

One of the few exceptions in recent years (the bleak years of Putin 3.0) was when a bas-relief sculpture of Mephistopheles was removed from the façade of a building on the Petrograd Side, apparently on orders from a local housing authority official. A full-fledged public hullabaloo kicked off, featuring a well-attended opposition rally outside the offended building and, ultimately, the restoration of the demonic sculpture.

You see, that was a real crime against history and historical preservation. TRR

See my previous post on the same topic: “The Toponymic Commission” (June 22, 2016)

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Terrorism in Petersburg: Then and Now

St. Petersburg Gets a Taste of Terrorism
Vladimir Alexandrov
Kommersant Daily
December 20, 1996

A bomb exploded in the Petersburg subway in the early hours of December 19. By a lucky chance, there were no victims. This was the first terrorist attack in Petersburg [sic].* Until the incident, law enforcement had either received false bomb threats or had found the bombs in time. FSB officers, who have joined the investigation, have not yet put forward any more or less convincing explanations of what happened.

The hands on the clock in the driver’s cab showed 12:10 a.m. when he felt the train tremble violently. (It was then traveling between Ploshchad Lenina and Vyborgskaya stations, on the Kirovsky Zavod-Vyborgskaya Line).

“At first, I thought one of the junction boxes in the train’s pneumatic system had exploded, but several seconds later, I realized something unpredictable had happened,” he said.

The steering system was compromised. The emergency sensors lighted up.  The driver immediately reported the incident to the duty officer at the station, and he contacted the police.

In fact, an explosive device had gone off in the train’s second car. There were two passengers in the car at the time, one of whom was deafened by the blast wave. His face and hands were injured by shards of glass.

Despite the fact the energy supply system was malfunctioning, the train rolled into Vyborgskaya station under its own momentum. The wounded man received first aid. Because he had trouble speaking and was quite disoriented, he was almost immediately taken to hospital. The second passenger, a woman, disappeared from the scene for reasons as yet unknown.

An FSB investigative team soon arrived. They inspected the car. It was an awful sight. The bomb had torn apart the car’s insides. The windows had been knocked out, the doors torn from their grooves, and the seats and upholstery ripped apart. The windows had been blown out in adjacent cars as well.

The damaged train was moved onto a storage track, near the Ploshchad Lenina subway station, where there used to be a depot.

The outcome of the forensic investigation was made public only yesterday. Judging by the blast pattern, an explosive device with no casing was placed in the subway car. It contained approximately 400 grams of TNT. The mechanism used to ignite the explosives has not yet been identified.

“It was our good fortune that there were few people on the train at the time of the attack [according to some sources, there were sixteen — Kommersant]. Otherwise, the consequences of the explosion would have been difficult to foresee,” said an FSB spokesman.

The motives and the people who carried out the attack are also still unknown. According to a few witnesses, when the train was stopped at Ploshchad Lenina, several young men dashed out of the car where the explosion would later occur, but no has yet linked the subsequent events with these men. Nevertheless, they are being actively sought by police.

Traffic on the stretch of track between Ploshchad Lenina and Vyborgskaya was restored by early morning on December 19 because the tunnel had suffered almost no damage. Diagnostic work on the tracks and cable conduits will continue tonight, however.

Nearly all police units in St. Petersburg have been on alert since the attack. Security at all subway stations, on public transport, and at other vital sites in the city has been increased. The FSB has established a special task force to investigate the crime.

Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev was informed about the incident half an hour after the explosion. According to him, it was hardly connected with events in Chechnya. Mentioning recent similar events in different countries, the governor suggested that “terrorism has, apparently, simply become a profitable business.”

This is the first terrorist attack in St. Petersburg in the last three months, although the police constantly receive anonymous bomb threats. (The callers usually claim the bombs have been planted in schools.) The last time police received an anonymous message about a bomb in the subway was in early October of this years. Traffic on the Moskovskaya-Petrogradskaya Line was halted for ten minutes due to the threat.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Norsu for the invaluable heads-up and having a good memory.

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wanted the alleged bomber
Social network users were quick to join the exciting hunt for the “alleged bomber,” especially because the screenshot image disseminated by local media evoked every radicalized Islamophobe’s wet dream of a “Muslim terrorist.”

Man Named as Suspect in Subway Explosion Turns Himself over to Police
Inna Sidorkova and Vladimir Gordeev
RBC
April 3, 2017

A man resembling the man in a photograph whom the media had identified as a suspect in the terrorist attack in the subway has produced himself at a Petersburg police precinct.

“He saw himself on TV, got scared, and came to the police himself,” said RBC’s source in law enforcement. According to him, the man had nothing to do with the terrorist attack.

Earlier, REN TV and online newspaper Fontanka.ru had published a screenshot of a recording made by a CCTV camera. The image showed a man who, allegedly, had carried out the terrorist attack. The still showed a tall, bearded man dressed in black.

Later, Channel Five published the photograph of a second suspect in the terrorist attack.

alleged suspect
The “alleged terrorist” looks very much like a Russian Orthodox priest or seminary student. Photo courtesy of RBC and their sources in law enforcement**

** UPDATE (5 April 2017). His real name is Andrei (Ilyas) Nikitin, and here is the touching story of how this totally innocent man got booted off a plane in Moscow because Islamophobic, panick-mongering Russian media and social media users had already dragged him through the mud and labeled him a “terrorist.”

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Execution of the five Pervomartovtsy, April 13, 1881. Source: Wikipedia

*Pervomartovtsy (Russian: Первома́ртовцы; a compound term literally meaning those of March 1) were the Russian revolutionaries, members of Narodnaya Volya [The People’s Will] who planned and carried out the assassination of Alexander II (March 1, 1881), and attempted to assassinate Alexander III (March 1, 1887, also known as “The Second First of March”).

The 1881 assassination was planned by Narodnaya Volya’s Executive Committee. Andrei Zhelyabov was the main organizer. After his arrest on February 27, he was replaced by Sofia Perovskaya.

Alexander II was killed on March 1, 1881, by a bomb thrown by Ignacy Hryniewiecki. Hryniewiecki wounded himself fatally in the assassination; Nikolai Sablin committed suicide. The conspirators—Zhelyabov, Perovskaya, Nikolai Kibalchich, Gesya Gelfman, Timofei Mikhailov, and Nikolai Rysakov—were tried by a Special Tribunal of the Ruling Senate on March 26–29 and sentenced to death by hanging. On April 3, 1881, five Pervomartovtsy were hanged, except for Gelfman, whose execution was postponed due to her pregnancy. Her execution was later commuted to indefinite penal servitude. She nevertheless died in prison of post-natal complications.

The second “First of March” was planned by members of the so-called Terrorist Faction of Narodnaya Volya, including [Vladimir Lenin’s older brother] Alexander Ulyanov. On March 1, 1887, they went to St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect with bombs and waited for the Tsar’s carriage to pass by. However, they were arrested on the spot before his arrival. All fifteen conspirators, including Alexander Ulyanov and Pyotr Shevyryov (the main organizers), Pakhomy Andreyushkin, Vasily Generalov and Vasily Osipanov (the bombthrowers), and ten other people were tried by a Special Senate Committee on April 15–19 and sentenced. The first five men were hanged on May 8, 1887, while the rest were sentenced to prison, exile or penal servitude.

Source: Wikipedia. The article has been edited lightly to make it more readable. TRR

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A 1988 map of downtown Leningrad, showing Zhelyabova and Perovskya Streets (inside the red oval). The streets were renamed in memory of the People’s Will terrorists in October 1918. The streets reverted to their pre-Revolutionary names (Bolshaya and Malaya Konyushennaya Streets) only in October 1991. (Image courtesy of retromap.ru.)

Yet streets named in memory of their fellow People’s Will terrorists Alexander Ulanov and Nikolai Kibalchich are still firmly in place on the grid of post-Soviet Petersburg to this day.

Alexander Ulyanov Street, in Petersburg’s Okhta neighborhood
Kibalchich Street, in Petersburg’s southern Frunze District