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)

Talk of the Town

You would be forgiven if you imagined Russia’s liberal, leftist, technical, creative, conservative and other intelligentsias were abuzz right now with righteous anger or triumphant glee about what the country’s air force (now officially known, bizarrely, as the Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS) has been up to in Syria and, more specifically, Aleppo, these days.

No, many of them are terribly exercised, in various directions, about the controversy over an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges in Moscow.

This was borne out by the websites of some of the country’s leading dailies this morning.

vedomosti-syria

The liberal Vedomosti, a business-oriented newspaper, listed its top stories this morning. The top story was entitled “Faces in a Queue for the iPhone 7”; the second most-read story was about the Sturges show.

True, Vedomosti readers are serious lads and lassies, so the number three story was about Syria. It was headlined, “Five World Powers and EU Demand Decisive Steps from Russia in Syria.”

Earlier today, I posted a few bits from the bizarre article about yesterday’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, published in the country’s other serious, formerly liberal, business daily, Kommersant.

Similarly, Moskovsky Komsolomets could not figure out what its readers would find more titillating: reading about how the VKS’s top guns were bombing Aleppo to smithereens or how astroturfed patriots were threatening the God-given right of every self-respecting intelligent to implement Dostoevsky’s maxim that beauty would save the world.

mk-syria

By way of splitting the difference, this morning’s website featured a picture of a chap obviously meant to embody the most average-looking Russian bloke on earth, sadly contemplating one of Sturges’s blasphemous nudes, while a sidebar headline shouts, “Everyone [sic] Is Bombing: Churkin Thinks Peace Impossible in Syria.”

Izvestia has become a particularly noxious loudspeaker for the regime in the past years, so the front page of its website contained a fair number of articles and op-ed pieces chockablock with baldfaced lies about the bloodbath in Aleppo, but at least it had the dignity not to yield to the fake moral panic brewing around the Sturges show.

The relative paucity of Russian media coverage of the Syrian conflict and publicly accessible grassroots reactions was confirmed by the following completely unscientific Google search.

“Джок Стержес” (“Jock Sturges”) got 12,000 more hits than “бомбардироква Алеппо” (“bombing Aleppo”), even though, one could argue, the bombing of Aleppo by somebody or other has been a more topical item in the news for a longer time than Jock Sturges, whatever his longevity or virtues as a contemporary artist.

Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “Jock Sturges” in Russian, September 26, 2016
Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in Russian, September 26, 2016

When I did the same search (“bombing Aleppo”) in English, I got over a million hits.

Results of Google for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in English, September 26, 2016

Certainly, we immediately have to factor in the sheer numbers of Anglophone media and readers in the world. There are quite a few more of both than there are Russophone media and readers, and so one would expect to find more responses to particular topics of global interest in English than in Russian.

But what about the vox pop?

An even more unscientific survey of the Russophone segment of Facebook this morning (that is, the part of the segment to which I have access, amounting to several hundred people, most of whom could be identified as intelligentsia or quasi-intelligentisa) showed that quite a few people were up in arms over the Sturges show or coolly editorializing about it to their extended communities of invisible friends, while literally no one was writing anything about Syria.

This has been the case for the past year. Not only that, but I have shared a fairly large number of articles and opinions about Syria, including my own, over that time, and have elicited a total of zero likes and comments from my Russian Facebook friends.

Non-Russian friends, on the contrary, like and comment on these posts in the same numbers as they and their Russian counterparts usually react to the other, non-Syrian things I write about.

Maybe I have the wrong Russian friends, but my hypothesis is that “politically engaged” or “socially conscious” Russians are literally afraid to say or write anything in public about the Syrian conflict. They have the good sense to know that their president-for-life has sunken his teeth into this geopolitical chew toy and has no intention of unclenching them.

Hence, anyone foolish enough to comment on this catastrophic attempt to reassert an increasingly impoverished country as a super power might get themselves in trouble with the powers that be. Over the last year, they have been hauling in utterly ordinary people  on “extremism” charges in fairly large numbers for reposting or commenting on the most innocuous things on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.

Even more telling, there has not been a single public demonstration in Russia against Russian military involvement in Syria during the past year—to my knowledge, at least.*

Again, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. The current Russian regime has gone out of its way to make public demonstrations and pickets an unattractive pastime for all but the bravest of Russians.

Still, the war in Syria is the central international conflict of our time, and Russia’s best and brightest have literally nothing to say about it, even though their nominally elected government has not been merely a party to the conflict, but has come firmly down on one side, arguably, the wrong side, the side causing the most damage.

I find this deafening public silence about Syria more disturbing than anything else happening in Russia right now.

* After I posted this, Comrade BN wrote the following to me: “In Moscow last year there were some very small pickets protesting against the war in Syria, and the people who organized it attempted to set up an anti-war committee. As far as I know, though, the authorities pretty much intimidated them with varying degrees of extremity into giving up.”