Many Russians celebrated the restoration of Russian place names and dropping their Soviet toponyms in the 1990s, seeing that process as opening the way forward from Communist rule; and more recently, they have supported further such changes in the names of streets, airports and other locations as an affirmation of the re-traditionalization of Russian society under Vladimir Putin. But in a complex, multi-national country like the Russian Federation, these types of changes inevitably open a Pandora’s box as non-Russians seek to go back to using names from their past rather than maintain the Moscow-approved Russian ones. Those name changes deepen divides between the nations of that country and the majority Russians, thus threatening Moscow’s control over some parts of the country.
This process will not happen overnight, of course. Even when place names are officially changed, many people will long continue to refer to such locations by their former Soviet- or Russian-imposed names—just as many New Yorkers still call the avenue between 5th and 7th “Sixth Avenue” rather than the more recently declared Avenue of the Americas. But controversies about such changes in the former Soviet republics, with Moscow and many ethnic Russians viewing such shifts as attacks on Russia itself, underscore how politically sensitive this issue is. Lately, the Kremlin has begun to face mounting challenges of this type in a corner of the Russian Federation where its control depends on the problematic loyalty of a regional leader—that is, the Chechen Republic.
At the end of last year, the city council of Grozny, the republican capital, completed a survey of approximately 130,000 residents (out of a total of 170,000 who have the right to vote) on their reactions to changing the names of city districts from their current Soviet toponyms to Chechen ones, either drawn from the past or selected by the current rulers of the republic. “More than 95 percent” of those queried said they favored such changes, Anvar Suleymanov of the Dosh news agency writes. Moreover, he suggests that the name replacement initiative is obviously being pushed by the head of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. Yet according to Suleymanov, many Chechens really do want to have Chechen and not Soviet-Russian names for the places where they live (Dosh, December 30, 2020).
Following this poll, the Grozny deputies declared that the Staropromyshlovsky (“Old Industry”) district would henceforth be known as Visant; the Zavodsky (“Factory”) district would be rechristened Sheikh Mansur; the October district would be changed to Baysangur; and the Lenin district would become Akhmat. In addition, the city council voted on new Chechen names for settlements that had been absorbed within Grozny’s city limits as the capital expanded in recent decades. Naming one of Grozny’s municipal districts after Sheikh Mansur, who led the North Caucasus peoples’ resistance to the expansion of Russian power in the region 200 years ago, is perhaps the most notable: this historical figure remains a hero for all those who fought Moscow in both of the post-Soviet wars that the Kremlin launched against the Chechen republic. But the other substitutions are potentially equally significant. Moscow imposed such nomenclatures on almost all cities in the Soviet Union, so mass name changes inside Chechnya will almost certainly echo in other places. Non-Russians, in particular, may increasingly ask themselves and their local authorities why they have not taken this step given that the Chechens felt completely free to do so.
One key factor here worth highlighting: While the number of place name changes in Russia has fallen in recent years, this is not because people do not want them but rather because those efforts frequently became tied up with powerful interest groups lining up on both sides of the debate. In Russian areas, the Moscow Patriarchate continues to press for the elimination of detested Soviet-era names, but the Communists oppose them. That means that for every case where a name changes, there are almost certainly numerous stalled fights that go unnoticed by the Moscow media (MBK, May 2, 2019). But as the country heads into yet another election cycle, such fights have the potential to energize both supporters and opponents of these shifts. In ethnic-Russian-majority areas, Putin probably does not see this as a problem for him. But when such battles over renaming occur in non-Russian areas, he cannot be as certain, because place name replacements there often lead to other socio-political shifts as well.
Developments in other former Soviet republics highlight this phenomenon. In Ukraine, the elimination of 52,000 Soviet-Russian place names over the last ten years has sparked serious internal disputes, which Moscow has been exploiting against Kyiv. But the Kremlin will find it harder to defend such a stance if non-Russians within the Russian Federation ramp up their own calls for “nativizing” local street signs, placards and so on (Vzglyad, June 26, 2019; Radio Svoboda, June 27, 2019). In Tajikistan, meanwhile, following numerous place name changes, the government has taken the next step and banned the use of Russianized name endings and patronymics. Newborns, for example, will no longer be registered with family names ending in -ov, -ova, -ev or -eva, or with patronymics ending in -ovich, -ovna, -evich or -evna. Instead, ethnic Tajiks will be required to use traditional Tajik-language endings in both cases. Some other regional republics are considering a similar approach, further expanding the psychological distance between them and Russia (Sputnik News, May 15, 2020).
And it is not only place names and family names that are being nationalized both across the former Soviet space and in Russia itself. One of the most interesting of the latter is in Khakassia, where, last year, officials changed the name of the republic’s leading newspaper, Khabar, back to Khakas Chiri (adopted in 1991), declaring it the voice of the land of that Turkic nationality in the Russian Federation (Nazaccent.ru, March 16, 2020). The changes in Chechnya will, thus, further deepen the divide between Chechens and Russians and serve as a model for other non-Russians. To the extent that happens, what many might dismiss as unimportant or marginal shows that Chechnya is becoming more separate from Russia than it ever was even under Dzokhar Dudaev. Other non-Russian nationalities in the country may seek similar changes, which will still further reduce the saliency of Putin’s “Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”) and Moscow’s control of the non-Russians.