Anachronistic Toponyms and Name Changes: Where Am I From?

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in April 2012]

Petersburg_Leningrad_Oblast_mapSome time ago I attended a lovely concert at San Francisco’s Davies Hall, with San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by the brilliant Itzhak Perlman. The program brochure described Perlman as “born in Israel in 1945”. But there was no Israel in 1945! Upon reflection, however, I could not come up with a better description. “In the Yishuv” would not mean anything to most concert-goers. “In the British mandated territory of Palestine”, though technically correct, is verbose and awkward. Simply “in Palestine” would make it sound – to many people, at least – as if Mr. Perlman is a Palestinian Arab. “The Land of Israel”, “the Holy Land”, and “the Southern Levant” are equally problematic for a variety of reasons. The best solution may actually be to list the city rather than the country: Mr. Perlman was born in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Perlman and I share this toponym-related dilemma. When I am asked where I am from, I am never quite sure what I am expected to say. One of my passports states my birthplace as the USSR, another as Russia. But I cannot avoid the problem by naming my hometown, as it too has changed its name, multiple times. I was born in – and immigrated from – Leningrad, USSR. I even have a commemorative medal and a certificate to that effect. But for three and a half months in 1991 – from September 6 to December 26 – it was known by the ridiculous combination: Saint Petersburg, USSR. Today, the city’s official designation is Saint Petersburg, Russia, just as it was when the city was founded in 1703. Yet the surrounding region is still named Leningrad Oblast (see the map above).

While many erroneously believe that the city was originally named after its founded, Tsar Peter the Great, he stressed that Saint Pieter-Burgh was christened after Saint Peter, his patron saint, one of the twelve apostles. However, in common parlance and even in some official contexts, the toponym became abbreviated to Petersburg, Peterburg or even just Pieter. The latter toponym, perceived by the city’s residents as a loving, diminutive term, is first mentioned in literary works at the end of the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth, it became so entrenched in colloquial use that Tverskaya Street in Moscow (and its continuation, the road that leads to Saint Petersburg) became known as Pieterskaya, as in the folk song “Along the Pieterskaya”. The use of Pieter persisted throughout the city’s history, despite all the official name changes, and there were quite a few.

While originally inspired by Dutch toponyms, the name Petersburg was perceived as “too German” when World War I began, and was thus changed in August 1914 to the russified Petrograd: the German-sounding –burg was replaced by the Old Church Slavonic borrowing -grad, found in the names of many Russian cities. In January 1924, shortly after Vladimir Lenin’s death, the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to change the city’s name to Leningrad. Shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 54% of the residents voted in a city-wide referendum for a return to the original name.

Many other prominent Russian cities returned to their original names around the same time. For example, the fourth-largest city in Russia (pop. 1.4 million), which from 1924 to 1991 was known as Sverdlovsk (after the Bolshevik Revolutionary Yakov Sverdlov), returned to the original Yekaterinburg (after named after Tsar Peter the Great’s wife Catherine I). Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth-largest city (pop. 1.25 million) was known in from 1932 to 1990 as Gorky, after the writer Maxim Gorky, who was born there. Samara, Russia’s sixth-largest city (pop. 1.2 million) was known in 1935-1991 as Kuybyshev, after Valerian Kuybyshev.

Other Russian cities took new names rather than return to the old ones. For instance, Stalingrad had been renamed in 1961, as part of Nikita Khrushchev’s program of de-Stalinization. However, it never went back to its original name, Tsaritsyn, which was perceived to be associated with the Russian word for tsarina, tsaritsa. Ironically, the toponym of the city (and of one of the rivers it is located on) has nothing to do with the tsars, as it traces back to the Turkic Sary-Su meaning ‘yellow water’ or Sary-Sin meaning ‘yellow island’. The current name of this 12th-largest Russian city is Volgograd, after the other river in the city, the Volga.

Yet other cities still bear names of Bolshevik Revolutionaries, such as, Kaliningrad in the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. Founded in 1255 by the order of the Teutonic Knights and originally named Königsberg in German, its ruins were occupied by the Red Army in 1945 and renamed Kaliningrad, after Mikhail Kalinin in 1946.



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