Sep 20, 2008

World - What's in a street name?Moscow is finding out

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn was laid to rest last month, President Dmitri Medvedev decreed that he be memorialized "for his extraordinary contribution" to Russian culture. Among other things, a Moscow street should be renamed for the great chronicler of Russia's turbulent 20th century.

In short order, the office of Mayor Yuri Luzhkov announced that Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya Ulitsa, or Big Communist Street, actually one of the prettiest, quietest and most well-preserved streets in Moscow, full of elegant pre-revolutionary mansions, is now Ulitsa Solzhenitsyna, or Solzhenitsyn Street.

Medvedev had neither set a deadline nor singled out a street, but as Izvestia, the former Soviet government newspaper that still has close ties to the Kremlin pointed out, the Russian capital is still full of place names representing the ideology Solzhenitsyn spent a lifetime railing against.

"Why not rename Leninsky Prospekt, or Shosse Entuziastov?" Izvestia suggested, referring to a highway along which prisoners were marched off to distant Siberian incarceration both in czarist times, when it was known as the Vladimirsky trakt, and in the Soviet era.

Renaming a street is just one honor for the writer whose "Gulag Archipelago" is credited with revealing to the world the horrors of the Soviet system - and, ultimately, helping to bring it down.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, under whose tenure as president Stalin re-entered the school curriculum as an example of effective rule, has called for more of Solzhenitsyn's texts to be included in that same curriculum.

But while Putin's suggestion has gone relatively unquestioned, the street name has spurred a serious new round of debate about Moscow's toponymy - debates that had fizzled after a spate of renaming in the 1990s after Communism fell.

How appropriate is it, for example, that Leninsky Prospekt, which cuts through southern Moscow, runs past the Academy of Sciences building, where the wake for Solzhenitsyn was held, and near the Donskoi Monastery, where he is buried?

Or that one of the main streets perpendicular to the newly christened Ulitsa Solzhenitsyna is Marksistskaya - Marx Street, as in Karl?

"I think this is the beginning, after a long silence, of a new period of renaming," said Viktor Moskvin, director of the Russia Abroad Foundation, a repository of émigré memoirs and archives that Solzhenitsyn helped compile and strongly supported along with Luzhkov. The archive will also be named after him. "Now that Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya, a street name with such ideological meaning, is being renamed, I think it will be easier to rename the others."

Luzhkov has made his position clear. He attended the panikhida, or memorial service, at the Donskoi Monastery on Sept. 11, the 40th day since the writer's death, and stood at the graveside with Solzhenitsyn's widow, Natalia.

Moscow Communists are up in arms. Vladimir Lakeyev, the leader of the Communist Party faction in the Moscow City Duma, the Russian capital's main legislative body, has petitioned the city's prosecutor's office to investigate the legality of the decision.

Lakeyev said in a statement that Big Communist Street is named after Bolsheviks who fell in battle there during the Revolutions of 1905 and the Great October Revolution of 1917.

Renaming the street is "inadmissible" because it "reflects the feat of communists who gave their lives for freedom, the happiness of the people and the strengthening of the state," the statement said. By contrast, it added, Solzhenitsyn was "a public figure who devoted his life to fighting the Soviet people's state and spoke out with anti-communist and anti-state positions."

Stanislav Minin, a columnist for the Nezavisimaya Gazetar, worried last week that Solzhenitsyn Street would be out of place.

"It will inevitably end up in amusing, and at times simply idiotic, contexts," he said. For example: "The Interfax agency reports that a drunken fight took place tonight on Ulitsa Solzhenitsyna."

Moscow has a street, Prospekt Akademika Sakharova, named after the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who died in 1990.

Yevgeny Bunimovich is one of two members of the Moscow Legislature's liberal Yabloko Party faction, which wholeheartedly supports the naming of a street in honor of Solzhenitsyn, but not the manner in which it is being done, nor the confusing city laws on street names.

"Many quite famous people die in Moscow, and there's an idea right away to name a street after them," he said. "We need to think how this is to be done."

Technically, in fact, naming a street so quickly after a dead luminary violates city laws. But then exceptions have already been made - in 2004, a street on the outskirts of the city was hastily renamed after Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen rebel turned pro-Kremlin strongman who was killed by an assassin's bomb.

And in 2005, Malaya Kommunisticheskaya, or Little Communist Street, which adjoins its big brother, was renamed for Konstantin Stanislavsky, the pioneering theater director whose family once had a factory on the street.

The Orthodox priests of a beautiful church in the neighborhood, meanwhile, have taken matters into their own hands Affixed to their church, which served as a book repository in Soviet times, is a sign that simply returns the address to the days before the 1917 Revolution: 15 Bolshaya Alekseyevskaya.

"We shouldn't be like the Communists, who went around renaming everything," said the Reverend Valery Stepanov, who serves at the church and hosts a television show about Moscow. "But Solzhenitsyn Street is better than Big Communist Street."

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