Moscow: Naming controversy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Sep 26 13:25:10 UTC 2008

September 26, 2008
Moscow Journal: Honor a Literary Giant, but Be Careful Where

MOSCOW — In death as in life, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remains a
difficult, polarizing figure for Russia, a fierce critic not only of
Communism but also of the decadence and materialism of post-Soviet
Russia. So it was perhaps inevitable that the seemingly simple act of
naming a Moscow street in his honor would become complicated. When
President Dmitri A. Medvedev decreed last month that Mr. Solzhenitsyn,
who died on Aug. 3 at 89, be memorialized "for his extraordinary
contribution" to Russian culture, he did not set any deadline or
single out any street. But the office of Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov quickly
said that Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya Ulitsa, or Big Communist Street,
would henceforth be known as Ulitsa Solzhenitsyna, or Solzhenitsyn
Street, in honor of Mr. Solzhenitsyn, the writer whose book "The Gulag
Archipelago" is credited with revealing the horrors of the Soviet
system and, ultimately, helping to destroy it.

That was too much for the Communists, who consider the writer little
more than a traitor. Early this month, on the eve of the 40th day
after Mr. Solzhenitsyn's death, when Russian Orthodox custom calls for
commemoration of the dead, Vladimir Lakeyev, a leader of the Communist
Party faction in Moscow, read a statement saying that Big Communist
Street was named after the Bolsheviks who fell in battle there in the
revolution of 1905 and the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917.

Renaming the street — one of Moscow's best preserved, with rows of
elegant prerevolutionary mansions — is "inadmissible" because the
current name "reflects the feat of Communists who gave their lives for
freedom, the happiness of the people and the strengthening of the
state," Mr. Lakeyev said. By contrast, he said, Mr. 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."

This week the Web site of the Moscow branch of the Communist Party of
the Russian Federation said that "citizens across the country continue
to express their displeasure with the campaign of canonization of the
false prophet."

Mr. Lakeyev has petitioned the city prosecutor's office to investigate
the legality of the decision, saying that the law clearly states that
a person has to have been dead 10 years before a street may be named
after him or her. In response, Vladimir Platonov, an official in Mr.
Medvedev's party, United Russia, proposed a loophole in the law that
would lift the restriction if the name change was based on a decree by
federal authorities.

But this being Russia, it is not clear that such a move is necessary.
In 2004, a street on the outskirts of Moscow was hastily renamed for
Akhmad Kadyrov, a Chechen rebel turned pro-Kremlin strongman, who was
killed by an assassin's bomb.

Some have raised a different issue, saying that Mr. Solzhenitsyn's
memory is more likely to be dishonored by having his name attached to
a busy city street.

"It will inevitably end up in amusing, and at times simply idiotic,
contexts," wrote Stanislav Minin, a columnist for the newspaper
Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "For example: 'The Interfax agency reports that a
drunken fight took place tonight on Ulitsa Solzhenitsyna.' "

In all likelihood, the renaming will go ahead despite the Communists'
protests. The presidential decree, dated Aug. 12, states that a plaque
should be erected on the street and specifies the text — identifying
Mr. Solzhenitsyn as a Nobel Prize winner and winner of the State Prize
of Russia but making no mention of the gulag, the Soviet prison system
— and says that new street signs and the plaque should be in place no
later than Jan. 1, 2009. On Tuesday, the Moscow government gave
preliminary approval to amendments that would fully legalize the name
change. In the meantime, a handful of Communists and residents of
Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya demonstrated, holding banners with slogans
like "Don't Live a Lie."

Andrei Metelsky, the leader of the Moscow City Duma's pro-Kremlin
United Russia faction, said during the legislature's session that
dissenting opinions were getting much more of a hearing than in
Russia's past.

"This isn't the situation of nearly 100 years ago when no one was
asked, and it was just renamed and that's it," he said. "If anyone
tried to object, they faced an unenviable fate in the camps."

If nothing else, the squabble over Ulitsa Solzhenitsyna has spurred a
new round of discussion about Moscow's toponymy — a debate that had
fizzled after a post-Soviet spate of renaming in the 1990s. Moscow
still has a number of streets, squares and metro stations named after
Lenin, lesser Communist figures and dates connected to the revolution.
One of the major thoroughfares near Big Communist Street is still
called Marksistskaya, or Marxist Street.

"Now that Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya, a street name with such
ideological meaning, is being renamed, I think it will be easier to
rename others," said Viktor Moskvin, director of the Russia Abroad
Foundation, a repository of Russian émigré memoirs and archives that
Mr. Solzhenitsyn helped compile and strongly supported — and that will
now also bear his name.

Meanwhile, the priests at St. Martin the Confessor, a beautiful
Orthodox church on Big Communist Street, have taken matters into their
own hands and simply erected a sign with its pre-1917 street address,
15 Bolshaya Alekseyevskaya, which honors the church of St. Aleksy, a
medieval Orthodox metropolitan of Moscow.

"We shouldn't be like the Communists, who went around renaming
everything," said the Rev. 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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