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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Playing Historical Games With Names

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On July 9, RIA-Novosti reported under the banner “News flash!” that “No decision has been made to change the name of Moscow’s Leningradsky Station to Nikolayevsky.” During the interval between the first report that Russian Railways had returned Leningradsky Station to its historical name and the retraction a few hours later, a heated debate erupted between representatives of democratic forces and the Russian Orthodox Church on the one hand, and the Communist Party on the other. It seemed as if we went back in time to the Civil War of 1918 to 1921.
The conflict revolves around the fact that Nikolayevsky Station, which links Moscow by rail to St. Petersburg, was built in 1849 during the rule of Tsar Nicholas I. After Petrograd was renamed Leningrad, the train station was also renamed Leningradsky Station in 1924. According to media reports, the idea to give the station its original name back was first put forward in 2007 by the Return social movement and the Moscow Patriarchate.
Before trying to sort out the current mess, let’s take a look at the symbolism behind both names. Of all the places that were renamed during the post-Soviet period, people have had the most difficulty getting accustomed to the name St. Petersburg. I have never met a single resident of the city who refers to the city as St. Petersburg. They all call it either Leningrad or simply “Peter” for short. I have no doubt that this is meant as a tribute to the 900-day siege of Leningrad by Hitler’s army, one of the most heroic and tragic episodes of World War II.
What do people most commonly associate with the name of Nicholas I? The first, of course, is the Decembrist Revolt. The Decembrists, members of Russia’s nobility, advocated introducing a constitution and eliminating serfdom. On Dec. 14, 1825, taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the death of Tsar Alexander I and Nicholas’ accession to the throne, they staged an armed revolt that Nicholas suppressed.
During the Soviet period, the Decembrists were lionized as the early founders of Russia’s revolutionary movement. From today’s perspective, they seem like “democrats” from the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin or the “color revolutionaries” of this decade — that is, ambitious career Bonapartes from among society’s elite. On the backdrop of the catastrophic consequences of the democratic reform experiments, Nicholas I comes off looking like a wonderful person.
On the other hand, Nicholas I dedicated his entire 30-year rule to rejecting changes to the existing order. His conservative rule culminated in Russia’s crushing defeat in the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856. The closest modern parallel might be Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Does it make sense to honor Nicholas I’s name and thereby further traumatize those who honor the Leningrad blockade as a sacred memory? They were already offended when Leningrad was renamed St. Petersburg.
Shouldn’t President Dmitry Medvedev’s newly formed commission “for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests” discourage such initiatives? Could Russian Railways and the Moscow Patriarchate be lumped in with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe parliamentary arm, which recently equated the roles of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in starting World War II.
Perhaps the decision to hold off on renaming Leningradsky Station to Nikolayevsky was meant to be a demonstrative blow to those trying to falsify history.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.