Meanings and associations of city names

In the Russian language, several cities are associated with historical anecdotes, cultural references - and in some cases, political controversy.
Drawing by Niyaz Karim
Drawing by Niyaz Karim

The history of Russian place names reflects the country’s turbulent history. There are cities that have been renamed two or even three times as a result of changing political regimes. Volgograd is one of them.

Since 1990, the question of once again calling this city Stalingrad – the name it held between 1925-1961 – has appeared from time to time. As Russian President Vladimir Putin recently explained: "In accordance with our law, this case comes under the jurisdiction of regions and municipalities. In this case, residents of the city should hold a referendum to decide."

The initiative has both fierce supporters and no less fierce opponents. The supporters believe that restoring the city’s former name would preserve the memory of the heroism of the people who fought in the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II; while the opponents consider this an unacceptable move, since this would in effect serve as a rehabilitation of Stalin, whom many believe to have been a bloody tyrant and dictator.

Interestingly, the option of returning the city's original name of Tsaritsyn, which it bore for more than three centuries, is not even being considered.

And yet the former capital of the Russian empire has had its original name reinstated. Since its founding and up till World War II, it was called St. Petersburg (not, as many believe, after the emperor Peter the Great, who founded the city in the early 18th century, but after St. Peter).

With the start of World War I, the city's name was "Russified" to make it sound less "German": Petersburg was changed into Petrograd. However, 10 years later, after the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin, died, the city was renamed Leningrad in his honor. In the early 1990s, its original name of St. Petersburg was restored.

The tradition of renaming cities to commemorate various Communist leaders remained practically throughout most of the 20th century: Practically right up until the breakup of the Soviet Union, the country's map had names like Ordzhonikidze, Kuybyshev, Brezhnev, and Andropov on it.

Some of those names survive still: Kirov, Kaliningrad (the former Königsberg) and even Tolyatti (named after Italian Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti), the city where Soviet Lada cars were made, the first of which were based on a Fiat model.  

The city of Moscow has given rise to the popular saying: "Moscow does not believe in tears", meaning that in order to succeed in Moscow, one has to be strong and not give up in the face of troubles. A Soviet film of the same name, telling the story of three young girls from the provinces who come to Moscow in the 1950s, won an Oscar as the best foreign-language film in 1980.

As for Kiev, its contribution to the world of Russian proverbs and sayings is the phrase: "The tongue will get you all the way to Kiev", meaning that although Kiev may be far away, as long you as know how to ask the way, you will get there.

An even farther goal and a nearly unreachable "ideal" was Paris, hence the phrase (and another Russian film of the same name): "See Paris and die". Although now Paris has become far more attainable and nobody has any intention of dying after having seen it.

Another foreign city whose name is rich in associations for Russians is Rio de Janeiro. In the popular satirical Soviet novel "Twelve Chairs", its protagonist, a romantic con artist, Ostap Bender, whenever he found himself in a drab little provincial town, used to say: "No, this is no Rio de Janeiro." Thanks to this year's World Cup, the number of Russians who will at last visit that Brazilian city is likely to increase dramatically.

The name of the Chinese city of Shanghai is often used in Russian, with a small “sh”, to denote areas of unauthorized spontaneous and chaotic construction.

Meanwhile, the Danish capital Copenhagen has entered Russian slang because it sounds like the Russian word for competent. The Russian phrase: "I am no Copenhagen in this" is used jokingly to mean "I am not competent in this" and to make fun of pretentious but not very well-educated people, who sometimes use clever words without really knowing them.

Some Russian cities have close relatives abroad, e.g. Belgorod and Belgrade (both meaning "white city"), or Lipetsk and Leipzig ("city of linden trees"). And some have complete namesakes, like the U.S. towns of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, within Russia itself there are a couple of cities whose names mean the same thing but are different: Oryol (meaning "eagle" in Russian) and Adler (which is the German for "eagle").

After the breakup of the USSR, there has been controversy around the Russian names of some of the capitals of the former Soviet republics, for example Estonia. In Soviet times, it was called Tallin, however after independence, in Estonia the authentic spelling of Tallinn was restored.

Moreover, Estonians insisted that in Russian too the name should be spelled with a double “–nn” at the end. That was done for several years, after which it was decided to return to the traditional Russian spelling of Tallin. Thus, the question of a single letter developed into a matter of principle, and not so much linguistic as political.

A similar situation arose in 2008, when after the Russian-Georgian armed conflict, Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared independence. After that both regions changed the names of their capital cities from Sukhumi to Sukhum and from Tskhinvali to Tskhinval accordingly.

They believed that the “-i" at the end made the names "Georgian". For its part, Georgia continues to use the previous names, and the difference between the two versions has become a political issue too.

Another instance of linguistic and political controversy has become very relevant recently, although it concerns not so much the names of cities as the names of whole countries.

In the Russian language, the usual preposition used to speak of events in another country is "v" (в), meaning “in”, e.g. in America, in Germany, in China.

However, with Ukraine, the standard form has always been to use the preposition "na" (на) which, although it usually translates as “on”, in this case has the same meaning as "in". The tricky thing is that the same preposition is used to speak of events in regions that are part of Russia (e.g. the Kuban, the Urals).

No consensus has yet been reached as to which preposition – "v" or "na" – should be used in relation to Ukraine. The majority of Russians (including many professional linguists) still prefer the latter, while Ukrainians consider it politically incorrect. 

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