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Why Do Cities, Streets Of Russia Continue To Carry The Names Of Executioners?

A wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of the first chief of Russia's secret police, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, in Moscow (file photo)
*Correction appended

I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Vladimir Yakunin.

A product of the “organs” (it is widely believed that in the 1980s he worked as a KGB agent in New York), a member of Vladimir Putin’s shadowy Ozero dacha cooperative, the director of several commercial firms, a trustee of a “patriotic-Great Power” organization, the head of Russian Railways – Yakunin’s biography is a model portrait of the elite of Russia’s current chekist kleptocracy.

But, as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Earlier this month, Yakunin signed an order restoring the historical name of Moscow’s Leningradsky railway station – Nikolayevsky vokzal. And he promised that this rechristening would not be the last. However, the order stood for only a few hours – after an urgent telephone call, it was rescinded and the map of the capital continues to show a station bearing the name of a city that no longer exists, a name that honors the pseudonym of the founder of one of the cruelest and most bloody regimes in world history.

I imagine the incident with Leningradsky station will stifle Yakunin’s urge for reform for a long time to come.

Covered In Blood

No one is surprised that the map of today’s Berlin does not show an Adolf-Hitler-Platz (which was what the current Theodor-Heuss-Platz was called from 1933-45) or a Hermann-Goering-Strasse (as Ebertstrasse was called from 1935-45). So why do the cities and streets of our country continue to carry the names of executioners who are covered in blood; who plundered its riches; who profaned its spiritual and cultural heritage; who executed and deported its peasants, priests, and writers; who destroyed all that was best and living and creative in the Russian people?

Why are regions of Novosibirsk, Volgograd, and Perm still named after Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the creator of the machinery of state terror under whose personal leadership more than 1.5 million people were destroyed in the first years after the October Revolution?

Why is the largest region of the Urals region still named after Yakov Sverdlov, the author of an October 2, 1918, order declaring that terror against “the enemies of the revolution” was the official policy of the Soviet government?

Why is there still in St. Petersburg – the birthplace of Russia’s parliamentary tradition – a street named for Anatoly Zheleznyakov, the symbol of the Bolshevik coup against the first and only session of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly (“The workers don’t need any more of your blabbering! The watchman is tired!”)?

Why does the map of Moscow stil show a Prospekt Andropova, named for the father of punitive psychiatry and the initiator of the exile of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Aleksandr Galich and of the internal exile of Andrei Sakharov?

Or maybe that last question isn’t appropriate...

Symptom Of The Illness

After the coming to power of Andropov’s disciples in 2000, a memorial plaque dedicated to him was installed on Lubyanka Square, while new monuments to him were erected in Rybinsk and Petrozavodsk. In 2007, when the opposition was promoting Bukovsky as a presidential candidate, he returned to Moscow after many years abroad and had to travel from the airport into the capital along Prospekt Andropova.

The naming of streets is not a trivial matter.

The preservation of Soviet toponyms is a symptom of the illness of our society, which has still not been able to cure itself of the totalitarian infection. We were able to take the first step – in August 1991, the power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was broken and in 1992 the Constitutional Court declared the communist regime “criminal.” But we were afraid to take the second step by condemning these crimes at the state level, by banning totalitarian ideologies and their symbols, by undertaking a process of lustration aimed at all the former prison guards.

No, back in 1991 and 1992 a false nobility of the victors prevailed.

“We don’t need to rock the boat,” people said. “We don’t need witch hunts.” So why should we be surprised when just eight years later the witches returned and began their own hunting?

Our current authorities showed their true face better than ever in their reaction to a recent resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which stated a banal truth: “Two powerful totalitarian regimes – Nazi and Stalinist – brought genocide, the destruction of human rights and freedoms, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.”

Over the last nine years, the regime of Vladimir Putin has lost the ability to surprise, but I think even Kremlin apologists were at least irked by the public defense of Stalinism coming from the mouths of officials in the Foreign Ministry and the Federal Assembly.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko called the resolution “a perversion of history.”

I wonder which feature of Stalinism our state bureaucrats consider “perverted.” “The destruction of the human rights and freedoms”? After all, that description does seem somewhat “perverted” considering that we are talking about the literal destruction of millions of human beings. Or maybe our officials are upset about the very fact of comparing these two totalitarian systems, which were in fact all-but-identical in cruelty, in political structure, and even in style.

“On the entire planet and throughout all of history, there has never been a regime more evil, more bloody, and, at the same time, more shrewd and cunning than the Bolshevist regime. No other earthly regime – not even the apprentice Nazi regime – can compare with it in terms of the numbers of its victims, or the depth of its infection over so many years, or the scope of its design, or its thoroughly unified totalitarianism.”

These words don’t come from any OSCE resolution. They were written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago,” Volume 3, Chapter 5.

The restoration of historical names and ridding ourselves of the legacy of Soviet totalitarianism is not matter for politicians. It is the business of all of society to see to it that the names of our streets and cities reflect the history of Russia and do not glorify its executioners.

*An earlier version of this story gave Yakov Sverdlov's first name as "Mikhail."

Vladimir Kara-Muza is a journalist and historian and a member of the Solidarity opposition movement. The views expressed in this commentary, which originally appeared on the website “Yezhednevny zhurnal” are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL