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Muscovites Step Up Effort To Rename Metro Station Honoring Tsar's Killer

Although many Moscow metro stations honoring Soviet figures such as Vladimir Lenin have been renamed, the station honoring Pytor Voikov has remained untouched. (file photo)
Although many Moscow metro stations honoring Soviet figures such as Vladimir Lenin have been renamed, the station honoring Pytor Voikov has remained untouched. (file photo)

Moscow's Voikovskaya metro station -- named in 1964 in honor a Bolshevik revolutionary who participated in the 1918 murder of the Russian royal family -- has inexplicably escaped the wave of name changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s, 11 Moscow metro stations honoring Soviet figures from Vladimir Lenin to secret police founder Feliks Dzerzhinsky were renamed. The station honoring Pytor Voikov, however, has gone untouched despite a 25-year effort to see its name changed.

Now the effort has gained new urgency, with activists launching an online petition to make their case to the city authorities amid fears that a nearby railway platform to be opened next month might also be named after Voikov.

The fight against honoring Voikov has created a strange coalition, ranging from the Russian Orthodox Church to Stalinist-monarchist political figures to liberal human-rights activists. Yet doubts remain whether the city government will heed their calls.

Opened in 1964 on the northwestern outskirts of the capital, the station is named after Bolshevik revolutionary and Soviet diplomat Voikov, a man of remarkably little distinction even by Soviet standards.

His only claim to fame is that he was actively involved in fabricating "evidence" of alleged counterrevolutionary activity by the Russian royal family that the Soviet government used as justification for executing the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and their five children. Russian archives contain a gruesome document in Voikov's handwriting ordering a pharmacy in Yekaterinburg to provide 165 kilograms of sulfuric acid that was used to dispose of the royal remains.

"I was one of the most ardent supporters of [executing the Romanovs]," Voikov wrote in a memoir. "Revolutions must be cruel to deposed monarchs."

Later, in Moscow, Voikov oversaw the sale abroad of Russian cultural treasures from the Kremlin -- including many famous Faberge eggs from the Romanov family collections. In 1924, he was sent as the Soviet representative to Poland, and he was assassinated three years later by an emigre Russian monarchist. He is buried in the Soviet necropolis in the Kremlin wall.

"Almost no one denies the fact that Voikov was involved in the murder of the tsarist family," says Yevgeny Sosedov, head of the Moscow Oblast branch of the Society For the Preservation of Monuments, "or that he participated in the discussions and voted for execution. This is a historically proven fact."

A 'Terrorist And Destroyer'

Activists worry that when the new railway platform opens in December, it too will bear Voikov's name because municipal transport guidelines recommend that such platforms have the same name as the nearest metro station.

The array of support for renaming the station is impressive. The remaining Romanov family has asked the Russian government to rename it. The powerful Russian Orthodox Church -- which has canonized the entire royal family as "passion-bearers" -- has described Voikov as "a terrorist and a destroyer" who merits "eternal punishment and dishonor."

"It is a rare occasion when I agree with the Russian Orthodox Church," long-time rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva told the Interfax news agency in July. "Voikov is an unsavory figure; his reputation is besmirched; and his name shouldn't grace a metro station or anything else."

In 2010, a majority of deputies in the State Duma passed a nonbinding call for the Moscow city government to change the station's name.

The latest effort to provoke a change was initiated by Aleksandr Zakondyrin, a local council deputy in Moscow's northern Voikov district, where the contentious metro station and rail platform are located. He set up a petition on the website of the Moscow city government to solicit the opinions of citizens. Voting in the nonbinding opinion poll will close on November 23.

According to a local Moscow news agency on November 18, nearly 290,000 people have cast ballots on the poll so far, with 35 percent supporting renaming the station and 53 percent opposing.

Supporters of the name change, however, have expressed concern that the city's poll will not accurately reflect opinions. People can cast votes merely by inputting a Russian telephone number, which means that people from around the country can vote and there is nothing to stop people from voting multiple times.

Sosedov, who is not a resident of Moscow, says that when he tried to vote in favor of changing the station's name, he had to try repeatedly before the site accepted his vote. However, when he voted in favor of leaving the current name, his vote registered immediately. He says others have complained to him of similar problems.

'Liberal Maidan'

He also expresses concern about how Moscow media have covered the story.

"In particular, the media that in one way or another are connected with the Moscow government, literally on the first day of voting -- even in the first hours of voting -- were running headlines to the effect that Muscovites had voted against renaming the station," he says. "But the voting had only just begun."

The conservative Regnum news agency, for instance, on November 13 published an article under the headline, "In Russia There Are Calls For Bringing Down Lenin. Are They Preparing A Liberal Maidan In Moscow," referring to the popular uprising in Ukraine that toppled the government of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Anton Khudyakov, a coordinator of the Rename Voikovskaya civic group, says he doesn't see why an online referendum is necessary at all. His group has submitted to the authorities a petition with the verified signatures of 6,500 residents of the Voikov district calling for the name change and for the new railway platform not to be named in Voikov's honor.

"I really don't understand why we needed to collect signatures," he says. "After all, we have been pushing for this for 25 years. Moreover, just recently, in connection with the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of victory [in World War II], the station Ulitsa Podbelskogo was very quickly renamed Rokossovsky Boulevard [after Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky]. No one asked anyone about that."

"And when they renamed the station Brateyevo to Alma-Atinskaya, they didn't pay any attention to the 7,000 signatures collected on a petition against this."

Khudyakov says his group has no problem in theory with the idea of a referendum, but insists that participants must be required to submit their passport information to participate.

"That would be honest," he says. "And after such a transparent, representative process, the authorities could take a responsible decision. But in the current case, we don't see anything like this."

'No Reasoned Discussion'

Supporters of keeping the old name offer few arguments. Communist Duma Deputy Valery Rashkin said in July that the party opposes attempts to "rewrite history," calling on Muscovites to respect "the decision our ancestors made to immortalize someone's memory." It was an odd position to take considering that, when the communists were in power, they routinely changed tsarist-era place names, including the names of major cities and entire oblasts.

"We often hear: 'this is our history; let's not change our history or rewrite it," says Sosedov, of the Society for the Preservation of Monuments. "This is a strange line of argument since our history has many figures who can be viewed negatively. There were traitors and murderers and terrorists."

In addition, Sosedov says, opponents of changing the name cite the experience of Ukraine, which has seen a lively campaign in recent months to remove Soviet-era monuments and replace Soviet place names.

"I have noticed that opponents of changing the name generally produce some emotional arguments," Sosedov says. "They say, 'you are making us sick with all your name changing' and 'you want to provoke a Maidan, like they had in Ukraine.' You don't see any reasoned discussion of the topic."

Proponents of the name change have suggested various alternatives. In 2013, two Duma deputies appealed to the Moscow mayor to name the station after South Africa's first black president, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela.

Activists have also proposed naming it after Soviet cosmonaut Vladislav Volkov, a two-time Hero of the Soviet Union and a Moscow native who died tragically when the Soyuz-11 space capsule depressurized during reentry on June 30, 1971. This year marks the 80th anniversary of Volkov's birth.

"Not a single metro station so far has been named after a cosmonaut," Khudyakov notes.

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lilya Palveleva