2 October 2023Moldova

The Chronicle of Names

How Chişinău Became an Epicenter of a Toponymic Disaster in the Twentieth Century

by Sergey Ehrlich
Nicolae Iorga Street attracts the attention of both residents and tourists by the number of names it has had© Serghei Mardari

Just as animals mark their territory, politicians seek to imprint their ‘correct’ memory on their fellow citizens. To achieve this, they don’t just erect monuments but also alter place names. The renaming of toponyms [place names] occurs in all countries during political regime changes. However, Chişinău has its unique approach to this as discovered by Sergey Ehrlich, Doctor of Historical Sciences and editor-in-chief of the journal ‘Historical Expertise’.

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Chişinău is a city situated at the crossroads of the Romanian and the Russian worlds. Over the last two hundred years, the capital of present-day Moldova changed hands eight times. Until 1812, it was part of the Principality of Moldova. From 1812 to 1917, it belonged to the Russian Empire. For a brief period – from 1917 to 1918 – it was part of the Moldavian Democratic Republic. From 1918 to 1940, it was under the rule of the Kingdom of Romania. From 1940 to 1941, it was incorporated into the USSR, then once again became part of the Kingdom of Romania (from 1941 to 1944). From 1944 to 1991, it was once again under Soviet control, and finally, from 1991 to the present day, it has been the independent Republic of Moldova. Throughout these shifting periods, Chişinău’s streets underwent numerous name changes, reflecting the complex history and influences the city has experienced.

In 2022, Romanian sociologists Mihai Rusu and Alina Croitoru published the book The Politics of Memory in Post-Socialist Romania. Social Attitudes towards Renaming the Streets and Removing the Monuments. Upon reading, what struck me about it was the fact that in the post-communist period, only 12% of streets in Romanian cities were renamed. From what I had gathered, in my hometown – Chişinău – the proportion of streets renamed after 1989 was much larger. I became interested in this topic, and I can confirm that 77% of the streets in the Moldovan capital have undergone renaming.

As I know from my own experience, this was a real disaster that caused significant problems for city dwellers trying to navigate daily life. During the “wild nineties” and the “fat noughties,” when GPS had not yet become a common tool, I had a hard time communicating with taxi drivers, many of whom came from rural areas and were only familiar with the new street names. I, on the other hand, could only recall the old names and was compelled to guide the taxi drivers with the help of the commands “left,” “right,” and “straight.”

It would not be correct to consider this solely a problem of the Soviet generation resulting from the need for “decommunization.” Firstly, not all the streets renamed after 1989 carried the stamp of communist ideology in their names. Secondly, during the 1990s in Chişinău, there was a large group of people born in the interwar period, and in their memory, the “tsarist” names were replaced by “Romanian,” then “Soviet,” and finally “post-Soviet” ones. This means that their mental map of the city was disrupted multiple times.

Suffice it to say that thirty streets in Chişinău went through four or more renamings in the period between 1918 and 1991. A characteristic example is the street that today bears the name of the Romanian scientist and politician Nicolae Iorga: the name of this street changed ten times overall.

Post-Soviet renamings can be adequately understood only in the context of previous toponymic “memory wars” that unfolded on the streets of Chişinău in the 20th century.

A little bit of theory

What are the functions of toponymy? The first, practical, function enables orientation in space. From this perspective, place names, if they should change at all, certainly should not do so on a massive scale. The meaning of the name as such plays a secondary role here.

In The Functions of Memory etc… Rusu and Croitoru cite a compelling example. During the socialist period, one of the squares in Bucharest, where a popular market is located, was named after the communist leader Alexandru Moghioroș. After 1989, the ‘square was renamed, but most city residents still call it by its “Communist” name, while only a few know who Moghioroș was. Moreover, despite long-standing tensions between Romanians and Hungarians, nobody seems to be concerned in this case about the fact that ethnically, Moghioroș (the Romanian transcription of this name) had a distinctly Hungarian surname: Mogyorós.

Rusu and Kroitoru also refer to survey data indicating that the majority of townspeople oppose any renaming, particularly when it comes to the city's vital arteries. To prevent a situation in which politicians might be tempted to rename them again in the future, survey participants suggest assigning new streets “neutral” names.

The second function of toponymy is ideological. While not very common in traditional societies, it fully comes into effect in the Modern era when the “designers” of nation-states begin using toponymy as a tool for “civic education.”

Streets receive names from the pantheon of “national heroes” (mainly politicians, military, and cultural figures) or in an effort to immortalize historical events and the most important social values. This ideological function inevitably leads to renamings after a change of political regimes, resulting in street navigation problems.

As the case of Moghioroș Square demonstrates, people typically don’t “educate themselves” from names; they are often unaware of whose name the street they live on bears. In practical terms, ideologically charged names serve the function of urban navigation to some extent, but they do so inadequately. This is because they change frequently and are not directly linked to significant landmarks of the neighborhood or city area.

These considerations, however, do not stop politicians. Once in power, the first thing they do is hectic renaming. Toponymy, as the area where ideology frequently hinders practicality, serves as a good example of this, leading as to believe that if Marx's definition holds true: “Practice is the criterion of truth,” then, consequently, his definition of ideology as “false consciousness” also rings true.

A little bit of history

The researcher of the early history of Chişinău, Sergius Ciocanu, identified nine streets from the Moldavian period that had received their names before 1812 when Bessarabia became part of the Russian Empire. Two of them: Sârbească (Serbian Lane) and Sfântul Ilie (Saint Ilie Street) are unique in that they exist to this day and have never changed their names.

At the same time, these were typical street names for that era. The Principality of Moldavia had not fully embraced Modernity and still remained a traditional society, where streets primarily served a practical navigational function. They were often named after significant landmarks, such as churches or the residential areas of specific communities, as seen in this case with the Serbian community.

From 1812 to 1917, a period that can be referred to as ‘imperial,’ the street names of Chişinău were typically based on the names of the owners of remarkable buildings, the names of churches, professional occupations, or places populated by certain ethnic communities. As these names indicate, the Russian Empire until the end of the 19th century was also pretty far from the ‘national-educational’ toponymic style of Modernity.

In the early tsarist period, there were only two known cases of ideological renaming. One was when ‘Jewish Street’ became ‘Kagul Street.’ The other was the street where the Old Believer Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God was located, which was simply named ‘Chapel Street,’ since naming it after the church was prohibited.

In both cases, the toponymic repression was not driven by nationality but by religion which acted as the primary spiritual bond in traditional societies. This suggests that the nationalist ideology of Modernity wasn't a significant factor for the Russian administrators of the Bessarabian region in the first half of the 19th century. Up to now, therefore, seven of the nine known Moldavian-period street names in Chişinău are still preserved in street nomenclature (translated into Russian). This hints that many of the tsarist street names in Chişinău’s oldest part might have been translations of former Moldavian names.

Russian modern ideological names only began to appear in Chişinău in the last quarter of the 19th century. During this period, the imperial culture found representation in the names of Gogolevskaya, Zhukovskaya, Pirogovskaya and Pushkinskaya streets [translator’s note: from the last names of Nikolai Gogol, Vasily Zhukovsky, Nikolay Pirogov, and Alexander Pushkin]. The Bessarabian administrators did not prioritize local flavor. It did not occur to them to name the streets of Chişinău after Moldovans who had made significant contributions to the cultural development of the Russian Empire. One can mention, for example, Peter Mohyla, the founder of the first Russian university, the Kiev-Mohyla Academy; Dimitri Kantemir, the first Russian scholar and member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences; or Alexander Sturdza, the first Russian author whose book, Reflections on the Doctrine and the Spirit of the Orthodox Church (1816), generated a noticeable response in the West.

The national ideology of Modernity, which barely manifested itself in the names of Chişinău streets during the late Empire, fully developed during the interwar era of Romanian renamings, from 1918 to 1940. Almost all Russian toponyms, including the old historical ones associated with the names of Moldavian boyars, were changed.

By 1937, only nine streets (or 8% of all streets), mostly named after churches, had retained their original names. The naming structure as such had undergone a dramatic change. Out of the 109 street names from that period, 93 (85%) were personal names. It is notable that only 17 (16%) of these individuals were born in Bessarabia. The rest, with the exception of Pushkin, Pavel Svinin, and four foreigners, hailed from Romanian territories.

The majority of these Romanians had never set foot on Chişinău soil. To keep in line with the Romanian national agenda, local administrators erased the ancient Moldovan toponymy of Chişinău and were even less bothered to spare the memory of the Russian century in the history of the city.

How did the Chişinău residents react to the topographical disaster inflicted by the Romanian authorities? They simply continued to use the old names from the tsarist period. In 1926, Romanian writer Liviu Marian complained that it was impossible to reach a destination unless you gave the cabman the Russian name of the street. By 1937, not much had changed, as the List of Street Names in Chişinău published in that year began with the complaint, ‘Few of the townspeople are aware of the new street names.’ This is further confirmed by typical advertisements in the local press, where Romanian street names were very often duplicated with their old counterparts preserved from the tsarist period.

During the Soviet era (1940-1991), the first thing that catches your eye when studying the list of street names is the huge (460, or 59%) number of duplicates, mostly alleys and lanes. It is easy to imagine the scale of difficulty when trying to locate specific places, especially when there were fifteen streets named ‘Odessa Lane’ in the Moldavian capital. The Soviet government, even without any ideological motive, managed to create a topographical catastrophe.

At the same time, the structure of street names followed distinct ideological patterns. The list of ‘personal’ street names reflects an anti-Romanian sentiment. Only seven individuals lent their names to Chişinău streets: Stephen the Great (commonly known as ‘Hospodar’ at the time) and a few authors whom the Soviet government appointed classics of Moldavian literature (all born in Transprutian Moldova, none from Muntenia or Transylvania). The proportion of local natives, as in the Romanian period, is modest: just 34 people (17%). This is significantly less than the total number of natives of the Russian Empire and the USSR – 124 (64%), 84 of whom had never been in Moldova.

As is obvious from these observations, there was not much difference between Romanian ‘bourgeois nationalists’ and Soviet ‘proletarian internationalism.’ Both political groupings attempted to enforce their toponymic agenda from the center to the periphery. Both were quite far from the idea that Chişinău had the privilege to preserve local memory, which was to be equal in rights with metropolitan memory.

The current state of the toponymy

In 1989, the Revolution of national revival began in Moldova. The four revolutionary years – the period from 1989 to 1992 – accounted for 92% of all renamings. In total, after 1989, 534 streets have been renamed, which constitutes 77% of all the streets that existed at the end of the Soviet period.

The changes that can be qualified as positive include a decrease in the number of duplicate names. Compared to Soviet times when they amounted to 460, today there are as few as 200 (24%) out of the total number (831) of current street names. Still, this process unfortunately cannot be explained by the desire to simplify city navigation, since the post-Soviet period itself brought about eleven new streets with duplicating lanes or alleys.

The structure of personal names has undergone dramatic changes. In the Romanian period, the proportion of local natives was 16% (11 people), in the Soviet era – 17% (34 people), while today it is 48% (142 people). As is obvious, even such a fragile phenomenon as Moldovan sovereignty generates an autonomous trend in the politics of memory.

What is the ‘personal’ contribution of the former ‘metropoles,’ which quite openly demonstrate their readiness to welcome the former province into their fold, albeit not in the immediate future? The Romanians clearly dominate here with 95 (32%) representatives of today’s Chişinău street pantheon born across the Prut, while only 34 (11%) originate from the Russian Empire and the USSR.

The surprising aspect of these statistics is the minimal representation of personal names from Transnistria: there are only 10 of them (3%). This is surprising because, in the 1940s and 1950s, Sovietized Moldovans from the left bank played a significant role in the public life of the country. The fact that their memory is disregarded suggests that these public figures are not fully acknowledged as ‘belonging to us’ on the right bank of the Dniester.

The ideology of Modernity, where the sovereignty of the God-given monarch is replaced by the sovereignty of the deified nation, sanctifies the pantheon of national heroes, thereby using history as a civil religion. Traditional religion usually plays a secondary role in modern society. Thus, the Romanians retained the names of the five streets ‘leading to the temple’ from the tsarist period and added the names of three metropolitans (bishops in charge of a province) to the Chişinău street nomenclature, while the majority of their renamings had to do with the icons of national culture and politicians.

The treatment of religious names in postmodern Chişinău has been different: 35 streets are named after churches, monasteries, saints, as well as religious holidays and symbols. In their religious frenzy, the ‘renamers’ resort to outright falsification, passing off contemporary imitations as the originally-traditional names. For instance, the old historical street names, probably dating back to the Principality of Moldova period, were ‘rechristened’ without any reason. Thus, instead of Andreevskaya, Ivanovskaya, and Petrovskaya (i.e. Andrew, Ivan, and Peter streets), we now have Sfântul Andrei (Saint Andrew), loan Botezătorul (John the Baptist), and Sfântul Petru (Saint Peter), even though these streets have never hosted any churches with those names.

Nostalgia for pseudo-Orthodox values coexists peacefully with the vestiges of paganism. Although the church disapproves of superstitions, two streets with evident astrological connotations have appeared in the post-Soviet Chişinău: Zodiac and Capricorn streets.

Pre-Christian mythology is transparent in street names symbolizing abundance (Belşugului), good luck (Scuarul Noroc), innocence and moral purity of youth (Florile Dalbe), as well as reverence for ancestors (Calea Moșilor). Pagan roots are clearly perceptible in the names of the spring festival Mărţişor or the epic ballad Mioriţa, while the undertaking of Master builder Manole (Meșterul Manole), who sacrificed his beloved wife in order to prevent the destruction of the temple he was erecting, sounds blasphemous from a Christian perspective.

Can the above-mentioned street names be considered a tribute to the traditional bonds of pre-industrial society? From my perspective it might be the case, especially when we take into consideration a new street on the city map: Hunters Street (Vânătorilor), whose name invokes the spirit of a primitive hunter-gatherer economy.

The names of Alunelul Park and Aluniș Street remind us of traditional hazelnut harvesting. And, since the subject of the forest has already been brought up, let’s not forget about berry-picking. The street names are already here to serve as topical reminders of rose hips (Măceşilor), blackberries (Murelor), blackthorn (Porumbrele), and raspberries (Zmeurei). The next stage following foraging, which is fruit growing, is represented by streets bearing the names of delightful Moldovan fruits: apricots (Caișilor), cherries (Cireşilor), pears (Perilor), plums (Prunului), and sour cherries (Vişinilor).

Walnut Street (Nucarilor) reminds us that the British, in contrast to the Russians, correctly refer to this drupe as a wall-nut that is Wallachian, a.k.a. Moldovan, nut. The tradition of winemaking, sacred to Moldovans, is symbolized by a variety of street names, including grapes (Poamei), the lower part of the vine (Butucului), vineyard (Drumul Viilor), those who grow grapes (Podgorenilor), and the place where grapes are pressed (Cramei).

The traditions of an agrarian society are also substantiated through the streets that commemorate rural occupations and traditional crafts: shepherds (Scutari), plowmen (Plugarilor), gardeners (Grădinarilor), mowers (Cosașilor), blacksmiths (Fierarilor), charcoal burners (Cărbunari), and medieval ‘cab drivers’ – coachmen (Cărăușilor).

A well is an integral part of rural life, as evidenced by the name of the Fântânilor (Wells) street, which was added to the map of the Moldovan capital in 1992. Some newly named streets are also supposed to evoke ancient times by honoring the medieval estates of small boyars (Mazililor) and free peasants (Răzeșei).The renamers also didn’t overlook a few strata of the ancient army (Roşiori, Pandurilor, Dorobanți), which, under the leadership of their military governors (Voievozilor), gather in their military camp (Drumul Taberei), as the authors of the encyclopedia Guide of Chişinău Streets explain. To evaluate the appropriateness of these names in a modern city, it would be enough to monkey with the idea that in the Moscow mayor’s office, some patriotic reenactor would be willing to give some streets the names of Streltsy, Harquebusiers, or Reiters.

It seems to me that 84 post-Soviet streets named after natural phenomena denote not just an agricultural, but specifically a pre-industrial context. This collection extensively represents the animal kingdom (11 streets), wild plants along with cultivated ones (44 streets), as well as a wide variety of natural and man-made landscapes (29 streets), whose differences may be indistinguishable for indigenous city dwellers but are significant for those who grew up in the countryside. For instance, consider the street names Imaşului and Păşunilor, both of which translate to ‘pasture.’ An urbanite might have a hard time grasping these two big differences, but those who designed these names undoubtedly felt the distinction.

Who are these individuals, with their subtle ‘natural’ instinct? Perhaps they exemplify a post-industrial ecological perspective, endeavoring, with the help of naturalistic names, to communicate to the residents of Chişinău the message that industrial consumer society has hit a dead end and is teetering on the edge of collapse?

I would be happy to believe this had the post-Soviet Chişinău administrators not simultaneously created a 72-street cluster of religious, mystical and other names with archaic reverberations, while also erasing Power Engineer, Computer, and Cosmonaut streets from the city map.

The fervency of pre-industrial and counter-urban values culminates, as I see it, in the name of the Village Fence Street (Hotarul satului). Not only does it confirm that modern Chişinău toponymy is inspired by a powerful archaic trend, but it also epitomizes the victory of the countryside over the city, which is clearly reflected in the structure of the political class in today’s Moldova.

We are not discussing here the fact that after 1991, an ethnocratic regime took over the grape republic. Even though our closest neighboring countries, Romania and Ukraine, elected, respectively, ethnic German Klaus Johannes and Jewish Volodymyr Zelensky as presidents, this has not yet influenced the majority of Moldovan voters to select politicians based on criteria other than ‘blood and soil.’

My point is rather that within the ethnic majority, there is a confrontation between the adherents of rural and urban values, with the urban Moldovans losing this confrontation miserably. Suffice it to say that all six post-Soviet Moldovan presidents originated from the rural environment. When they come to power in the city, people with a traditional mindset do not so much tend to modernize their worldview as adapt the city to their own mentality, as evidenced by the above-mentioned religious, folkloric, and agrarian street names. It is no coincidence that in Soviet times, 20 streets were named after predominantly surrounding villages, and therefore, they performed a practical function of navigation. After 1991, the number of village names on the Chişinău map has amounted to 57 – an increase of almost three times.

I can explain, if not justify, why ethnic minorities in Moldova are virtually excommunicated from power, but I am not able to understand the reasons why urban Moldovans make it to the pinnacle of politics only in the most exceptional instances. Meanwhile, since the late 1950s, a significant segment of the population representing the ethnic majority has grown up in Chişinău assimilating the values of Modernity from childhood. The oldest among them have already entered retirement age. These people have better starting positions, especially for a successful political career, compared to their peers from rural areas. In real life, however, we almost never see them in prominent political positions. To uncover the reasons for this situation, specialized research would be necessary.

Let’s indulge in a bit of wishful thinking: what if the upcoming elections in Chişinău bring to power ‘correct’ politicians whose views are in sync with the challenges of our information civilization? Should they consider the task of ‘fixing’ street names among their priorities? From my perspective, if these politicians truly embrace modernity, they should pass a law that puts the power of naming streets squarely in the hands of citizens. That means allowing people to choose names for new streets and renaming old ones while keeping politicians far away from this process. Imagine this as my electoral mandate for the candidates running for the role of Chişinău mayor in the upcoming November 5, 2023 elections.

Translated from Russian by Kun