Out of Russia: Name game of places goes back to basics

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MOSCOW - A bald, bearded scholar, Yevgenny Shiryaev, makes an odd centurion of empire. He wears a frayed corduroy jacket, a polyester tie and glasses. 'You don't call England 'Angliya' do you, you don't call Russia 'Rossiya'? Why should you? So why should we change the way we speak? For us you are 'Angliya', we are 'Rossiya'. Thank God.'

He and his colleagues at the Institute of Russian Language of the Academy of Sciences this week secured a modest triumph against the barbarians pounding at Russia's gates since the end of the Soviet Union.

As customary for such occasions, the victory was announced by Tass, the old Soviet news agency now firmly back under the Kremlin's thumb. It heralded a breakthrough in one realm of human endeavour held in as much esteem here as space travel: Russian language.

The Tass announcement popped up on teletype printers in newspaper offices across Russia on Tuesday afternoon. From now on, Tass decreed, it is okay again to say Moldavia instead of Moldova, Belorrussia instead of Belarus, Kirgizia instead of Kyrgyzstan. In other words, comrades - sorry, gospoda - ladies and gentlemen, forget all those politically correct names foisted on our beloved tongue by uppity colonials. Say what you want.

The full list of polluted names is as long as the catalogue of chaos that has attended the collapse of Soviet power. The Russian press, whether Communist Pravda or liberal Izvestia, breathed a sigh of relief. They took their cue and reverted to pre-deluge ways. Editors purged pages of alien tongue-twisters. Television and radio picked up old habits never quite kicked.

Tass, with its long experience of past manipulation of language to suit political seasons, trod more cautiously. It hedged its bets and promised to provide parallel names: Alma-Ata to keep Russians happy, Almaty to avoid upsetting Kazakhs.

It is hard to overestimate the irritation felt by Russians at being told how to pronounce their own language by former subjects. 'This was very bad, very stupid and entirely political. It violated all the rules of linguistics, convention and even civilisation,' says Mr Shiryaev, the Russian Language Institute's expert in such matters.

He can appreciate that the citizens of Kirgizia might want to call their capital Bishkek instead of Frunze, the old Soviet name honouring Mikhail Frunze, a Bolshevik hero of the civil war. Moscow, too, had dropped Dzerzhinsky and the memory of many another revolutionary from its street signs. But why Kyrgyzstan instead of Kirgizia just because it declared itself a country?

English is no less stubborn. We say Moscow, not Moskva, Crimea not Krym, St Petersburg not Sankt Peterburg.

The Russian Language Institute - a Slavic answer to the Academie francaise - can itself boast no immunity to political pressure. Until 1991 it had an entire department dedicated to the Vocabulary of V I Lenin.

Mr Shiryaev is himself a keen supporter of Russia's Choice, the reformist party hammered in last December's election by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He is convinced that Russia's head-long rush to embrace all things foreign contributed to the rout of reform. 'Most of what Zhirinovsky says is crazy hallucination. But if he says don't ruin the Russian language I have to agree with him. We can't reject everything.'

It is this surge of support for wild empire-revivalists that kicked off the latest round of Russia's name game. Until the election, says Mr Shiryaev, no one had any time for what, until then, had been a lonely rearguard campaign. Last December, executives from television and radio suddenly became interested and wrote asking for help. Mr Shiryaev drafted a letter explaining why Russian must not be trampled on and asked the director of the Institute to sign it.

The result was finally published last Saturday in Izvestia: 'No language can dictate to Russian its rules of pronunication and spelling for proper names. We are trying to defend the Russian language as a national treasure.' Alongside was printed another letter signed by Alexander Nekhoroshev, director of the TV news programme, Vesti, and Alexei Abakumov, information chief for Radio Russia: 'This question has no relation to the problem of sovereignty or respect for national dignity. It only concerns the rules of the Russian language.' And the rules of Russian politics. Three days later Tass made the whole thing official.