September 1994 (2.2)

Name Changes in Azerbaijan
Evidence of the Passing of an Era

by Dr. Vagif Aslanov, Institute of Linguistics, Baku

For Personal Names, see "History in a Nutshell - 20th Century Personal Naming Practices in Azerbaijan"

Azerbaijanis as a nation have been known throughout the course of history for their cordiality, generosity, appreciativeness and trustfulness. These characteristics are reflected not only in their personalities, but in the names they give their settlements, districts, streets, social and cultural institutions and children.

During the Soviet era, so many of these places were given names that reflected the hope that we had for that system. But when the Soviet government, Communist Party and Armenians, many of whom were living in Azerbaijan before the conflict broke out, betrayed our trust, one of the first things we did to symbolize that the ties had been broken with the old system was to give new names for the Soviet reality and the so-called "Nations' Friendship".

For example: Marxism-Leninism promised the people of the USSR a bright future. Azerbaijanis believed and established many sovkhozes (state-owned cooperative farms) and kolkhozes (people-owned cooperative farms). In every district during the Soviet period, you could find what were considered to be the best names given to these cooperatives such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Kirov (Bolshevik Russian General who entered Baku in 1920 to imposed Soviet system), Voroshilov (Major Commander of Army in Caucasus in 1920 who helped set up Soviet system), Lenin yolu (Lenin's Way), and Partiya Qurultayi (Party Congress). All these names have been changed now.

City Names Changed

There are many old cities, towns and districts in Azerbaijan. Ganje, one of them, has given the world of literature such immortal names as Nizami Ganjavi, Mahsati Ganjavi, and Abu-l-ula Ganjavi. Despite the fact that this city is so prominent in our history, it has been changed several times especially during the last 200 years. In 1804 it was renamed Yelizavetpol. In 1934, it was changed to Kirovabad (abad being a toponymic suffix of Persian origin). Now, since our independence we again refer to it as Ganje.

Since the 18th century, Azerbaijan has been divided into several independent khanates. One of these was Shusha in the Karabakh region. Not far from Shusha was the residence of the khan which was called Khankandi (The Khan's Village). In 1923, Khankandi was changed to Stepanakert to honor of Stepan Shaumyan (an Armenian who was Chairman of the Baku Commissariat who was instrumental in imposing Soviet control over Azerbaijan).

We changed the name back to Khankandi when we regained our independence in 1991. This city is now occupied by Armenians who still call it Stephanakert. Curiously, when references are made to it by Western journalists, the name varies: Armenian sources call it Stephanakert; Azerbaijani, Khankandi. One can usually determine the viewpoint of the writer simply e aware of the name which he uses. Interestingly, Russian TV plays both sides and refers to it by different names at different times-sometimes Stephanakert and other times, Khankandi.

There are eight administrative districts in Baku organized under the Soviet regime. These were known as: 26 Baku Commissariat, Lenin, Qaradagh, Kirov, Narimanov (Azerbaijani who opposed the Dashnak Armenian Nationalist Party and who was able to keep Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan in the early 1920s), October (in honor of the Russian Revolution in October 1917), Orjonikidze (a Georgian who was a member of the Soviet Caucasus Bureau), and Shaumyan. Most of these have been changed now.

Baku Metro Stations also reflect the demise of the Soviet system. Three major stations have been changed. Shaumyan now is Khatai, the name of one of our famous Azerbaijani poets. The station named after the "11th Red Army" which entered Baku in 1920 and imposed Soviet rule) now is called January 20th (after the destruction that the Soviet Army tanks brought to Baku in 1990 when many civilians were killed. Station "28th of April" has been replaced by "28th of May". April designates the date that Azerbaijan came under Soviet domination in 1920; May designates the date of Azerbaijan's independence from the Czar (1918).

Baku Street Name Changes

Nowadays, nearly every street that brings to mind anything related to the USSR or Armenians has been officially changed. In fact, in the city of Baku, more than 225 names of streets have been changed beginning in 1988 when the conflict with Armenians broke out.

Parenthetically, it should be mentioned that these names and any associated abbreviations were usually officially established in both Russian and Azerbaijani languages. However, in everyday speech, the people used Russian, the prestigious language of the period. For example, I've lived on what is known as Soviet Street (Sovet Kuchasi) since 1981. Hardly anyone can tell you where such a street is located as they all refer to it as "Sovetski".

It should be noted that despite the fact that the name changes are official, many people still use the old names of the Soviet period, and in some cases even refer to the name used before the Soviets. And in some cases both names are given, the new one and an older one to confirm that the listener really understands the location. for example, the first street ever to be built outside the Inner City (Ichari Shahar) was called Nikolayevskaya (after the Czar Nicolas in Russian). During the Soviet Period, the name was changed to "Kommunisticheskaya" (Communist Street in Russian) and now we call it "Istiklal" (Independence in Azeri).

It's a nightmare for the taxicab drivers. Mostly, people direct them according to some nearby landmark; for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which is a relatively new office, drivers are instructed to go to the Medieval Gateway of the Ancient City (Gosha Gapi).

The history of our country is so integrated with the names we have given our places. Traditionally, most of our streets are named after our heroes, not flowers or places. In many ways, therefore, studying them provides real insight into the power structures that have come and gone in the history of our country.

From Azerbaijan International (2.2) Summer 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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