Decolonizing the toponymy of Astrakhan
North Caspian Report No. 1 (28 January 2024)
Dor Shabashewitz
The region currently known as Astrakhan Oblast and governed as a federal subject of Russia has had a highly ethnically diverse population for centuries. Because of its nomadic history as a part of the steppe world and, later, multiple waves of settler colonization by a variety of ethnic groups, there is no clear distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. A much more relevant dichotomy is that beween deeply-rooted, long-established immigrant communities (“locals”) and newer arrivals (“non-locals”).

As explained in my earlier article in New Eastern Europe, the main criteria for a group to be considered “local” are a historic presence of longer than 100 years and at least one monoethnic rural settlement within the region, typically founded by members of the said group and universally viewed as its “local homeland”, or an urban neighborhood associated with it and often named after it (cf. Татар-Базар ‘Tatar Bazaar’, Армянская слобода ‘Armenian Quarter’ and Еврейская улица ‘Jewish Street’ in Astrakhan City). The main groups that fit this description are Kalmyks, Russians, Kazakhs, Tatars, Nogais, Turkmens, Armenians, Jews and Volga Germans.

Although non-Slavic people make up between 30 and 40 percent of Astrakhan Oblast’s population, they form a plurality in well over a half of the region’s rural localities. This means there are over 200 villages associated with languages and cultures other than Russian. Many of them were founded by speakers of Turkic and Mongolic languages and given names in these languages.

The official toponymy, i.e. the placenames preferred by the Russian government and universally used in maps, news articles, on traffic signs and more, does not always reflect this history. Throughout the past few centuries, hundreds of placenames underwent Russification — sometimes “for the sake of simplicity”, sometimes to purposefully erase the culture of an “undesirable” minority community, and sometimes because the authorities chose to use an informal exonym used by the Slavic neighbors of a non-Slavic community over the name preferred by its inhabitants.

For example, the village officially known as Татарская Башмаковка (Tatarskaya Bashmakovka, lit. ‘Tatar Shoetown’) is actually called Кызан (Qızan, name of a nearby river) by its Yurt residents. Besides employing an archaic, low-style Russian colloquialism for ‘shoe’ considered funny by some, this official name describes the primary ethnic group of the village as Tatar. In reality, the Yurt are a mixed community of predominantly Nogai origin, and their language or dialect has been classified as clearly Nogai by Leonid Arslanov. Nevertheless, they were considered Tatar under the Soviet ethnic policy and many retain a Tatar identity to this day. At the same time, a growing number of Yurt people choose to identify as Nogai again. This makes the official name unambiguously describing the village as Tatar even more problematic. Other placename Russification strategies include:

  • direct translation: Tatar Ярлы Түбә (Yarlı Tübə, ‘coastal hill’) to Russian Осыпной Бугор (Osypnoi Bugor);
  • phonetic simplification: Yurt Кырк Уьйле (Qırq Üyle, ‘having forty houses’) to Russian Кирикили (Kirikili);
  • suffixation: Kazakh Сармантай (Sarmantai, name of a clan) to Russian Сармантаевка (Sarmantaevka);
  • using the closest-sounding word that has a meaning in Russian: Tatar Янтау (Yantaw, ‘side mountain’) to Russian Енотаевка (Yenotaevka, similar to the Russian word for ‘racoon’);
  • changing the name completely: Kalmyk Ик Моһа (Ik Moğa, ‘big snake’) to Russian Озёрное (Oziornoe, ‘lake village’).

While all of these cases are problematic, the last example also speaks of a larger problem — the Soviet-era efforts to erase the history of Kalmyk presence in the region after all of its Kalmyk residents were deported to Siberia under Joseph Stalin for allegedly siding with Nazi Germany during World War II. In fact, “bland”, unimaginative placenames describing simple geographic features are a reliable sign of the respective areas having had a Kalmyk population — the pressure to erase its history was such that they were renamed in a hurry and without giving it much thought.

In two cases of Astrakhan villages being misnamed by the government, their residents have self-organized to change the situation. In Volodarsky District, the official Russian name of a Kazakh village was officially changed from Ягин-Аул (Yagin-Aul) to Егин-Аул (Yegin-Aul) to better reflect the etymology, and in Privolzhsky District, reisdents of a Yurt village added the original name Каргалык (Qarğalıq) to the welcome sign with the Russian spelling Карагали (Karagali). These are great, inspiring developments, but the scale is far from ideal.

I urge fellow researchers, journalists and activists working on Astrakhan-related topics to use the original, non-Russified placenames in their writing wherever available. This way we can show our respect to the region’s highly diverse population currently suffering from Russian dominance and to those deported from their ancestral lands by the Soviet regime. Naturally, some of the original placenames are little-known to a non-local audience and may seem impractical to use in scholarly articles, but footnotes or parentheses with the official names should do the trick while we at the North Caspian Institute work on compiling a sourced placenames database and making the practice more widespread.
Dor Shabashewitz is a co-founder of the North Caspian Institute. He is a journalist and political analyst covering ethnic minority rights, migration and secessionist movements in Russia and Central Asia. Exiled from Astrakhan in 2021 by the Russian Federal Security Service for his journalistic work and activism, he is currently splitting time between Israel and Armenia and working remotely as a contributor to RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service.
Made on