The battle over renaming streets in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism reflects their importance as symbols of identity, history and power.
What’s in a name? More than you might think, especially when it comes to streets, which is why analysis of their names is a revealing exercise.
Whilst in east Berlin, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many street names remain unchanged, monuments to almost 50 years of communism, most countries in the Balkans have rushed to rid themselves of these outward signs of their socialist baggage.
In Bucharest, where once you might have marched down Victory of Socialism Boulevard, you can now take a stroll along Unity Boulevard.
In Serbia, however, things are moving full circle. There are calls in Belgrade for streets renamed after Belgrade’s Soviet liberators in the 1940s, and which reverted in the 1990s to their pre-revolutionary names, to revert once more to remember Lenin, the Red Army and Soviet military leaders.
Albania, a country which, perhaps more than any other Balkan nation, suffered under the communist yoke, has no such issues; the majority of Tirana’s streets have never been named at all.
Control, alter, delete
The existence of a street is not limited to a simple plate, indicating its name, or to the graphics by which it is represented by a GPS system. “Street names,” says Iulian Puiu, a graphic designer in Bucharest, “have almost the same function as branding: they tell a story about a place, city or country.”
Research into around 20,000 street names in the Balkan countries and Germany tells us a lot about the character of their respective people and their history.
Tirana and Bucharest are more “macho” than others in the Balkans. Romanians have a fondness for strong religious and military leaders, with many of the capital’s streets named after key figures in the Orthodox Church and army, though Romanians have a soft side too, with almost a fifth of street names devoted to the natural world.
In Tirana, of those streets that do have a name, some 77 per cent recall key national figures or events. The citizens of Sofia are devoted to culture and learning, it seems, with 42 per cent of streets related to personalities from the world of arts or literature and another 16 per cent recalling the world of science.
Unsurprisingly, given the country’s past, national identity looms large on Belgrade’s streets. Almost 10 per cent of Belgrade’s street names recall glories past and more than 70 per cent commemorate key figures from national history.
Across the Balkans, a succession of political regimes have sought an easy and cheap way to impose their own ideology or values on the public space and strip former regimes of their legitimacy by renaming streets, squares and avenues.
From the era of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, through the time of Hitler, Mussolini or Tito, to the more democratic governments of 1989 onwards, the story is much the same: reset the past. It is as if the keyboard sequence “Ctrl+Alt+Delete” has been applied to collective memory.
The administrators who mischievously named ‘Happy Violence Street’ in Norway, or brought into being the intersection of ‘Clinton’ and ‘Fidelity’ in the US, or named the home of an ice factory in Romania ‘Sun Street’ perhaps intended to raise a smile. But in the Balkans, naming streets has not always been a laughing matter.
One street - many names
As a result of constant changes to the names, different generations of residents in a particular street often use different names for it, depending on the name that was in use when they reached maturity or first moved in.
Haris Zaimovic, manager of the National Archives of Sarajevo, knows how confusing this can be. “For this same street, my grandmother used the name from the interwar period, while my parents used the one from the communist period and I use the name that was established after 1991,” Zaimovic explains.
The one exception to this cycle of change in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the capital’s main boulevard, Marshal Tito. This street has kept its name since the fall of communism - testament to the affection many Bosnians still feel for the memory of the former Yugoslav strongman.
Otherwise, many street names in Bosnia’s capital have changed since independence, often to reflect the growing prominence of the Bosniak/Muslim community in the city since the end of the 1992-1995 war.
Other streets recall local and foreign heroes of the war. One example is Kurt Schork Street, named after the US-born Reuters bureau chief who gained fame for his coverage of the siege of Sarajevo.
Schork was especially famous for his report on Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic, the Bosniak woman and Serbian man shot dead by snipers while fleeing the besieged city in 1993. The story made world headlines as a symbol of love that reached across ethnic divisions.
“People continue to look at each other through the prism of their national or religious identity,” says Danis Tanovic, 40, an Academy Award-winner and leader of the “Our Party” organisation. “We love the Italians, the French and the Americans, but hate our close neighbours. That’s the big change of the last 20 years in Sarajevo!”
Back to the “golden age”
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the policy of changing names does not only reflect the fall of the communist system. It reflects the subsequent war and de facto tripartite division of the country into Bosniak/Muslim, Serbian and Croatian spheres.
In Romania and Bulgaria, the process of renaming has been simpler. The policy of changing street names there has been based on two principles: removing names that honour the discredited communist regime and restoring the so-called inter-war ‘Golden Age’.
Where disputes have occurred, it has mainly been over attempts to rename streets after alleged Nazi sympathisers or retain the names of personalities who were part of, or who praised, the communist regime.
Some of the biggest struggles over street names have concerned historic events that have become confused in people’s minds. One such case involves Sofia’s ‘7th November Street’, whose name many people associate with the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. In fact, it commemorates a date in Bulgarian history.
Another row concerned the move in Sofia to designate a street after Boris Filov, an art historian and archaeologist who became prime minister of Bulgaria during the Second World War and who was a friend of the then king, Boris.
Filov became the subject of heated debate in Bulgaria, when the Academy of Science proposed renaming a street in Sofia after him. After the plan drew a hostile reaction from some historians and the Jewish community, it was rejected on the grounds that Filov had been a Fascist sympathiser.
This story is similar to that of Marshal Ion Antonescu, the controversial Romanian dictator during the Second World War, under whose rule, tens of thousands of Jews and Roma were deported or slaughtered. After 1990, many streets were named after this man, who had remained a national hero in the eyes of many Romanians.
These streets had to be renamed in 2003, when public displays of support for Antonescu became illegal, after an official commission confirmed Antonescu’s complicity in the Holocaust.
Romania still has to resolve its problems about its past, which continue to generate controversies that are then played out in the names of streets. There is still a street in Bucharest named “Eremia Popescu”, for example, even though the former commander of interior ministry troops was involved in the internal deportation of some 40,000 alleged opponents of the Communist regime in the 1950s.
Although Belgrade is also the capital of a former communist country, the story of the renaming of its streets differs from that of Bucharest or Sofia. This is because Serbia’s transition from communism was far from straightforward – delayed and confused by more than a decade of rule under Slobodan Milosevic.
The issue of street names in Belgrade, therefore, is more complex than it is in many neighbouring states, and, as the writer Momo Kapor humorously notes, it seems to take less time to build a new street in Belgrade than to agree on a name.
One initial solution proposed in Serbia was to give back streets the names they had held before the Second World War. Unlike Sarajevo, Belgrade has declined to preserve the memory of former president Tito in its streets and squares. After Yugoslavia began to break up, the process of removing Tito’s name began. Belgrade’s main boulevard, once named after Tito, was given the new, specifically Serbian, nationalist name of ‘Street of the Serbian Rulers’.
“It was the first street that changed its name back in 1992,” recalls Vladimir Dulovic, a historian and the author of a study about the renaming of Belgrade’s streets over the last century and a half. “Now Tito doesn’t have any street named after him in central Belgrade, although there is still one in the suburbs,” he adds.
Later committees were more fond of renaming streets after famous figures from the inter-war period. However, in an ironic twist to the story, there is now much discussion of the Russian Ambassador’s suggestion that street names be changed back once again to honour the city’s Soviet liberators.
“We Balkan people have a disease, an obsession with change”, says Jovan Cirilov, 78, a dramatist and the former head of the first committee that changed street names in Belgrade after 1991.
An obsession that is over?
Balkan countries are not the only ones wrestling with the problem of trying to reconcile political change with the use of public space. Germany has run into similar controversies, after the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the reunification of the Federal Republic and the communist-run German Democratic Republic, GDR.
Separated for almost half a century and developing under opposing ideological systems, street names in the two Germanys – and their two respective parts of Berlin – still reflect the ideological divide.
In June 1991, Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, voted to move the capital from Bonn back to Berlin. The return to a reunited Berlin touched off a battle for symbolic control of the city’s public space.
A principal demand was to replace the street names bestowed by the former GDR authorities. After a period of public debate, the local administration turned the matter over to an independent commission in September 1993.
Six months later, the commission issued a set of recommendations guided by the principle “that the second German democracy” – the present one – “has no reason to honour politicians who actively contributed to the destruction of the first German democracy.”
This meant streets could not be named, or retain the names of, Nazis who had attacked and overthrown the pre-Second World War Weimar Republic. There would be no tolerance either for those who “after 1933 opposed the totalitarian dictatorship of the National Socialists in order to replace it with another totalitarian dictatorship, that of the Communists,” as author Brian Ladd writes in his book, The Ghosts of Berlin.
One of the most controversial cases in Berlin concerned the name of socialist and feminist militant Clara Zetkin, who died in Moscow in 1933, just after the Nazi takeover. From the time she joined the Communist Party of Germany in 1919, she was seen as a foe of the democratic Weimar Republic.
The commission, therefore, ruled that Clara Zetkin Strasse should return to its former name of Dorotheenstrasse, recalling the second wife of a Prussian Elector who received the area as a wedding gift.
The commission declared that the street leading from eastern Berlin to the German parliament, the Reichstag, could not be named after an opponent of parliamentary democracy, leftist and feminists groups protested.
Two decades on from 1989, street names in the Balkans and in the former GDR stir less controversy than they did – a reflection of the waning significance of ideological divisions in Europe.
Streets with no name
One Balkan capital has managed to avoid most of these problems. The Albanian capital, Tirana, has many streets that have no name and never have done.
When people need to find or give information about such addresses, they face a difficult situation. They usually have to find alternative ways to locate the sites, by making reference to nearby important landmarks, such as a ministry, a school or a statue.
Arta Kazazi, head of development in the Albanian Postal Service, says – with a hint of compassion for lost tourists – that “everything will become normal in one year or a year-and-a-half.”
In the meantime, those delivering the post have to make do with city sketches printed on two sheets of A4 paper, stuck together with adhesive tape, indicating all the important buildings and constructions that can help as a guide.
Short, and with a grim, age-lined face, Aslan is an experienced postman. Loading packages into his van, he says: “If we do not find the recipient after careful research, we bring the respective letter or package back to the post office and, after three days of waiting, we return it to the sender.”
The phenomenon of unnamed streets in Tirana has nothing to do with battles over Albania’s communist legacy. It reflects the fact that, since the fall of the communist regime, people have abandoned the countryside in huge numbers, sparking a frenzied urban building boom. Much of this construction is unauthorised and remains unregistered.
When called out to emergencies, ambulance drivers face the same challenges as people delivering mail. “If I don’t find an address, I try to find a solution, by meeting the patient in a place that we both know,” Astrit says.
“If the patient cannot come to the specific meeting place, that’s life! But nobody has died so far.”
Street Name Changes from 1989 until 2009 by categories
This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.
Marius Cosmeanu is an award-winning journalist and sociologist from Bucharest, Romania, currently working as editor-in-chief of the weekly Corso
The collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 triggered a frenzied phase of nation-building in Eastern Europe, while some Balkan nations embarked on armed conflicts aimed at strengthening national, religious and cultural identities.