Wellesley Professor Weighs in on Russian Project to Rename Airports

December 18, 2018
Voronezh airport in Russia

A recent article in The Atlantic explored the impact of an ongoing project in Russia, spearheaded by the Kremlin, to rename 47 of the country’s airports. Since early October, more than 5 million Russian citizens voted for their local airports’ new names—with the winning mix including Russian scientists, artists, and military heroes.

Nina Tumarkin, Kathryn Wasserman Davis Professor of Slavic Studies and professor of history at Wellesley, was quoted in the article. She said the project might allow Russians to “feel a sense of agency,” but that agency is limited. “Symbolic politics is rather lax,” she told The Atlantic, “as long as the real politics stays firm and strong in terms of being behind the Kremlin and its policies.”

Beyond the article, Tumarkin expanded on this idea. So long as Russians are behind President Vladimir Putin (or are at least not protesting against him), and the government is able to retain strong control over its policies and politics, citizens can be given the opportunity, or at least the feeling, of having a say and an impact, she explained.

Tumarkin said she believes the project is just one part of a larger, longer-term effort by the Kremlin to promote history-based patriotism. This effort to rename the airports showcases Russia’s cosmopolitanism and an international point of pride in a global world. In many ways, renaming the airports is like putting up monuments without having to erect new ones, she said.

“People from all over the world fly into these airports,” Tumarkin said. “The Kremlin wants to increase the number of heroes people can point to and take pride in—it’s not necessarily a question about identity, but rather a loyalty to this entity called Russia.”

Russia is eager to have the world believe that it is great, and anniversaries, commemorations, and names of military heroes, artists, and scientists are important to Russians, Tumarkin said. For example, recent polls of Russians’ greatest source of national pride found that history was tied for first with Russia’s wealth of natural resources.

As far as answering the larger question the article poses—“what, exactly, is Russia?”—Tumarkin said that is a far more complex and complicated question, one that the airport renaming project is unlikely to resolve completely.

Photo: The Voronezh airport, which is one of the airports that will be renamed, from the airfield. It is located in Voronezh, Russia.