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Street-Name Swaps Leave Visitors Scratching Heads

Russia, Germany, and nationalists have tried to put their mark on Kiev

THE car screeched to a stop when I hailed it. It would be a short ride to one of the city's main avenues. But at the mention of Hrushevskoho Street, the driver looked perplexed. ''Kirova Street,'' I amended. No problem.

If you come to Ukraine's capital of Kiev, buy two city maps. A new one to figure out where you are by using street signs. And an older, preferably pre-independence version, to get where you are going.

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After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the city renamed many of its streets. Some reverted to old names expunged by the Bolsheviks. A few acquired new ones honoring Ukrainian patriots. Still others continue to glorify discredited communist heroes.

Every one of the city's 2.6 million residents appears to use his own mix of the old, new, and old-new place names. Somehow, the confusion fits a nation in transition, one that has lost its old points of reference but is still arguing about new ones. It's hard to get good directions from people who don't know where they're heading.

Take that same Hrushevskoho Street, newly named after Mikhailo Hrushevsky, a historian and president of a briefly independent Ukraine circa 1917.

Eventually, Hrushevskoho turns into the Sichnevoho Povstannya (January Uprising) Street. The uprising in question refers to a failed communist attempt to overthrow Hrushevsky's government in 1918.

Kiev is full of such contrasts. It contains both Collectivization Street and Contract Square. A street named after a dissident general who was demoted to private for human rights activism and another honoring the former Soviet Union's defense minister.

There is still a Karl Marx Street in the city's center, perhaps because its pre-revolutionary name honoring Russian Czar Nicholas II is equally unacceptable to Ukrainian nationalists. Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the other two-thirds of the communist trinity, have lost their own pieces of choice turf. The old regime believed in redundancy, though, and to this day Leninska and Engels Streets survive on the city's outskirts.

Every 20th century calamity scrawled its graffiti across Kiev's hilly landscape. Its streets were first renamed en masse by the victorious Soviets in 1919, a murderous year in which the city changed hands five times.

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The Leon Trotsky Street got a new name 10 years later as Joseph Stalin rehearsed for mass purges by persecuting old comrades. In 1961, it was Stalin's turn to disappear from the city's map after Nikita Khrushchev exposed his crimes.

In the interim, Kiev was occupied by the Germans, who duly tried their hands at the name game.

Postwar reconstruction gave the communists a chance to produce new street signs on the truly massive scale they loved. A single decree in 1954 named 583 streets and lanes.

Thereafter, at regular intervals, a new street was named after the last major anniversary of the revolution. The 40-Anniversary and 50-Anniversary Avenues are still around, but the 60-Anniversary one has now been renamed.

The Russian Embassy in Kiev is on Kutuzova Street, after the legendary Russian field marshal. Not long ago, a Ukrainian-language daily suggested changing the name to Victims of Chechnya Street.

The Soviet Embassy in Washington, the newspaper reminded readers, once had to use Sakharov Place for its return address.

Sometimes, politically inspired names don't stick. The former October Revolution Square was renamed four years ago as Independence Square.

But young people simply call it the Ruletka. That refers not to some party boss or dissident, but to the roulette-wheel-shaped fountain in the middle of the square.

Perhaps the locals need to borrow an old American tradition and start naming their roads after trees. Oaks and elms are never in disfavor, and no blood gets spilled when they are toppled.

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