Is It Worth Renaming Streets and Cities in Kazakhstan?


A year ago, in September 2022, Kazakhstan’s capital, previously named Nur-Sultan for four years, was once again named Astana. This seemingly stirred up a new wave of renaming. Over the past year, many villages, several rural districts, and settlements have undergone such a process. And once again, Discussions about changing the name of Petropavlovsk to Kyzylzhar have emerged.

But does modern Kazakhstan even need such rebrands? An Orda correspondent reached out to experts, whose positions both differ and coincide. The experts - a Doctor of Historical Sciences, member of Astana’s onomastic commission, Burkitbai Ayagan, and social activist and activist from Petropavlovsk, Jenis Fayzulin.

Kyzylzhar Indeed, But…

Renaming large cities in Kazakhstan is nothing new. Kazakh spelling has replaced Russified spelling: Kostanay, not Kustanai; Jezkazgan, not Dzhezkazgan. They were also given Kazakh names instead of Russified ones: Aktobe – Aqtobe, Semipalatinsk – Semey. In 1991 Shevchenko became Aqtay, in 1992 Guryev turned into Atyrau. Taraz can give Astana a run for its money regarding renaming. Petropavlovsk, however, in this regard is an unyielding.

Souvenir postcard with the image of Shevchenko in the 1980s. Photo: Lada

The first serious attempt to rename it to Kyzylzhar was in 2010. 13 Majilis deputies put this idea forward. Petropavlovsk residents, however, created a whole movement against this. Proposals to rename Petropavlovsk were in 2019, 2020, 2022, and finally in 2023. The 2019 variant differs from all others. Kazybek Isa, the deputy chairman of the Aq Jol party, proposed to name Petropavlovsk Abylay – in honor of Abylay Khan. In all other cases, only one option was put forward – Kyzylzhar.

According to Burkitbay Ayagan, Kyzylzhar is the historical name of the area on the shores of Ishim, where the Kazakh tribes of Argyns and Kereys lived. The trade route to the Siberian Khanate passed through it as well.

Burkitbay Ayagan. Photo: National Academic Library of the Republic of Kazakhstan

A Kazakh also sold the plot of land on which Petropavlovsk was built to the Russians. Even his name is known – Davlet Keldy. Sabit Mukanov wrote about this, and other documents testify to it. Even in Kenesary's letter, which is from the 1840s, he writes that the city of Petropavlovsk was built in the Kyzylzhar area, the historian says.

That is why Burkitbay Ayagan believes that if Petropavlovsk becomes Kyzylzhar, then it is quite logical, as the city will receive its historic name.

Activist, member of the Council of Veterans of the North Kazakhstan region, Jenis Fayzulin, interprets the circumstances differently. He does not deny the area being called Kyzylzhar and even cites the word’s etymology.  Kyzyl zhar is a "red yar". The area was named after the steep banks of the Ishim, which turn scarlet at sunset.

Photo: News Petropavlovsk

Nevertheless, he believes it is worth distinguishing between the area and the city based on.

Petropavlovsk was founded by itself and there was no purely Kazakh population there. Initially, it was part of one of the fortified lines, which was built by tsarist authorities. One of them passed through Ishim. And the fortress of Saints Peter and Paul was founded on it. Then it began to grow, Cossacks and the Russian population were brought there. All this did not depend on the Kazakhs at that time, says Fayzulin.

He also adheres to two other opinions common among the residents of Petropavlovsk.

Firstly, the renaming will not affect the city in any way – Kyzylzhar residents will not obtain better living conditions than their Petropavlovsk counterparts. Secondly, the townspeople themselves have simply become accustomed to this name.

According to Burkitbay Ayagan, if the city had been proposed to be renamed in honor of Qunayev or some other prominent figure of Soviet Kazakhstan, the locals might not have opposed the change.

Kazakh or Soviet?

While supporters and opponents of the renaming of Petropavlovsk have locked horns, smaller settlements are changing their names. In the North Kazakhstan region this year, three villages changed their names to Kazakh versions: Karasevka became Kamsakty, Voskresenovka – Bayantay, Krivoshchekovo – Aray.

The names of villages were also changed in the West Kazakhstan region, in Jetisu. The most notable name change, however, may have occurred in the native village of rapper Adil Zhalelov, better known as Scriptonite. 

The village of Leninsky in the Pavlodar region became Atameken. Translation: ”the land of the ancestors". And this is not the only case when settlements or villages in Kazakhstan receive names that seem new, while simultaneously maintaining a Soviet essence: Beibitshilik - “Mir (peace)“, Juldyz – "Star".

In this sense, both of our interlocutors advocate for a “Kazakh" rebranding. Indeed, such a change is unlikely to be perceived negatively, especially in settlements founded in the 1950s by virgin landers.


Virgin landers came to settle from different places and new villages were usually given Russian names. They came from Barnaul – called the state farm Barnaul, they came from Ukraine – Ukrainian. They were often called with no rhyme or reason. Of the Kazakh names, they could only give a name in honor of Abay or Jambyl,  Jenis Fayzulin says.

According to Fayzulin, this massive Russian naming was an attempt pressure everything tied to national identity in those years. But now it is quite possible to return the Kazakh names to villages and settlements to demonstrate that these times have undoubtedly passed.

Jenis Fayzulin. Photos from the personal archive.

If most of the locals don't mind, then why not. But the main thing is to approach this with great caution. To find out the opinion of people, maybe even walk around yards,  says the social activist.

Burkitbay Ayagan is also for renaming, but against the Sovietesque approach in choosing new names. He believes that those who undertake the change of names lack historical knowledge.

Some of the villages have historical Kazakh names. But even if they did not exist, the name was given to the localities in which they stand and by which villages can be called. Or in honor of outstanding historical figures who were born there. These can be the khans of the Golden Horde, beks, biy.  If you need help with this, then you can contact us, academics. We have four institutes of history. We would advise them on the renaming’s historical justification,  Ayagan believes.

This year Aqmola’s Derzhavinsk residents spoke in favor of changing the name of the city to Kenesary in honor of the last Kazakh khan.

Rushed with Nazarbayev

The renaming of streets in Kazakhstan is even more prominent. Often it is also a translation from Russian into Kazakh or the selection of a name close in meaning. Cosmonauts Street is now Baikonur in the village of Dubovk of the Karaganda region. But in 2019, there was a massive and, perhaps, the most ambiguous renaming of central streets in major cities, honoring Nursultan Nazarbayev.

A stele on Nazarbayev Avenue in Shymkent. Photo: Otyrar.

Following the January events and the subsequent removal of Nazarbayev from power, undoing this seemed inevitable. The first precedent appeared last December – deputies of the Taldykorgan maslikhat proposed to return the name of Tauelsizdik to Nazarbayev Avenue. And last August there were two similar proposals.

At first it was once again Petropavlovsk. In early August, local maslikhat deputies proposed to return Nazarbayev Street’s former name – Street of Peace. A week later, the same idea was expressed by deputies in Oral. They wanted to return the name Dostyq Street. No one else has followed their example thus far.

According to Burkitbay Ayagan, this was to be expected, as such a hasty and massive renaming, in his opinion, is a mistake from the past that needs to be corrected.

Speaking conditionally, just as Lenin Streets used to be everywhere, now Nazarbayev streets have become omnipresent. This is some kind of Bolshevik haste. In Kostanay, even Abay Street was renamed after him, which caused outrage not only among Kazakhs. Nazarbayev has really done a lot for Kazakhstan. 30 years without a war are alone worth something. But they hurried with the name of the streets in his honor, Ayagan believes.

Jenis Fayzulin holds a very different opinion. 

I am in favor of returning the former names! Unlike Qunayev, who really has merits before our people, I do not see such merits in Nazarbayev during his 30 years of rule. That's why people demand to return the former names of the streets that were renamed in his honor, says Fayzulin.

RMB: Qapshagay was renamed  In honor of Qunayev, which is now functioning as the Almaty region’s center.

Original Author: Igor Ulitin

DISCLAIMER: This is a translated piece. The text has been edited the content is the same. Please refer to the original article in Russian for accuracy.

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