We interrupt our irregularly-scheduled programme of Belarus blogposts to ramble vaguely on about something incredibly pointless, namely Tom Lehrer’s song “Lobachevsky”. If you don’t know it, have a quick listen here (the song itself starts at 1:05). In it, Lehrer – in the guise of a struggling Soviet mathematician – is given advice by Lobachevsky that plagiarisation is the only way of succeeding in his field. Thus, when he is tasked with a paper on ‘”Analytic and algebraic topology of locally Euclidean parameterization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifold”, he goes to great lengths to obtain someone else’s research on the matter. Lehrer then outlines the route this information takes through a series of pleasingly rhythmic Soviet cities (2:24-2:54). In the weeks leading up to the Belarus trip, I was totally unable to keep this section of the song from creeping into my mind at every opportunity – most likely because it starts with Minsk. In order to keep this impulse at bay, I mapped it, and I here present my map, with comments, for your enjoyment. As the return journey inexplicably takes in two more cities than the initial one, that’s the one I mapped.
The first thing you will notice about this map is that the route is an extremely circuitous one. In my head I had always associated Petropavlovsk with Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, way over on the Kamchatka Peninsula, so I’d imagined that it would be a long line from east to west. I had also supposed that most of these places were in Russia. However, we get a kind of mad spiral that goes through four nations (although they were all the USSR at the time of the song), and of the 10 cities only 4 are in Russia. So let’s go through them…
Dnepropetrovsk – Dnepropetrovsk (Днiпропетровськ, Russian: Днепропетровск) is now one of the major cities of the Russian-speaking half of Ukraine. In Soviet times, it was a centre of missile design and development and was thus closed off. Its name means ‘city of Peter on the Dneipr’. The Dneipr is one of two rivers in Ukraine beginning with Dn- and ending in -r, the other being the Dniestr, which forms the eastern border of the Moldovan Republic of Transdnistria.
Petropavlovsk – Petropavlovsk (Петропавловск) is one of those names which crops up everywhere. It means ‘Peter and Paul’, and my Pocket Atlas of the USSR lists four places called Petropavlovka, one called Petropavlovskaya (in the feminine), two called Petropavlovskoye (in the neuter), and mercifully just one Petropavlovsk. It’s actually now in Kazakhstan – just – and as such is known is Kazakh by the frankly unoriginal name Petropavl.
Iliysk – As far as I can work out, there actually isn’t anywhere called Iliysk. There are many places named Ilinskiy, Ilinskoye, or Ilinskaya, but nowhere called Iliysk. However, a casual Google search turns up a village in south-east Kazakhstan, near the Kyrgyz border, so that is the location I’ve used for this. Whether someone else, out of Lobachevsky-related frustration, falsified this on Google Maps solely to make it a complete path, I have no way of knowing. If someone happens to use this map for a journey, I take no responsibility for any mishap they might incur by trying to reach this spot. Amusingly (for perhaps seven people) this mythical Iliysk is just along the river from a place called Frunze (Фрунзе), presumably named after Bolshevik military leader Mikhail Frunze. Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, which is just across the border, was also called Frunze during Soviet times.
Novorossiysk – (Новороссийск) Located in Krasnodar kray, on the Black Sea, Novorossiysk is just up the coast from Sochi, where there 2014 Olympics will be held, and from the Republic of Abkhazia, Georgia’s ex and Russia’s little bit on the side. In Adyghe, the original language of the area, it is known as Цӏэмэз (Ts’emez). Apart from Minsk, it is the only Soviet Hero City on this list. For a brief period at the end of the 18th century, Dnepropetrovsk was known as Novorossiysk.
Aleksandrovsk – Another of the common names, Aleksandrovsk (Александровск) has for friends three places called Aleksandrovskoye and 10 called Aleksandrovka. The city of Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine (Запорiжжя, Russian: Запороже) used to be called Aleksandrovsk until 1921, but it’s almost certainly not what Lehrer’s referring to (although it would make the journey from Novorossiysk a lot shorter).
Akmolinsk – Of all the places mentioned, Akmolinsk (Акмолинск) has the most complicated history, and by referring to it under this name Lehrer dates the song pretty precisely (or he would if we didn’t already know that it was written in 1959). Originally Aqmola, the city name was Russified when Kazakhstan became part of the Soviet Union. In 1961, Akmolinsk was changed to Tselinograd (Целиноград), which it remained until 1992. Then it became Aqmola (Ақмола) again. Then the story gets confusing. In a series of one of the most ill-thought-out changes in history, the Kazakh authorities changed the name of their capital, in the south, from Alma-Ata (Алма-ата) to Almaty (Aлматы) in 1993, only to move the capital city from Almaty to Aqmola in 1996, possibly in order to keep more control over the restive Russian minority in the north. Then, only two years later, Aqmola was renamed a year later as Astana (Астана), in which guise it is currently the Kazakh capital.
Tomsk (Томск) and Omsk (Омск) – These two cities are relatively close to each other, geographically as well as in description. Both are the capitals of their oblasts (Tomskaya and Omskaya) and named after the rivers they lie along (the Tom and the Om). Omsk is, however, more than twice the size of Tomsk, and was capital of the anti-Bolshevik resistance for a period during the Civil War.
Pinsk – (Пинск, Belarussian: Пiнск) now in Southern Belarus, very close to the Ukrainian border, and suffered badly – and continues to suffer – as a result of Chernobyl. The first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, was born near Pinsk.
Minsk – (Минск, Belarussian: Мiнск) self-explanatory.
Of course, Lehrer’s fanatical mathematician only says that he has a friend in Minsk. He himself is in another – undisclosed – location.