Geographers get no relief from world's many political upheavals

January 30, 1992|By Tim Blangger | Tim Blangger,The Allentown Morning Call

THINGS change, geographically speaking.

Countries change their own names, or have their names adjusted, usually but not always by force. Countries appropriate sections of other countries, or witness parts of their own country being appropriated by others. Forces quieter and far more subtle than invading armies can alter a border or make a carefully detailed map obsolete over time. Rivers move boundaries. Sand shifts with the wind.

But few periods in world history have seen as many changes, geographically speaking, as in the past two years, geographers say. In that time, East and West Germany have became one country. Even more remarkable has been the political and economic disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The political and economic impact of the former Soviet Union's unraveling are not yet clear, but for geographers, the changes in the former union present some immediate problems. As the breakup became apparent, every existing map of the former Soviet Union became immediately out of date.

But, for geographers, the problem is more than correcting a few lines and adding a few extra colors to a map. The implications of the Soviet changes, for instance, go far beyond showing 15 independent countries where one existed before.

First and foremost, there is the problem of names. For the U.S. government, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has the final say in what particular geographic entities are called. The board also influences many private, commercial map-making companies, although the influence varies from company to company.

Based in Fairfax, Va., the board meets regularly to determine what to call a particular geographic entity. Typically, the board will take into consideration what the government in question calls itself, its rivers and its cities, according to Richard R. Randall, executive director of the board as well as a geographer for the Defense Mapping Agency, a major map-making branch of the U.S. government.

In the case of the former Soviet republics, many names came from the central Soviet authority, which named the republics in a form of Russian Cyrillic. But several of the former republics use a different form of Cyrillic based on a language other than Russian, so the names have and are changing, says Mr. Randall. (Cyrillic is a generic term for a number of languages, including Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian.)

Once a decision is reached on a country or a place name, the board publishes its findings in gazetteers.

The current copy of the gazetteer, or place-name directory, for the former Soviet Union, for example, contains more than 4,000 entries in seven volumes and costs $1,400. Of course, even the most recently published gazetteers on the former Soviet Union are out of date. Less expensive gazetteers are also available. A gazetteer for The Netherlands is $52. One for Iraq is $22.

(For information and a catalog of available gazetteers, write: Richard Randall at the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, care of the Defense Mapping Agency, 8613 Lee Highway, Fairfax, Va. 22031.)

Clearly, names are important beyond their ability to help people distinguish one place from another. "The only way to identify the turf is with a name," Mr. Randall said. "And that name can have tremendous emotion if not absolutely political elements."

It is not surprising that cities named after former Soviet leaders were among the first name-change victims. The restoration of Leningrad (after the founder of the modern Soviet state Vladimir Ilyich Lenin) to its former name, Saint Petersburg, is well known. But the changes affected cities named after more current Soviet leaders, too.

And, of course, the situation is changing. "No matter what we come up with today, we can guarantee it will be out of date, if not tomorrow, then shortly," Mr. Randall said.

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