The Name Game

So this weird thing happened to Budapest: after the end of the socialist era, in the early 90’s a lot of public space had their names changed. To be precise, it was quite a significant campaign to erase the names that were given on an ideological or political basis in the socialist era that took place between 1945 and 1989, restoring many names to their original state. Changing things is not that easy though. For older generations, getting used to the new names of streets and squares wasn’t easy, and if you think about it, it makes sense: for most of their lives, that specific place was called something completely different.


This phenomenon affected my family as well, pretty heavily, since I am a Budapest native. As a little kid, I never really understood why my grandparents or parents would call certain places these names that don’t really make sense and aren’t connected to anything that is there. They often referred to Apor Vilmos square and the little marketplace there as “Joliot-Curie”, or the part where the M1 and M7 motorways enter Budapest as “Ostiapenko” (heck, think about what I could make of a foreign name at the age of seven). They kept calling Margit körút “Mártírok útja” (Martyrs’ way), and Ferenciek tere “Felszab-tér” a short version of Felszabadulás tér (Liberation square). So while I didn’t understand the whole thing, I went with it. Whenever we were talking about places or directions, and I saw a confused expression on their faces, I just said the old name, and we were on the same page. It became second nature to me as much as it was to them.

Of course, as years passed by, I came to know about the historic background, and managed to make sense of most of the names as well. Now I know that the Nobel Prize recipient was a member of the French Socialist Party, as well as the fact that Ostiapenko was a Russian soldier shot during the WWII siege of Budapest while carrying a white flag and ultimatum to the German soldiers still standing, and there was a statue commemorating his deeds next to the motorway.

You might think we’ve come full circle, and this is where the story ends. The most ironic part however was yet to come, for a new turn of the Name Game took place in 2011: more names of public spaces were changed, and many previously unnamed were named, one of the reasons the city goverment gave was that the campaign in the early 90’s didn’t manage to fully accomplish its goal. The most controversial perhaps was changing the name of Moszkva tér (Moscow square) to Széll Kálmén tér, after a prime minister elected in 1899, whose name the square bore between 1929 and 1951. And while I’m not sure how i feel about the meaning of a name change this late, you can be a hundred percent sure that whenever I talk about Széll Kálmén tér, I’m first going to call it Moszkva tér, and then maybe correct myself.

Tóth Ádám


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