The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created an instant transformation in many people’s geographical knowledge of a previously little-known part of the world. Suddenly, places that hardly anyone had ever heard of before — Irpin, Mykolaiv, Mariupol — are the subjects of our desperate attention as we watch missiles burst on apartment houses and grieving mothers at the graves of their children.
I’ve always loved to study maps, and the map of Ukraine has a personal meaning. My father grew up in a tiny, remote village called D’vin, or Dzivin, in what is now Belarus, just five miles north of the border with Ukraine. The nearest market town, he told us, was Kobryn, on the main road from Pinsk in the east to Brest and the Polish border in the west.
I have never been to D’vin. It must be a strange place right now, with the Russian and Belarusian armies massed along the Ukrainian border. Perhaps it is not so very different from the days of my father’s childhood there. He once said that they were never sure whether they were technically part of Russia or of Poland because the armies of occupation would come through so regularly.
I have never been to Kyiv, either, the great capital of Ukraine, now under bombardment. Reading about it now and observing the tremendous passion and fortitude with which its people are defending themselves and their city, I am embarrassed at how little I know about it. I’m shocked to read that it is the seventh most populous city in Europe, and that it has been an important commercial center since the 5th century.
I know that its name used to be spelled “Kiev” but didn’t pay much attention to the change to Kyiv. It turns out that has everything to do with the current plight of the country. “Kiev” is the Russian spelling; “Kyiv” is the Ukrainian.
This proper spelling of Ukrainian place names came up recently in another context. I realized that the city called Dnipro was the same place I knew from Tom Lehrer’s 1953 song “Lobachevsky.” The narrator, telling how he achieved success through plagiarism, sings, “I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk, whose friend in Omsk has friend in Tomsk with friend in Akmolinsk. His friend in Alexandrovsk has friend in Petropavlovsk, whose friend somehow is solving now the problem in Dnepropetrovsk.”
Dnepropetrovsk is now Dnipro — because Dnepropetrovsk was the name given to the city by the Soviets.
I wondered what Tom Lehrer would make of this, so I called him up. He lives in Cambridge and will be celebrating his 94th birthday on April 9. He answered the phone when I called, and I explained how much I have always enjoyed singing “Lobachevsky.” I asked whether he had any opinion about Dnepropetrovsk becoming Dnipro.
“Well,” he said, “I looked it up in 1952 and that’s what it was called then. If anything has changed in the last 70 years, don’t blame me.”
I blame the Russians. From now on, it’s Dnipro.