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Russia and the U.S. engage in name-calling — over the U.S. Embassy's Moscow address

A street sign reads "Donetsk People Republic's Square" in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, after authorities renamed the address after a pro-Russian separatist region in Ukraine in June.
Natalia Kolesnikova
AFP via Getty Images
A street sign reads "Donetsk People Republic's Square" in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, after authorities renamed the address after a pro-Russian separatist region in Ukraine in June.

Updated July 6, 2022 at 3:03 PM ET

MOSCOW — The United States and Russia's bitter disagreements over the conflict in Ukraine have spilled over into new unexpected terrain: what to call the address of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Russian authorities have renamed the street outside the embassy after a separatist region that claims to be independent from Ukraine, "Donetsk People's Republic Square."

Like most of the world besides Russia, the U.S. refuses to recognize the Donetsk "republic" and, so far, appears to be refusing to use the new address.

The idea to rename the location surfaced in April, when Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced an online public vote that seemed intended to provoke by design.

The clear winner with 45% — and accusations of vote rigging — was Donetsk People's Republic Square.

When the new street signs went up last month, Russian officials embraced the moment.

"I hope the United States won't take too long to recognize the new republics," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova during a June press conference in which she welcomed the change. She added that Russians should feel free to write to the Embassy at the new address — often.

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the independence of Donetsk and its neighbor, the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, before sending in Russian troops he said were part of a "special military operation" to "liberate" the broader Donbas region from Ukraine.

Following the change of address, this week the U.S. unveiled a workaround of sorts. The Embassy's website quietly switched its listed contacts to coordinates: "55,75566° N, 37,58028°E." At least one section of the website, meanwhile, has kept the traditional address: Bolshoy Deviatinsky Pereulok No. 8.

An Embassy spokeswoman declined to comment on the change.

Yet Russian taxi driver Denis Usmanov — who's been shuttling passengers around Moscow for the past seven years — tells NPR both Russia and the U.S. miss a more essential point.

"It doesn't matter what they call it," says Usmanov in an interview with NPR. "The important thing is to get you where you need to go."

Where the streets have new names

For Moscow, the shifting nature of streets and politics isn't exactly new.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 saw czarist-era addresses ditched in favor of those honoring the communist leadership.

The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought the return of many historical names — in what the city's democratically elected officials saw as one small but important facet of the changes underway.

"Symbolically, we wanted to show the end of one period and the beginning of another," Sergei Stankevich, who served as deputy mayor for the city in the early 1990s, says in an interview.

The U.S. has its own history of name changing when it comes to the Kremlin.

During the height of the Cold War, U.S. officials renamed a stretch of land near the old Soviet Embassy Andrei Sakharov Plaza in honor of the famed Soviet dissident physicist.

More recently, Washington, D.C.'s City Council changed the name of a square across from the current Russian Embassy in honor of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov — a vocal opponent of President Vladimir Putin before Nemtsov's murder in 2015.

Former Deputy Mayor Stankevich notes that it took Moscow residents some time to adapt to the changing street name — and it may be a while before Russians, too, embrace Donetsk People's Square.

"It's just what today we call 'trolling,' " says Stankevich. "The Russian authorities are trying to make the Americans psychologically uncomfortable. And I suspect one day it will change again."

But even if Russia gets the last laugh for now, the U.S. can take some comfort in numbers.

This week, Moscow's mayor announced another online vote determined that the British Embassy, just down the road, will now be located at "Luhansk People's Republic Square."

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Alex Leff is a digital editor on NPR's International Desk, helping oversee coverage from journalists around the world for its growing Internet audience. He was previously a senior editor at GlobalPost and PRI, where he wrote stories and edited the work of international correspondents.