It has been more than two years since Russia reclaimed the peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine. At the time, Russia pointed toward historical precedents and a referendum as justification for its move, but many countries viewed it as an aggressive and belligerent act of annexation.
The controversy over the move has faded from view over time and there have been some small signs of a growing acceptance of the idea that Crimea is now a de facto part of Russia. But one problem still remains: cartography.
Google Maps drew the ire of Russians on Thursday for updating both its Russian and Ukrainian maps of the Crimean peninsula with new names. The decision to change the names was a response to a "de-communization" law passed by Ukraine's parliament in April 2015, which called for a removal of Soviet symbols and names from Ukrainian territory.
Despite the dispute with Russia over Crimea, Ukrainian officials had been clear that the street names on the peninsula should be changed too. The new names would reflect the names of Crimean Tatar origin, and Google changed dozens of place names For example, Krasnoperekopsk was renamed as “Yany Kapu" and Kirovskoe was called “Islyam-Terek.”
Many Russians were quick to notice the changes, however, with some considering the changes an affront to sovereignty.
Google changes the names of cities and towns in the Russian Crimea.
Who gave such authority to Google ? pic.twitter.com/GoHriOrKTW
— ☭Марина_Саакян☭ (@marina_saniram) July 28, 2016
“These people suffer from topographical cretinism," Dmitry Polonsky, deputy chairman of Russia's Council of Crimean Ministers,told reporters, according to the Moscow Times. In a Facebook post, Crimea's prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, called the move "Russophobic" and driven by Kiev's desire to "destroy the common history between Russia and Ukraine."
Some officials hinted at possible repercussions for Google's business in Russia.
"I believe that this short-sighted policy and this error will be corrected," Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov told the state-owned Russia-24 news channel, suggesting that Russia may "not allow the company to effectively conduct business in the territory of Russia" if it didn't change its policy.
By Friday, it appeared that the names had been changed back to their original names on both Ukrainian and Russian versions of Google Maps. Google's Russian press service confirmed the changes to Radio Free Europe, but did not elaborate about why they occurred.
Crimea and other geographical "gray areas" have long presented a problem for map-makers.
While Crimea may be claimed by Russia and is clearly administered by Russia, only a handful of countries (including pariah-states like North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe) have recognized it as Russian. National Geographic Society, one prominent cartographic organization, caused controversy in 2014 by not definitively showing the area as part of Ukraine. In justification, the society noted its policy was "one of portraying the world from a de facto point of view; that is, to portray to the best of our judgment the current reality."
Companies like Coca Cola have also faced criticism for showing maps that appeared to show Crimea as Russian territory.
Google had attempted to sidestep any similar controversies by displaying different maps to different countries. While google.com showed American users an image of Ukraine with a dotted line by Crimea, a nod to the countries disputed status, google.com.ua showed a Ukrainian audience a map of Ukraine with Crimea clearly a part of it. Meanwhile, Russian Google users visiting google.ru would find the peninsula was marked a part of Russia.
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