Weekly Warm-Up: Why it Matters that Chechnya is Not the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is rebranding itself as Czechia.

What’s in a name? “Proposals for a one-word English name have been floating around since the Czech Republic was established over two decades ago, following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. The BBC notes that a shorter name would ‘make it easier for companies and sports teams to use it on products and clothing.'”

But would Czechia (pronounced CHEK-ee-uh) help untangle the country’s confusion with Chechnya?

Map by Jon Bowen
Map by Jon Bowen

That confusion reached a fever pitch with the Boston Marathon bombings, which happened just three years ago, in April 2013.

The heartbreak, devastation and confusion around the Boston Marathon bombings was followed by anger at those responsible for the horrific attacks. Much of that energy was directed into social media outlets where attacks were launched at the ethnic homeland of the two suspects, Chechnya. Some of that anger was flagrantly misdirected at the Czech Republic, as many confused the two areas for one another

Just how bad was the mix up?

Chechnya is NOT a sovereign nation i.e. a country. It is actually a republic in the southern Caucasus region of Russia and one of 21 republics of Russia that have a degree of autonomy from the central government and that ‘generally’ represent groups different from ethnic Russians.


The Czech Republic IS a sovereign nation with more than 10 million people and whose capital city of Prague may be better recognized than the country’s name. After the country of Czechoslovakia split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the Czech Republic  joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. The country is located in central Europe.

The clamor of this confusion reached a high enough pitch that the ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States, Petr Gandalovič,  felt compelled to issue a statement asserting that his country is a wholly different entity from Chechnya, said Gandalovič, ” …I am concerned to note in the social media a most unfortunate misunderstanding in this respect. The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities…”

This incident illustrated a painful fact: Americans were required to receive a middle school- level geography lesson from a foreign diplomat. We received this lesson very publicly (check out this article from a Serbian news source). The same social media channels that churned out the misinformation in the first place magnified the degree of our scolding.

It also showed an isolation of Americans from major political and geographic changes elsewhere in the world. For instance, even though Czechoslovakia no longer exists and is now two, distinct countries, it too was called-out in social media as the homeland of the Boston bombing suspects.

Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, bemoaned American awareness of geography on his Twitter account, others cited it as an example of geo-illiteracy, and others simply as typical of stupid Americans.

This public and embarrassing incident is just one, albeit the most sensational, instance illustrating the woeful awareness of geography in the U.S. We don’t want to be the international loser in geography. We don’t want American students to think this lack of awareness is the norm. This issue needs more attention than a hashtag: #Americans&geography #fail.

If students can’t understand the world around them, how can we expect them to actively and positively engage in it?

This issue is a tangible example of the critical role geography awareness plays in today’s world, and how much it impacts how we see the world–and perhaps more importantly how the rest of the world sees us.

Do you think changing its name from Czech Republic to Czechia will help the country? Why or why not?

Do you think fewer people will confuse the country with Chechnya? How do you think this might be avoided?

Do you think the confusion is a dismissal of national identity? Or a simple mix-up?

Are you aware of any more geographic homophone mix-ups? Let us set you straight here!

This post was written by former Nat Geo Education intern Emily Connor back in 2013.

2 thoughts on “Weekly Warm-Up: Why it Matters that Chechnya is Not the Czech Republic

  1. Well, if you don’t want people to confuse the two similar sounding and similar spelled names, then change the names to whomever got their name first. And, the second entity will just have to use a different name. That’s too simple, isn’t it?

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