This story strikes me as an urban legend, but a Google search was fruitless. In Nicholas Poppe’s memoirs Reminiscences
ed. Henry G. Schwarz (Western Washington University, 1983), the great Altaic linguist recounts his family’s evacuation from Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and then adds:
The Russo-Japanese war was a complete disaster for Russia both on land and on the high seas. Much of it was due to almost unimaginable incompetence. As the Japanese armies advanced into Manchuria and the world press announced the names of town after town occupied by the victorious troops, Russian commanders could not even locate these towns on their own staff maps, let alone defeat the enemy. It turned out, as my mother told me later, that before the war Russian army topographers went across Manchuria and would ask the local inhabitants in Russian for the name of their villages and towns. The answer, naturally enough, was quite oftenPutung(I don’t understand) which was then formally entered on the Russian staff maps. The result wasPutung I,Putun II, and so on.
(This Mandarin phrase, written in Chinese characters as 不懂, is nowadays transliterated in Pinyin as bù dǒng.)