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From Leningrad to the ‘new’ St. Petersburg:

Actors and Symbolic Stakes of Renaming Russia’s ‘Northern Capital’

 By Anaïs MARIN

 Contribution to a comparative analytic project led by Pr. Andrey Makarychev, Nizhny-Novgorod State University

DRAFT – to be published


About the author

Anaïs Marin is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po) and a junior research fellow at the Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI) in Paris. She holds a Master in Comparative Analysis of Transition Processes in Eastern Europe and a degree in Russian Law Terminology and Translation. She currently teaches Russian language, history and modern civilisation at the Blaise Pascal University of Clermont-Ferrand (France).

Her dissertation analyses St. Petersburg’s emergence as an international actor in Russian and European politics, pointing to the effects of its “para-diplomacy” - a concept she explored while studying cross-border cooperation at the Karelian-Finnish border. Her thesis aims at providing a comprehensive framework for measuring the influence of “European” Russian regions on the environment and institutions of foreign policy decision-making in the Russian Federation. With pre-2003 St. Petersburg as a case study and research field, she had the opportunity to take part in various Russian and Nordic epistemic networks on Baltic Sea issues, Russian regional studies and the EU’s Northern Dimension, as well as to carry out a participative observation of the city’s preparation for its 300th anniversary.

Comments are highly welcome – anaiska.marin@wanadoo.fr   

August 2003


 The debate over renaming Leningrad into St. Petersburg in 1989-1991 is made up of very Manichean dichotomies of old and new. To some point, it is about a battle between two great men of Russian/Soviet history, Peter the Great and Vladimir Il’itch Lenin. The “hero of Poltava against the hero of October”, as summarised in a letter to a local newspaper sent by a Petersburgan [Shalgin (1991)] who complained that after the 1917 Revolution, he was given a Soviet passport where his birthplace had been re-named “Leningrad” (he was born in St. Petersburg in 1902).

Historians, writers and other legend-makers have always personified Petersburg - a phantom city that emerged from waters, Frankenstein born out of the mind of Peter, a Tsar who compared to an Antechrist for his contemporaries. Humanised by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Andrey Belyi, Petersburg city, like a living person, resurrected in 1991 in recovering its “birth name”. Such a de-burying of the past was an immense revolution, not only for the city, but also at the level of the whole Soviet Union, which was to disappear a few months later. Renaming satisfied most of the intelligentsia, democrats and pro-reform Petersburgans, and turned the conservative communists, veterans and the military into “losers” of democratic transition. The holders of both memories and slogans confronted in 1989-1991, and punctually also since then, mainly by way of debates publicised by the local media [see the “periodicals” section of the bibliography].[1]

The “democracy” / “reform” camp won the battle over renaming through the polls on 12 June 1991. The holding of a “popular consultation”, decided by the Lensoviet deputies 6 weeks before, was a precedent and an exception - because of how renaming was achieved (through a local referendum), but also for the “hysteria” it provoked [Margolis & Narusova (1991)]. Leningrad citizens, called to vote the same day for a RSFSR President, Boris Yeltsin, and a Leningrad mayor, Anatoly Sobchak (both elected for the first time in Russian history), were asked to decide which name their city should bear from now on. A short majority (54% against 43%) were in favour of “giving back the city its historical name St. Petersburg”, a decision promulgated by the Russian Supreme Soviet two weeks after the failed August coup. On 7 September 1991, Leningraders officially “woke up in a new city” [Belyayev (1991)], and only four month later, on the Catholic Christmas Eve of 1991, did Gorbachev, having buried the remnants of the USSR, allow Petersburgans to wake up in a new country as well.

The paradox of oblivion

 The ex post analysis of the local debates and processes that led to the renaming of Leningrad into St. Petersburg in the early 1990s offers a striking example of how fast people forget about the harsh political struggles that accompanied the early transition years. Despite the collective remembering of St. Petersburg’s imperial past that went together with the Tercentenary Jubilee preparations and in many publications, including in English (Joenniemi [2001b]; Morozov [2002)]) on the issue, not one bookshop in the 2003 St. Petersburg proposed Russian-speaking readers any publication about the renaming that occurred 12 years before.[2] Very few if no studies, apart from those of the time by Leontieff Centre sociologists [Kesselman (1990; 1991)], have been dedicated to analysing the stakes, implementation and side-effect impacts of renaming, within and beyond Russia’s borders. It is as if, regardless of its then high symbolic load for doing away with communism, the moral enquiries and the romantic emotions it provoked had gone back into a black hole of historiography. The question barely re-emerged on the event’s tenth anniversary in 2001 and in the necrology coverage by the Russian media of mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s sudden death on 20 February 2000.

In the West, renaming St. Petersburg is often assimilated solely to a re-birth (vozrozhdenie) with Sobchak being the father [Sobchak (1999)]. It is usually reminded now with the term pereimenovanie (rename), which still has some actuality due to the fact that toponymic renaming (of streets, squares, bridges) is still an on-going process [cf. Annex]. The agreed on term then, in 1991, was vozvrashchenie (returning, giving back) the city its “historical name” = St. Petersburg. The “=” is very important and the psychological and legal implications of the term “return” (which is also used for the claims of the Orthodox Church or foreign states regarding cultural goods and real estate nationalised by the Bolsheviks) should also not be underestimated.

 The main explanation for such obliviousness is probably that avoiding any more talks about the conversion is a way for reformists to ensure the irrevocability of post-1991 change against the nostalgic claims of Leningrad communists who still officially celebrate “their” city on such national holidays as November 7th (Feast of the October Revolution) and May 9th (Victory Day). The other is that renaming, for it was envisaged pragmatically according to liberal criteria by the new leadership (Sobchak, Gaydar, Chubays, Boldyrev, etc.), could help the city attract foreign investments. According to Anatoly Sobchak (1995), renaming became a necessity for the project of a “Zone of Free Entrepreneurship” (zona svobodnovo predprinimatel’stva) to gain international legitimacy, since, as he argued, no businessman would invest in a town bearing Lenin’s name. The city, initially founded to be a military outpost against the Swedes in the Baltic Sea area, was turned during the Soviet period into a closed city whose economy was dominated by a scientific and military-industrial complex of all-Union relevance. Sobchak leaned on the alternative images of St. Petersburg as a “cultural capital” and a “window to Europe” to impose his economic reforms that ambitioned to turn the city into a cultural and financial centre of international importance. Thus, renaming was motivated by the imperative of facilitating democratic and market reforms, which is why it has been associated so tightly to the name of Anatoly Sobchak, the artisan of reforms in St. Petersburg. The relative idealisation of Sobchak’s missionary deed usually occurs at the expense of historical truth, since Sobchak made only timid and tardy propaganda in favour of the “yes” at the referendum [Kalatakhchyan (1991)], at the difference of other Lensoviet deputies [3] whose name are often omitted in records [Vishnevskii (2003)].

The paradox of memory

The tree should not hide the forest, and the mayor’s aura the fact that de-naming and re-naming was a much more complex feature of the city’s evolution at both local, all-Russian, and international level. The argument here is that the “nominative” lens in transitology actually provides a fecund frame for analysing mentality changes in the Petersburg collective memory and self-identification over the years. It requires plunging back into the atmosphere of preliminary debates in order to understand the symbolic stakes embedded in the discourses of the “for” and “against” de-/re-nomination, but also of what lies in the Petersburg idea. The purpose of this paper is not to discuss this petersburgan “nation” [4], but rather to provide elements for comparatively analysing how renaming processes in Russia related to much wider concepts of local identity and articulated with debates over the Russian national idea and the nature of federative relations within democratic Russia.

The various myths and procedural specificities that accompanied democratic transition from Leningrad to St. Petersburg will be recalled first, enhancing the reified nature of the dichotomy, which left few room for innovation in the “new” St. Petersburg. The detailed steps that led to various renaming(s), including toponymic, will be recalled in the next part. The third section provides a descriptive analysis of the founding myths, symbols and “narratives” referred to by defenders of Leningrad and Saint-Petersburg who confronted in 1989-1991. The concluding part of the paper is dedicated to the adjacent myths of the renaming story – the refusal of some changes, the re-activation of the Petersburg idea, the question of the city’s status and relative autonomy within the Russian Federation. Finally, the city’s recent propulsion to the role of “diplomatic capital” of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with a rehabilitation of the “Window to Europe” mythology (first spread by an Italian visitor of the 18th century, Francesco Algarotti) will be discussed. The emphasis will be first on how the Russian elites try to use the “new” St. Petersburg for the purpose, as it was before, of integrating the country into the community of European states. The emergence of a potential “third way”, which is developing with the current idea of Petersburg as a Russian economic “gateway” between Europe and Asia and as a Russian political lieu within Europe, will be put into light as well.

I. From Leningrad to St. Petersburg: revolution or (re-)birth?

 Even if for most Leningraders, renaming St. Petersburg was a radical change, for young reformers and foreign partners of Russia it amounted merely to a natural step back to before the Soviet parenthesis. This simplification and reification of the debate in the early 1990s gradually evolved into a more complex set of discussions over what face the “new” St. Petersburg ambitioned to show the rest of the world. With the “new” St. Petersburg, whose anniversary is celebrated every May 27th since 1983, reformers attempted to propel their city back into the global space and time, with an identity they wanted symbiotic more than exclusive of its previous ones – (Saint-) Petersburg, Petrograd and Leningrad. The re-birth of the “old” St. Petersburg, however, revived other struggles that had been buried for the sixty years during which it was absolutely forbidden to think Petersburg in terms of capital city.

Petersburg and Leningrad: a reified dichotomy

The official lifetime of what Peter’s contemporaries called “the young capital” is relatively short, but in three centuries, “Petersburg” (I use the term as the smallest common denominator) managed to be born three times – in 1703, 1917 and 1991. Much like its urban landscape and the literature that accompanied the city’s growth, which combine rational and fantastic features, the city’s history displays two structuring patterns that we find articulated in the didactic debates that opposed Leningraders and Petersburgans at the time of renaming.

The first one is contra(-)diction, the second is reform. This double opposition, intrinsically present in the alternative between “Leningrad” and “historical St. Petersburg” citizens had to vote for in 1991, is well symbolised in the two photographs on the front page of the Lensoviet’s Vechernyi Leningrad daily of 25 May 1991. On the left - the “Bronze Horseman”, a statue of Peter the Great erected by Catherine the Great, vs. “Lenin na bronevike”, a statue of the Father of Revolution that (still) stands in front of Finland’s Railway Station. The posture of the two leaders is nearly the same – their hand pointing to the city they created and their eyes looking far way to the maritime horizon. The fact that the Neva River runs in between the shores from which the two leaders face each other further illustrates the gulf lying between the two development models each one defends.

Contra(-)diction refers to the either/or nature of how the “new” related to the “old” it replaced (and tried to erase) each time the city was born. According to official Russian and Soviet historiography, St. Petersburg was founded on a desert land (whereas other records evidence that indigenous tribes pre-existed there) at a very high human cost (thousands dead). The logic of opposing and removing the past in proclaiming new truths, that the word perevorot translates the best and which renaming (including the toponomic appellations of streets, districts, meeting-points) was meant to fulfil each time, is recurrent. The city reflects and forms an actively constitutive part of Russian modern history. Under Soviet leadership, renaming was a way to introduce pro-communist change without having to alter the city centre’s architecture, which remained nearly untouched. Known as a “granite city of glory and calamity”, Petersburg thus translated political changes on its own self-wording, in its mythical “narratives” and in the mood (dusha, soul) of Petersburg’s population, sometimes by force and usually in contradiction with Russian traditions.

Contra-diction (here understood as a synonym for “contradictory debate”) also characterises the “Petersburg way” in popular and intellectual debates over the Petersburg identity. This psychological self-analysis implies that Petersburg’s existence in the Russian picture (as well as in the European one) is put into question ever and ever again. Petersburgans, unlike Muscovites, regularly act as if they had to justify being so unlike the rest of Russia and remind that they people the city in order for it to fulfil the project of Peter the Great.

Contradictory are also the different utilisations of the Petersburg text the city aroused, since Dostoevskii in literature, and in post-renaming discourses over the Petersburg “identity” (peterburgskaya natsional’nost’). Konstantin Zhukov (1999) uses the term “Petersburg mythology” – which he defines as a “mould for self-perception of the Petersburgan society, its relations to power, to the state apparatus and official ideology”. According to Viatcheslav Morozov (2002), “narratives” of and on Petersburg are only but variations on a theme that includes half a dozen motives on which myths are re-drawn. Culturology finds these myths in the “philosophy”, “metaphysics” [Spivak (1998)], folklore of the “Self-Petersburg” (sam-Peterburg) which has its own psychological specificities [Conference (1999)]. Since one finds markers of this questioned identity in the typical Petersburg “city-biocenosis” [5], local anecdotes [Sindalovskii (2002)] and proverbs, why not in the toponymic nicknames given by its population, which constitute but one variant of localist self-assertion of a city which is looking for its place in the world?

In Zhukov’s view, contradition is representative of the complex impressions one gets from trying to reconcile or assimilate the antithetic myths that are conveyed by such epithets as devil vs. divine (18th century golden age), brilliant vs. banal (the silver age), proletarian vs. intelligent(sia) (Soviet period), cultural and European (in the “new” St. Petersburg, where the tension is somehow attenuated by a feeling that in democracy, combining the two is possible). One could add student/elderly, hero/martyr, Russian/European, bureaucratic/diplomatic, imperial/second rank, civilised/criminal, etc. to qualify Petersburg as a contradictory (capital) city. Today’s discourses on St. Petersburg try to bypass the dichotomous nature of the Petersburg locality, identity and idea to propel the city to new stages of actorness – that of Euro-Asian trade and regional (Baltic/Nordic) cooperation. A discursive analysis of the founding and current myths, as done by Viatcheslav Morozov (2002), contributes to underlining today’s potential and need for the city to skip to “spatial politics” in order to overcome reified oppositions. Morozov comes to the conclusion that “there is nothing in any story [the “narratives” that make up the Petersburg text] that could, in itself, ensure or prevent a break-away from territorial politics” (where territorial stands for the modernist, state-centred relation to the city’s surrounding environment). It could be argued that the Leningrad/St. Petersburg dichotomy of the 1989-1991 period left few room for the city, however “new” it proclaimed its existence after 1991, to assert itself in the “de-bordered world of flux. Pertti Joenniemi (2001) is among those who argue that Northerness has played an important role to help out Petersburg step into post-modern politics at work in the North of Europe.

The second marker of Petersburg’s history of three births is reform, which eventually compares to revolution because of the authoritarian way change was introduced in 1703, 1917 and 1991 - but without the bloodshed aspect though. Historians present Peter the Great’s decision to establish St. Petersburg on the ponds of this hostile northern territory as one that aimed to back deep reforms in the Russian people’s mentality, habits and instruments of flourishing as a civilisation. Peter first built a city from a plan, then he transferred his capital and the court there (1712-1725) and only by decree could he obtain that families from all the society’s layers settle in the contested capital. Records also underline the humanitarian disasters revolving under the idea of “Europeanising” Russia by force. The building of the city made half a million victims, industrial revolution and dekoulakisation, together with the construction of the Baltic-White Sea canal (Belomorkanal) two hundred years after and finally the Leningrad blockade (1942-1944) were very costly in human lives. For these and other reasons, the city’s population was renewed several times. This chaotic evolution implied that the sociological traits of Petersburgans changed radically (for example during the Petrograd years) without the Petersburg “self”, which is contained eternally in the collective memory of the city’s genesis, being altered that much.

Reform occupies a lot of room in the city’s life, together with strategic development planning that rhythm its evolution [Bayou (2003)]. Once renaming became politicised by the reformists’ camp in the Fall 1990, renaming amounted to fixing on paper the reform from the command economy to the capitalist market that the new leadership tested on the city. However, the idea of reform and that of “democracy” are not one and the same in the case of 18th century Petersburg, where reforming meant civilising itself the European way, whereas “democracy” was not to exist in the Russian lexicon (narodovlastie refers to something different) before the end of the 20th century.

Re-actualising the reformist self of Peter’s city was thus originally more outward-oriented (reopening the window to Europe through the Baltic maritime interface) than “democracy”-seeking. Still, the 1991 renaming amounted to a democratic accomplishment since it resulted from a claim coming from the street and was sanctified by a popular vote.

A claim coming from the street

 Catching the mood of the day in the local newspapers is very revealing about the economic, social and moral situation of Leningrad/St. Petersburg at the turn of the decade. The tone of most articles of the time reveals a deep frustration about the way the great city looked like after 70 years of communism and the fear to head merely towards “a tunnel at the end of the light”, in Steven Fish’s terms. Such sentences come out regularly in the readers’ letters published by the local newspapers in the 1990-1991 period: “will doing away with Leningrad refill the holes of our roads’ asphalt?” ; “will being St. Petersburg bring back sausages on the shelves of empty food stores?” ; “will foreign tourist believe that this is St. Petersburg?” ; “who shall we be once there is no more Leningrad?”

The idea of renaming St. Petersburg was born among the low and middle-class intelligentsia close to the spheres of museums, arts, culture and literature, for aesthetic rather than political reasons [Shelishch (1998)]. A precedent in this vein came from the street in March 1987, when the first citizens committee for the defence of architectural items was formed in the USSR – there, against the destruction of the Hotel d’Angleterre on St. Isaac square [Orttung (1995)]. The creation in April 1988 of a charity organisation, “Leningrad”, the first established in the USSR, also contributed to the structuring of the local embryonic civil society against the symbols of Soviet power.

In the summer 1990, a polemic emerged over the prospect of de-naming the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad, an idea supported by most artists in town. [6] Some envisaged to call it after Tchaykovsky, but the previous name Marinskii Academic Theatre of Ballet and Opera (“Marinka”, in the name of princess Maria, in the praise of whom the palace was built) was brought back from the past to re-baptise this Pantheon of Petipa’s Petersburg school of ballet [Berezovskii (1990); Shutiy (1991)].

The first huge popular mobilisation in favour of renaming came from the inhabitants of the Jdanov district on Vassilievsky Island, who succeeded in having it recover its original name, Primorskii (Maritime) District, on 20 February 1989. [7] This was a turning point in the political history of renaming, since it amounted to a victory of the people’s will, democratically expressed in petitions [Leningradskaya Pravda (1989)], a typical local feature that became a precedent. A week later, on 27 February 1989, the executive committee of the city soviet (LenIspolKom) gave up to popular pressure, issuing a decision “on the naming of streets and objects of local subordination” that gave back a few streets and bridges (Birzhevoy, Gangutskii) their historical name.

According to individuals I interviewed on the issue [8], from 1999 to 2003, the wording “Saint-Petersburg” came back in the Leningraders’ terminology and self-identification together with the Petersburg idea. In their minds, before 1991, it had still little to do with the pro-Western liberal ideology defended by Anatoly Sobchak after he came to power. The Petersburg idea, of which renaming was a vehicle, related more to the feeling of being a “cultural capital” with a “special mission”. In Russian, “cultural” can also be translated into “cultivated” – a lexicon that refers to the image of Petersburg as more educated and civilised than its rival in terms of political leadership – Moscow [Vendina (2000)]. Since Petersburg was reborn whereas Moscow was not, renaming was directed against the incarnations of Soviet power but also against the concurrent pre-eminence of Moscow [Kotsyubinskii (1994); Ostrovskii (2002)].

Contemporaries remember that TV journalist Aleksandr Nevzorov, presenter then redactor in chief, from 1987 to 1993, of the very popular social-political broadcast “600 Seconds” on local TV (5th channel), also contributed to have “Saint-Petersburg” come back in the lexicon and destiny of the citizens. Himself a partisan of renaming, he encouraged his guests to fill in the concept of glasnost’ with a practical day-to-day meaning, including on the issue of St. Petersburg’s new “identity” and international “mission”. This local TV channel, together with Petersburg channel Kul’tura which occupies the screen at federal level, have since then been one of the media platforms that gave voice to Petersburgans on these topics.

Agenda-setting in the city Soviet (1990-1991)

The concepts of sovereignty, independence and restitution were voiced out loud enough in the three Baltic Republics from 1988 on to affect the political landscape of neighbour Leningrad. “Me-tooism” played and a Leningrad National Front was founded in 1989 that contributed to destabilise Soviet centralism [Orttung (1995)]. At the time, radicals of this pro-reform movement were among the few who dared to suggest the de-naming of Leningrad, an idea first put forward in political terms by the Leningrad Popular Front in 1989 and by the “Democratic Election – 90” regional block the following year. During the spring 1990 “free” elections to the Lensoviet, the danger of such opinions was still too great though, for the issue to come out in the campaign [Veselov (1990)].

Only in September 1990 did Lensoviet deputy Natalya Firsova take the initiative to ask for the renaming to be put on the agenda of the Assembly’s second session – which resumed without having had time to examine her proposition. By then, the issue of renaming had reached the spheres of free speech, with local intelligentsia, journalists and ordinary people throwing their own propositions on the public arena. The idea of de-naming Leningrad provoked opposition on at least two grounds – its illegitimacy as regards heroic deeds of Lenin and Leningraders, and its unbearable cost in terms of practical implementation. After the winter of 1990-91, when most Leningraders nearly experienced famine, the prospect of spending 150 million roubles [see Annex ; Fatkhullin (1991: 6); Volynskii (1991)] for new road signs and official stamps for merely symbolic purposes was unacceptable to a majority of citizens, including, in the early stage of debates, to Anatoly Sobchak himself.

The prospect of renaming was considered more seriously after Gorbachev’s failed attempt to re-legitimise his power with the March 17th referendum on “keeping a renewed Union” (boycotted by 6 of the 15 Union Republics) and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact on April 1st. The seventh session of the Lensoviet, opening in April 1991, had the issue of renaming ranking high on its agenda. On April 26th, the city assembly favourably met an electors’ proposition, channelled and defended by deputy Vitaly Skoybeda, to organise a city referendum “on returning the city its historical name”. The first vice-president of the Lensoviet and future deputy-mayor Vyacheslav Shcherbakov officially proclaimed the results of the vote on that same evening – 218 deputies were in favour of organising a local referendum, 20 were against and 9 abstained from voting. [9] Agreeing with suggestions made by the main redactors of the project, Yurii Kravtsov and Sergey Basov, the Lensoviet decided on April 30th that the local referendum be called a “population consultation”, to be held the next 12 June 1991 together with presidential elections in the RSFSR. Interestingly enough, the Lensoviet took this decision to hold a direct democratic consultation on re-naming before it examined, on May 18th, the project of holding democratic elections to the post of city mayor. [10] Most actors and observers remember that the idea of renaming had been in the air for a much longer time and that by voting that day, they were assigning Sobchak the duty of putting Petersburg back in tune with its genetic scheme of opening Russia to contacts and exchanges with Europe.

Sovereignty from the ballot box - the local “referendum” of 12 June 1991

 From the day he was elected mayor, on 12 June 1991 (it was the first anniversary holiday of Sovereign Russia) Sobchak enjoyed in nearly the same popular legitimacy of being a “democrat” as the one Boris Yeltsin himself gained from being elected Russian president. The fame of the law professor was already solid in the country at Supreme Soviet level, and even abroad – suffice it to say that Sobchak informally welcomed Margaret Thatcher in “his” city on May 30th that year and had already been frequently interviewed and quoted by Western journalists as a “leader of the democratic wave”. On June 12th, which coincide with the 70th anniversary of the city’s Philharmonic Hall [11], Leningraders dropped a third ballot paper into the box – their “yes” or “no” in answer to the question “Do you want our city to be given back its historical name St. Petersburg?” Participation was around 65%. On the Presidential bill, 67% voted for Yeltsin and 10,6% for Ryzhkov. Sobchak was elected city mayor with 65,3% of the polls (26,3% went to his only challenger, Sevenard). Votes in favour of St. Petersburg ranked less well, but the “yes” won with 54,86%, against 42,68%. [12] One of the most emotive celebration of the event in the records of the time is that by sociologist I. Titov (1991), quoting Anna Akhmatova, a poetess dear to the heart of Leningraders and double victim of Stalinism, “I came back to my city, familiar to tears”. Nevskoe Vremya, an independent local newspaper, announced with the following heading the results of the poll: “Happy Rebirth Day, Russia!” followed by three names in bold shrift: “Yeltsin, Sobchak, St. Petersburg” [Nevsloe Vremya (1991)].

 Petersburg’s decision to recover its baptism name was welcomed by the west and most Russian reformists. However, in Moscow, it was interpreted as something merely symbolical, with no link to the historical events that were to occur two months after in Moscow streets.

The patriotic uprising of veterans and communists in defence of Lenin(grad)’s memory could do nothing against the shaking of the whole Soviet Union, that became evident with the August 1991 failed coup against Gorbachev, that intended to sabotage perestroika and the signing of the Union Treaty by those Republics that still wanted to maintain USSR. The coup delayed the official re-naming until a Supreme Soviet decision adopted on 6 September that came into force on the next day (note that September 7th is not celebrated in Petersburg, whereas May 23rd, that refers to St. Petersburg’s 1703 birth, is a local holiday). According to a witness of the time, deputy N. Arjannikov, the official decision of renaming was taken by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, then still dominated by communists, nearly without discussion [Urushadze (1991)]. It was the sign that renaming, an emanation of the Petersburgan will, could not possibly be contested by what remained of the Soviet “centre” nor by the democrat camp – turning the special trip to Moscow of three Lensoviet deputies to defend the cause of Petersburg’s new name into a mere formality. Petersburgans remember that a popular rock concert in Kazan and Palace squares was attended on 8 September 1991 by thousands of those who had come there to support democracy after the putsch. They also recalled that the concert was reiterated on November 7th, as if to defend once again the newly born St. Petersburg from reactionary manifestations linked with the October Revolution’s Jubilee.


The renaming of St. Petersburg, even if it occurred before the official disappearance of the Soviet Union, is not a unique case – by late 1991, there were already half a dozen precedents. [13] However, St. Petersburg’s case is very specific.

1)      It came from the poll together with an act of sovereignty-taking by its mayor, whose name is, like an icon now, linked to the history of renaming and forms part of the mythology of the “new”, “democratic”, “European” St. Petersburg since then.

2)      Renaming is intrinsically linked to the ideal of reforms, which because of the umbilical cord that relates the city’s foundation to Peter the Great, includes the idea of “opening a window to Europe” – but not only. Reforms in general were intended first of all to tackle the Army (Russia had no modern navy in the 17th century), then the tastes and habits of the Russian people, brutal even in the aristocracy. The idea of “opening a window onto Europe” corresponded in fact to placating under the eyes of Petersburgans, forced by decree to people the town, selected European models in the field of architecture, art, shipping, urban planning, salon manners and so on [Volkov (2003)]. This is quite far from the idea one usually gets from the “window to Europe” metaphor that Petersburg’s foundation derived solely from Peter’s will to “Europeanise” Russia. This is a too rapid shortcut, not to talk about the fact that a window is not very useful to communicate with neighbours and circulate among them, as compared for example to a “door” or a “bridge” or a “gateway” - words that appeared, after 1991, in the official, investment-friendly, discourses on St. Petersburg and by 1997 in the city’s Strategic Plan (1998).

3)      St. Petersburg was and is becoming again, in new contexts, an issue of global relevance for the whole country. After East Germany, Poland and the Baltic countries had changed camp in the early 1990s, St. Petersburg remained, with Kaliningrad and Arkhangel’sk, Russia’s only access to the Baltic sea and Northern Europe. The dream of local democrats was that trade and cultural exchanges develop enough for the city to step back into European civilisation with some relative autonomy from the rest of the country, especially from Moscow. Sobchak’s team, in which Vladimir Putin had a lot of muscle, from 1991 to 1996, associated renaming with the idea of gaining economic and political weigh due to the cultural (tourist) prestige and attractiveness for foreign investment of St. Petersburg.

 In choosing St. Petersburg, citizens rejected the Soviet model as a whole and signalled the rest of Russia that it could take the lead of (European-oriented) reforms again. Yet, nobody talked then of retransferring the capital to St. Petersburg. Among all the founding myths and narratives that were re-actualised during the process of renaming, a noticeable exception concerns St. Petersburg as Russia’s (imperial) capital city – which it was for two centuries (under Peter II, the court re-emigrated to Moscow for some years). As if capitality, in the circumstances of the 1991 birth at the core of Soviet/Russian chaos, was more of a burden for the local “democrats” whose priority was to implement reforms at home.

II. Symbols and belligerents of renaming

In this section, Petersburg’s 1991 renaming is analysed as a socio-political act drawing its justification from a set of symbolic toolboxes and metaphors carried by the “Leningraders” and “Petersburgans” who opposed on the issue. The founding myths will be recalled and the arguments of the two camps deciphered to understand what kind of Petersburg was born at the time.

Names, symbols and political legitimacy

For the past 300 years, naming and de-naming St. Petersburg, Petrograd and Leningrad has been a process intrinsically linked with high political stakes for the whole Russian Empire, including first and foremost the issue of establishing the legitimacy of its autocrats. From the day it became the “new” capital, in 1712, until it lost this status in 1918, the name St. Petersburg incarnated three ideologically founding dimensions of political power in Russia.

First - the extraordinary will and aura of an individual, Tsar Peter the Great, who, after winning the Northern War against Sweden in 1721, took the title of “Emperor”, opening an era of great power status for modern Russia in the “concert of European nations”. The Petersburg project borne from Peter’s genius amounted to far more than establishing a city – it ambitioned to change Russians for them to keep up with the West. Second, the Third Rome mythology was reactivated thanks to the prefix “Sankt-“ in the city’s name, in reference to Apostle Peter, Christian saint and holder of Rome’s keys. Following the sack of Constantinople in 1478, the idea had emerged in Russia that the “second Rome”, Byzantium, would give precedence to Moscow, the Third Rome and Town of 1000 cupolas, as the next spiritual centre of the Eastern Christian world. In naming “his” city after Saint Peter, the Emperor-reformist, who was not fond of the Moscow Court’s cabbalas and was the first to secularise the power of the Orthodox clergy, was not only staging himself as a living icon – a status to which Vladimir Putin could pretend these days in Russia. In suppressing the institution of the Patriarch and appointing members of the Synod to administer matters of the soul, Peter also inaugurated a lasting trait of Russian samoderzhavie: the ultimate prominence of political over religious bearers of legitimacy. After Peter, the head of State became even more of a “Father” for the whole Empire, a feature that opened the way for religious faith to be replaced by the cult of personality that culminated under Lenin’s and Stalin’s reigns. Thirdly, with the suffix “–burg”, which unmistakeably bears a German or Flemish consonance, St. Petersburg’s “European” identity and mission were forcefully established by Peter the Great, who ordered it be “a window onto Europe”.

Toponymic de-naming and re-naming in the 20th century: history of a catharsis

 St. Petersburg was first de-named, or, rather, “russianized”, when the West turned into a synonym for aggression against the Russian Empire. The week following Germany’s war declaration on Russia on 1 August 1914 (July 19th, according to the Russian calendar), Tsar Nicholas II issued a decree that changed St. Petersburg into Petrograd. Imposing the suffix “-grad”, an abridged form for the Russian word gorod (city), affirmed the country’s patriotic unity against German intrusion and also had an internal, populist purpose - that of disabusing the Tsar’s subjects of their superstitious belief that the German origins of his wife Alexandra, born princess of Hesse-Darmstadt, would weaken resistance to “prussianisation”. Thousands Petersburgans had died in a panic move on the day he was enthroned, in 1894, a record which aggravated the fact that Nicholas II, in doing away with the “Saint-“, was thought to announce demoniac chaos for the city. Petersburg actually retained the name Petrograd for ten of the most sombre years of Russian modern history, that of World War One, civil war (1918-1921), war communism and collectivisation. In the mind and rhetoric of most inhabitants, the “Northern Commune” (Petrograd’s nickname) is associated to bloodshed (Chertograd – Devil city) and thus bares very negative connotations. This is probably why politicians in 1991 did not favour the “Petrograd” variant when looking into the past for a new name to grant their city [Leningradskaya Pravda (1990) ; Belelyubskii & Sorokin (1991)].

While Petrograd was winning its reputation of “dead city” (the city’s population dropped from 2 million in 1913 to 722 000 in 1920), a new mythology emerged that prepared the stage for Leningrad. Petrograd, which entered history books as the Revolution’s birth city, deserved the name of its Father. Vladimir Il’ytch Ulyanov, alias Lenin (a name he borrowed from Nikolai Egorovitch Lenin (1827-1900), a feudal landlord and advocate of serfdom), died on 21 January 1924. On the 26th, following an official claim addressed the Soviet leadership by mourning Petrograd workers, the RSFSR Council of the People’s Deputies de-named Petrograd and gave it a new birth name – Leningrad – and with it the task of being ever since and forever a faithful defender of Lenin’s memory, at the exclusion of others. This was but a step in the process of erasing the past that Bolsheviks inaugurated in 1918 with the murder of the imperial family.

Leningrad’s toponomy met the first year anniversary of the October Revolution purged from the most striking pious and bourgeois connotations. In 1918, Nevsky Perspective was renamed Avenue of 25 October. The old names of Trinity bridge, Isaac square and the Palace embankment were also erased from city maps. In 1923-1924, many streets were re-named in praise of the new regime (Socialist, Equality, Trade Unions and other Red Army streets), its communist ideologists (Bakunin and Kuybyshev streets, Karl Marx avenue) as well as famous anti-monarchists terrorists (Khalturin and Kalyaev streets).

The next wave of topographic renaming in Leningrad occurred in January 1944 in a kind of catharsis to wipe away the ashes of war that shadowed survivors’ remembering. In 900 days of siege and bombings by the fascist armies, Leningrad streets and places had been given macabre nicknames in accordance with war urban conditions (“blood-stained crossing”, at the corner of Gostinyi Dvor with Sadovaya street for example) [Sindalovskii (2002) ; Lapin (website)]. Purging Leningrad from these references, which seemed to have brought misfortune, went together with re-building and extending the city, but it amounted to some point to an early wave of de-sovietisation that gave oxygen to the survivors. As soon as the Nazi raised their blockade, on 13 January 1944, a dozen streets of Leningrad were “re-petersburganised”, starting with Nevskii, in reference to Alexandr Nevsky’s victory over Teutonic Knights on the Neva river and Chudskoe Lake in 1240. Ploshchad’ Uritskovo became Dvortsovaya (Palace) square again, Sadovaya (Garden) street, Izmail avenue and the two Bolshoy (Grand) avenues (of Petrograd and Vassilievsky islands) also reintegrated the city’s urban geography with their historical names [O. Belenkov (1991a; 1991b) ; Lapin (website)]. Their heroic aura granted Leningraders some autonomy from the Party leadership to rename their own streets after their own heroes - like Souvorovskii prospekt in praise of General Souvorov, whose elephants crossed the Alps during the anti-Napoleonic war, a feat celebrated until 1918 in the name Slonovoy prospekt (Elephant avenue, a nickname she still bore after the Bolsheviks had it called Soviet avenue). Leningraders of the Stalin district (Stalinskii rayon), whom, traditionally, the local jargon called “Finns”, renamed their district Vyborgskii (after Vyborg/Viipuri, today border town of Lenoblast’ with Finland).

Actually, according to pensioners’ records, streets of the city’s historical centre had not lost their baptism name in conversations of Leningraders during the inter-war period. In fact, Soviet leaders did not go too far onto Petersburgan lands to re-format the architecture of Leningrad city centre, burn Pushkin’s books nor put down memorials of Russian tsars – which helped the historical centre qualify in 1989 on the UNESCO list of the World’s Cultural Heritage, together with the palace ensembles of the city’s green outskirts (Peterhof, Oranienbaum, Gatchina, Pushkin, etc.). There was, of course, a total taboo on the opportunity to de-name Leningrad in the Soviet years. Streets renaming of the Revolution and post-War years, that occurred each time during a much longer period and nearer space dimension for citizens than the renaming of the city itself, had an even more important catharsis effect: renaming the street where one lives, the nearest metro station or the library where one works were matters of personal interests that gave birth to many discussions.

Since 1991 and the opening of a third wave of toponymic change, districts’ and streets’ renaming in St. Petersburg is decided by the executive head of the administration, i.e. the mayor (since 1996 – the city governor). A Toponymic Commission with consultative power was established in September 1991 to define the basic principles and criteria of toponymic renaming. The Commission channelled the propositions emanating directly from citizens, their groupings or their district elected representatives, allowing the renaming process to be more democratic than it was, for example, in Moscow – where city names were changed in one night time without any consultation [Zonin (2002)]. In 70% of the cases of renaming (only about half of the city centre’s topographic names were concerned), the October 1991 decisions came back to the ancient (pre-1918 or pre-1923) appellation.

Leave and take – choosing what to de-name

 All Leningrad streets were not erased from the toponymy of the new Petersburg in 1991. The most urgent cases, brought to attention by popular suggestions in the local press, were settled as early as October 1991. Petersburgans wanted to de-name in priority the 23 last streets glorifying People’s Commissars, especially the more cruel of them (Kirov, Dzerzhinskii, Skorokhodov, Rakov, Tolmachev). The local population also mobilised to oppose changing streets named in Soviet times, but whose connotation did not hurt the inhabitants’ ears. For example, the city soviet and the Commission were in favour of giving back their original, 18th century names, to some streets bearing the names of Decembrists since 1918. Popular protest succeeded to maintain the names given by the Bolsheviks to glorify these early (but bourgeois) revolution-makers of 1825. Pre-1923 Panteleymonovskaya ulitsa remained named after Decembrist Pestel’ (ulitsa Pestelya). Decembrists’ square (ploshchad’ Dekabristov), called “Senate square” in the Imperial Petersburg, was also spared by the October 1991 wave of renaming [Odintsova (1991)]. Most stations of the city metro also kept their original (Soviet) names, at the noticeable exception of “Ploshchad’ Mira” (“Peace Square”) stop, which is now “Sennaya Ploshchad / Sadovaya’” again, in order to coincide with the re-named Hay square (Sennaya ploshchad’, which was Ploshchad’ Mira – Peace square – in the Soviet period).

On various occasions, “re-petersburganisation”, corollary of “de-sovietization”, was a source for heated contradictory debates: which restoration point to chose when visiting the past? Who to honour and who to disgrace? After Andrey Sakharov’s death in 1989, inhabitants obtained to have the square facing the Library of Science Academy renamed in praise of the dissident academician. Other representatives of the city’s intellectual life had less chance – in 1993, the Malaya (Small) and Bol’shaya (Grand) Morskaya (Maritime) streets were given back their 19th century names, doing away with the names of Gogol’ and Herzen that they had carried since 1902 and 1920 respectively [Zonin (2002)]. In 1842, Herzen, referring to seraglio revolutions of the 18th century, had written this prophetic prose, seeing in Petersburg’s destiny “something tragic, gloomy and majestic. It is the dear child of a Northern giant, in which were concentrated the energy and cruelty of the [French] Convention of [17]93 and its revolutionary force (…)”. [14] At the time when renaming occurred, such brutality was about to reoccur, in Moscow, where Yeltsin sent tanks against the White House where the authors of the October 1993 double putsch sheltered.

The Leningrad symbolic

 From an outsider’s viewpoint, there is something schizophrenic about the destiny of Leningrad from the first to the eleventh five-year Plan. On the one hand, a mythomania around the mother-city image (some would say “father-“, since Petersburg is “male” in Russian, as opposed to Moskva), the womb of Lenin’s world communist revolution. On the other hand, a collective feeling of falling down from a pedestal back to the humiliating ponds of provincialism. In erasing Petersburg, the Kremlin’s landlords downgraded the imperial capital to the rank of second province town. They were also eager to “sovietise” the city’s population and production structure enough, thanks to zealous KGB collaborators and a specialisation of the city’s economy in “hard” industry – metallurgy, weapons, machinery - to control Moscow’s European concurrent, a civilised city that was too eccentric in the new state to be faithful to its centre that re-localised in Moscow.

Leningrad, son of the Revolution

 Becoming the “cradle” of the 1917 Revolution meant that Leningrad had to be born another time as a proletarian city central not as a European capital, but as a military-industrial and scientific centre for the USSR that saw the light in 1922. Lenin, and after him Stalin, was very concerned with St. Petersburg/Leningrad’s capacity for upheaval and independence, not only from aristocratic and anarchist circles, but also from this specific moral feature of the Petersburg contestation. The Communist hatred of the Tsarist Empire was such that all what was associated to it, especially the moving of the capital to St. Petersburg in 1712, was an offence to their cause.

One of the Bolshevik State’s first decisions, on 12 March 1918, was the transfer of the RSFSR capital to Moscow. St. Petersburg/Leningrad, the “city of three revolutions” (in 1905, February and October 1917), made Stalin deeply sceptical of Leningraders’ faithfulness towards the system. The Kremlin landlord did his best to eradicate contesting voices in the Northern capital all through his lifetime. Repressive waves materialised with the 14th Congress’ decision to condemn in December 1925 the “new Leningrad opposition”, incarnated by Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were expelled from the Party in 1927 and “purged” at the 1936 Moscow trials. From 1925 on, a great number of thinkers, among whom officials from the local Party section, were terrorised, deported or assassinated to a much larger extent than average in the country. After First obkom Secretary Sergey Kirov’s murder in December 1934, a heavy climate of suspicion and repression fell down on Leningrad. It hardened after the so-called “Leningrad case” of 1948-1951, leading to another purge to which only Stalin’s death put an end. By then, the Solovki Archipelago on Ladoga lake, where the early political enemies of the new state were deported, had become a model for the establishment of Soviet work and death camps, described in Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs of the gulag. Leningrad, an industrial city under military and KGB domination, was successfully downgraded as a political and idea-making centre. However, its cultural prestige was maintained, even internationally, since tourists could still admire the “treasures of European civilisation” the city exhibited with such care. Didn’t André Gide write after visiting the Soviet Union in 1935 – “What I like in Leningrad is St. Petersburg”? The city centre did not lose its Venice or Amsterdam cachet during the Soviet period, when architectural restoration was not neglected. It was just forbidden to remind and honour it as a (politically) European (traitor) feature of the Western (enemy) world.

Blockade memory - “Leningrad does not fear death - death fears Leningrad”

 For opponents to giving back St. Petersburg its original name as well as for today’s Leningrad nostalgists, the main historical argument for leaving Leningrad’s memory in peace is that it would amount to negating the human and military heroism of the city during the war against fascist Germany and Finland. The prospect of their grandchildren thinking that the Nazi siege of the city in 1941-1944 was the blockade “of St. Petersburg”, not Leningrad, would be the deepest offence history schoolbooks could make veterans who experienced such a drama, in which a third of the population was killed [Ruble (1990)]. The memorial epitaph of the Piskariev cemetery, “Nikto ne zabyt, i nichto ne zabyto” (Nobody forget, nothing forgotten), became a local proverb. Every fourth Leningrader of 1990 has lost a relative in the besieged Leningrad, whose population was then mostly composed of elderly people, women and children [Ginzburg (1989)]. There are many city-heroes in the Soviet Union, Volgograd also suffered great losses - but Leningrad is the most important of all hero-cities of the “Great Patriotic War”, at the North-Western contact edge of Russianness with the Enemy. The phrase “one million of us died for the sake of freedom in the Soviet Union and the world” illustrates how fat the city, as a martyr that resisted the fascist assault in unimaginable conditions, is Leningrad for the common Soviet sake, not only for itself. Besieged Leningrad, a desolation island still connected to Motherland through the Ladoga Lake, was USSR’s “Berlin” in this sense. This heroic Leningrad is also that of scientists, martyrs and poets who made the city’s fame in the whole world – Anna Akhmatova, Ossip Mandel’stam, Shostakovich (who dedicated his Seventh Symphony to “our struggle against fascism, our coming victory on the enemy, my birth town – to Leningrad”). [15]

Mobilisation of “defenders of Leningrad” in the late 1980s

 Most communists argued that de-naming Leningrad was not only unorthodox but also disrespectful of History in that it compared to denying the blockade heroes their medals and the graduates of famous Leningrad universities their diplomas. On the principle, the idea was unacceptable to most Soviet people on the ground that, much alike the prospect of Estonian and Chechen independence, it amounted to threatening state unity. No surprise that Leningrad was the hometown of Nina Andreeva, a science teacher of the Leningrad Technological Institute who sent to an all-Union newspaper one of the most critical open letter against Gorbachev’s perestroika a Soviet individual ever addressed reformist leaders [Andreeva (1988)]. To some extent, the “hysteria” evoked by sociologists and contemporaries was provoked by the perspective that de-naming meant giving up the principles that safeguarded the Soviet Union – principles that were then incarnated by the Gorbachev/Yakovlev team. Most contemporaries argued that the city had to be “put back in order” before addressing the more symbolic issue of its renaming, since perestroika, or more probably the economic shortness of breath of the whole system, had left the “great Leningrad” in a very bad shape by the end of the 1980s.

Mobilization against de-naming was noticeably high then among blue collars from the military-industrial complex (a third of the Leningrad workforce by 1990). Workers and pensioners from the “Kirov”, “Bolshevik”, “Red Triangle” and “Leningrad Metallurgy” factories were especially vehement against de-naming Leningrad, and had their collective open letters quoted or fully published in the Leningradskaya Pravda (1990b), while the Evening Leningrad [Vecherniy Leningrad (1991)] forwarded letters addressed by the “Defenders of Leningrad” (Zashchitniki Leningrada), a grouping formed within the Army Museum. All through May 1991, the Leningradskaya Pravda gathered and published letters of support to Leningrad comrades “in defence of Leningrad” sent for example by the Vilnius and Ventspils shipyard workers, the inhabitants of Kirov district of Yaroslavl’ city [Alekseeva (1991); Sereprovskaya (1991] and other war veterans from all over the Soviet Union.

The materialist belief of communism that the course of history could be bent by permanent revolution was well anchored in the brain of Russians, even by the end of perestroika, yet, they could hardly admit that the system could be so totally put upside down as to erase “the city of Lenin” from Soviet maps. In the patriotic mind of early 1990s opponents to de-naming Leningrad, this second “rape” of history was criminal in that it amounted to treason of the whole Soviet people [Sovetskaya Rossiya (1991)].

In April 1991, the Party’s Central Committee, at the invitation of the first city Party secretary Gidaspov, organised a conference “against historical falsification” linked with the cabbala against Lenin(grad). A week before the local popular consultation, the Party [Central Committee (1991)] declared that the Lensoviet decision to organise a referendum was a perfidious “attempt of some specific forces and political groups to destroy from the memory of the Soviet people the legendary past of the city-hero and to defame the great Lenin” [Gerasimov (1991)]. The failure of communists to defend Lenin’s memory in the hero-city Leningrad already augured ill of what would follow with the Soviet system itself. As goes the local proverb, which appeared in the late 1980s - “Leningrad is the (birth) city of three revolutions, but one should not eternally live in the cradle” (Leningrad - gorod triokh revolyutsii, no nel’zya zhe vechno zhit’ v kolybeli) [Sindalovskii (2002: 243)]. At some point, uprising comes – and defending its birth name is a way to assert itself in relation to others and to future challenges. This was the message Sobchak and Belyayev addressed Leningrad veterans on 8 September 1991, on the fiftieth anniversary memorial celebrations of the beginning of the Leningrad blockade, two days after the official renaming. They called this “day of remembering” to be one of entente among those who have “the glory of Petersburg, Petrograd and Leningrad on their side and the future of St. Petersburg in their hands”. [Vechernyi Peterburg (1991)]. Reconciliation did not come, but the opposition, that was very animated then, has calmed down, leaving people call themselves as they want – Leningrader, Petersburgan – in any case, as Joseph Brodsky already wrote in the 1970s, “from Piter”.

Arguments of the partisans of St. Petersburg

 Petersburg did not wake up like a Sleeping Beauty on a nice summer morning. In 1991, the city was in a desperate economic, social, sanitary and ecological condition – and its only since 2003 that the city centre offers a fully-restored landscape. The political atmosphere of the early “romantic” period (1990-93) allowed for change to materialise first in district and street renaming, then only in democratic achievements.

It comes out of interviews that most inhabitants were aware of how far their country’s level of development lacked behind that of the West in general, and that of neighbour Finland and sister Baltic Republics in particular. The acknowledgement of Leningrad’s decadence by the end of (and for many – “because of”) perestroika was hardly put into question. More often than never it led to a high degree of cynicism, even on behalf of “true communists”, who considered that before changing the surface (the name), the content had to be repaired. Unlike them and other sceptics, partisans of renaming were confident in the force of their voluntarism, however tinged with utopian romanticism, and had a strong belief in the idea that History backed their restoration mission. The question that bothered them then was not whether renaming amounted to a resurrection or a re-formulation of the pre-communist past, and what, in the Petersburg Petrine and pre-1703 story, could be re-appropriated – a question I try to answer to in the third section. Renaming formed part of a global project towards “democratising” Russia, meaning importing democracy from the West. Peter’s Petersburg project was reminded as a model for reform and opening to Europe by most of the pro-“yes” press before the June 1991 referendum.

Reviving the founding mythology – back into Europe?

Thanks to the transparent air du temps of Gorbachev’s reforms, opponents to keeping the name “Leningrad” had the right to put forward their arguments on the public arena, which is one feature of the renaming process of the Northern capital. The idea was that if reconstruction (perestroika) and modernisation were on the USSR’s agenda, then St. Petersburg should contest Lenin’s ideology in recovering its original name and thus take the lead of reform. Once again, St. Petersburg could be the cradle of revolution, with “market democracy” as a new “great horizon” to head through. Sobchak’s ambitions concerning the city port, the free economic zone (ZSP), the Havana district (with the Lenexpo exhibition facilities) and the financial ability to support a stock exchange were not fulfilled, but renaming remained synonym of ever-growing economic and political profits.

In criticising the arguments of opponents to re-naming, be they Leningraders or Party officials in Moscow, on the ground that they tried to politicise the issue, Sobchak managed for re-naming to be considered something natural and fair. Sobchak called for renaming to be a new start in the citizens’ life, claiming that there will be no lustration against the holders of the “Leningrad” identity. In order to show his good faith and respect for communist heritage as an intrinsic part of the people’s own history, Sobchak even proposed to fulfil Lenin’s last wishes … which were to be buried in the St. Petersburg Volkov cemetery, by the side of his mother and sister [Chesanova (1991: 2)]. After this June 1991 declaration to foreign journalists, Sobchak was accused by the whole country’s defenders of Lenin(grad) of blasphemy against the landlord of the Mausoleum on Moscow’s Red Square.

Returning the city’s name was more about honouring the Petrine past and utilising the image it reflected – that of a cultured, Western-oriented reformist city, in which foreign investors would invest – than proclaiming the city’s political attachment to “Europe” – an association of ideas that emerged much more recently and that does not make unanimity. For St. Petersburg, European are the nearest neighbours, whose belonging to Northern rather than Western Europe imply that the city is re-staging its own “Europeanness” in a regional rather than a pan-European space. As Daniil Kotsyubinskii [1996] demonstrated in answering to the question “does working ‘the European way’ bring Petersburg any good?” – the foundations for Petersburg’s entry into the “European Home” already existed by the end of the Sobchak period. Until Putin’s iron hand restored some belief in the survival of the Russian Federation, some admitted like sociologist Viktor Voronkov, that for a majority of Petersburgans, patria = Europe, and that they could feel no more patriotism for Russia. The “European” orientations have, however, been downgraded in the discourses of St Petersburg ever since – except when it came to softening of the Schengen visa-regime for Russians living in the “European” part of Russia.

The “European” identity of Petersburgans, in terms of political loyalty, is thus much of a fabricated image, not the least because it does not reflect in the polls for example. Parties such as Yabloko or the Union of Right Forces, the preferred pets of European political partners, do not score that high in Petersburg. Radio Svoboda organised in March 2003 a round-table in relation with the ongoing competition for choosing the words of the city’s anthem. On this occasion, journalists discussed the Petersburg idea and especially its European subtext. According to statistics, among the thousands propositions that were mailed by participants to the competition, words like “bridges”, “capstan”, “white nights”, “Peter the First”, “Putin” and “Zenit” (the local football team, winner of the Russian championship in 1999) were the most frequent, whereas the notion of “Europe” barely appeared.

God blesses Saint-Petersburg

 The re-naming could only but have the support of believers, who are very attached to the sanctity associated to Apostle Peter’s name in “Saint-Petersburg”. The Orthodox clergy praised the idea of “restitution” associated to renaming, hoping to get something back from denationalisation as well. Religious actors played an important role in support of renaming the city in 1991. Suffice it to say that the only wide-scale meeting organised in Leningrad for the “yes” at the coming referendum was on 20 May 1991 – a date that coincidently was also the anniversary of Nicholas II’s birth. The meeting on Palace Square, in front of the Hermitage Winter Palace, was organised by the local branch of the Christian-Democrat Party and attended by all members of the intelligentsia, including two war veterans, M. Afanas’ev and R. Chiguisheva. It thus managed to gather democrats and monarchists, the cultural avant-guarde (including representatives of the “Leningrad rock” wave), popes, workers and the military - all united supporters of the renaming cause [Volobuev (1991)].

Alexis II himself expressed his support to renaming at a press conference in St. Daniel’s Monastery on 31 May 1991, stating that “the city should remember his founder, Emperor Peter, and bear the name of his prayer book saint, Apostle Peter. And according to the design of its founder, calling Russia’s capital “Petersburg” evidenced another thing – that Russia came back into the community of European states, in the commonwealth of capitals of the Northern seas.” [Alexei II (1991)].

For the local clergy, which suffered a deep purge in Leningrad all the way since the execution of Petrograd Metropolitan Venyamin (Benjamin) by the Bolsheviks, the “returning [of] the previous appellation is an aspiration of our inner eyesight towards our celestial Patron [Peter] of the whole township and the return of his protection.” [Stepanova (1991a)]. Some even argued that two voices opposed at the level of faith manipulation in the all-Russian debate over renaming – the “no” of Gorbachev (1991) against the “yes” of Alexei the Second [Stepanova (1991b)]. The Patriarch of Muscovy and all Russias was an influential supporter of renaming St. Petersburg, not only because his birthday is on the same day as the city, as he said publicly on 27 May 2003 before blessing the tercentenary city. His visit to St. Petersburg in early November 1991, just a few weeks after he was elected Patriarch, coincided with the first post-renaming celebration of the October 1917 Revolution, on 7 November. This step of the Russian clergy was widely interpreted as a sign of moral, even divine support for the “new” St. Petersburg against latent communism [Slyusarenko (1991)].

Charismatic associations

 For Western observers, the “return” of St. Petersburg = Anatoly Sobchak’s deed. The idolatry towards Sobchak as the artisan of reforms and renaming in St. Petersburg is very disrespectful of the role played since the mid-1970s by the local intelligentsia, dissidents, underground leaders of the embryonic civil society in preparing the ground for reformist ideology, despite the KGB’s efforts and especially those of Viktor Cherkesov, director of the Leningrad section. This generation of 25-45 year-old Leningraders happened to be those same well educated, liberal-oriented and European minded “Petersburgans” who supported the free economic zone project, voted for Sobchak and Yeltsin in 1991, and for the Yabloko and SPS party affiliates so dear to “European democracies” on the following elections.

In this similar to Gorbachev at his time, Sobchak was more appreciated abroad, where he enjoyed the reputation of an open, reformist and democratic politician, than at home. The attachment of this image to that of a “democratic”, “open” and “reformist” St. Petersburg re-emerged after the great man’s sudden death in February 2000. Of what the “political Apollo” [Kotsyubinskii (1994)] did, renaming was the most indisputable victory, sealed forever in his tombstone at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra cemetery with the epitaph “To the one who gave the city back its historical name”. Sobchak is remembered in Russia as an artisan of the victory of democracy over communism and a good orator, but also as an egoistic, power-loving and corrupted politician incapable of solving the city’s concrete problems and who preferred to emigrate 3 years in France than to answer to the procurer in a law case started in 1997 against him by the new local leadership. One of the critics that convinced Petersburgans to vote for his deputy mayor in charge of construction and housing, Vladimir Yakovlev, is that the latter was expected to spend less time in planes and at cocktail parties with foreigners to focus more on social problems of Leningraders. Veterans, pensioners and workers made up most of Yakovlev’s electorate at the elections to the post of Governor of St. Petersburg in June 1996.

Yakovlev focused on more down-to-earth problems of the city’s life and surely does not enjoy the same charismatic proportions as his previous boss and predecessor at the city administration’s head. International relations were downgraded in his management of the city – which lacked the competence of the Putin team, which for a great part refused Yakovlev’s 1996 invitation to remain on duty in Smol’ny after Sobchak’s eviction. However, Yakovlev’s pragmatism has directed Petersburg’s post-1996 development towards improving the city’s position in Baltic, Nordic and European networks (with such projects as the “Baltic Palette”, “Petersburg – European Gateway of Russia”, etc.), as was well as modernising its transit and logistic infrastructure for turning the city into a hub in the Northern route and the pan-European transport networks heading to Eastern Russia and Asia.

Governor Yakovlev and North-West District Representative of the President Viktor Cherkesov are all but charismatic leaders, and certainly their role in shaping the destiny of the “new” St. Petersburg has been shadowed and bypassed by the fame of Vladimir Putin, who has been doing so much lately to propel his city on the tracks of modernity within the “European community of civilised states”.

III. Back to the future for the “new” St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg’s last renaming was a laboratory and a locomotive for change, if not revolution, and despite the choice of an archaic name, it augured something new for the whole country. What achievements can we assess renaming made possible in the transition period? did the “new” St. Petersburg succeed to come back on the tracks of History, from which de-naming it into Leningrad had taken away? Does renaming celebrate Petersburg as, at last, a modern city, or even as a pole able to play a significant role in the 21st century post-modern world of networks? In other words, is St. Petersburg better ‘in tune with time’ now that it has been renamed? [Creuzberger & al. (2000)]. Does its post-1991 appellation facilitate the handling of the challenges of post-modern globalisation and signal “an acceptance of the changes and testify to an ability to cope with the new and quite volatile conditions” [Joenniemi 2001a)] in the Russian Federation?

Search and self-assertion of the Petersburg identity

Answering these questions requires to illustrate first how volatile is the “Petersburg” identity itself, formed on adjectives which all denote something unstable, fluid and fleeting. The permanent need of Petersburgans to assess their belonging to Russia and to Europe illustrate this strange feeling of duplicity and explain the necessity, evident in the city’s strategy, to define itself in its environment again and again.

The non-choice of other variants of names, though many inventive propositions were made (Svyato-Petrograd [16], Svyato-Petersburg, Leninburg, Nevograd, Sankt-Moskoviya!), seem to have closed access to possible “third paths” of development in the first place. Nonetheless, the process of renaming in 1991 bore various symbolic side effects. The most problematic question at stake was not necessarily linked with de-naming Leningrad – since, as argued above, partisans of keeping the 1924 name did not have enough weigh in 1990 Russia to defend it – but rather amounted to defining which symbolic mission renaming was meant to fulfil to accompany political and societal changes and bring economic and social welfare.

When renaming was first envisaged, the pre-communist Petersburg was far from being uniformly re-interpreted by the local intelligentsia of the late 1980s. New chapters of the city’s history were to be re-written – which was a première when it came to the study of the so-called “pre-Petrine” (dopetrovskii) period of the territory on the Neva delta. Petrine as well as Soviet historiography always asserted that St. Petersburg had been built on a desert land, throwing a veil onto the pre-17th century past that the “new” St. Petersburg contributed to lift. Simultaneously with the jubilee preparations, the pre-Petrine prehistory of Petersburg has been woken up from the past, from which it was erased by Soviet historiography. [17] The Swedish, Finno-Ugrian, Varangian, Ingrian, Karelian thousand-years history of Staraya Ladoga, Nuenshants and other “Neva” territories are now proclaimed to be constitutive elements of modern St. Petersburg, together with other founding elements of the city’s evolution – for example, the interdependence with Finnish culture in the 19th century [Eskelinen & Vaitlainen (1996)] . This desperate searching for roots has not necessarily filled the vacuum of Petersburg’s self-interpretation as a contradictory “Russian” and/or “European” city.

Democratic alternative has not succeeded in solving the city’s practical problems, nor could renaming by referendum guarantee that the intrinsic paradoxes of the city’s soul be attenuated. As argued by a contemporary, John Nicolson (1994) “the point about Petersburgers, of course, is that they are people of muddled nationality. They live within the physical boundaries of Russia. They have Russian blood in their veins. They speak a language which is practically indistinguishable from that spoken by people in Moscow or Volgograd. And yet Russian they are not. Somehow, without crossing any borders, they have left their motherland – but without arriving anywhere else, without becoming citizens of any country. They are internal emigrants, émigrés jamais arrivés: a strange, displaced, stranded people tied to a city which they love, but in which they can never quite be at home”. The least one could say, is that Petersburgans’ relationship to Europe is much more complex than the Potemkin façades of the historical centre display to the tourist’s eyes might make us imagine. For partisans of renaming, the shortcut St. Petersburg = Europe was a very useful slogan in support of democratic reforms, as well as a powerful image for attracting foreign investments and international attention. However, choosing Peter the Great as a marker [Morozov (2002)] and patron for the city’s rebirth determined the tracks of time and space within which the “new” St. Petersburg could evolve, thus partly limiting the universe of possible. With a major missing link – that Russia’s capital remained in Moscow ever since.

The “capital city with a provincial destiny”

The main “absent” from the renaming debates is the capital city status Petersburg enjoyed from 1712 to 1914 and that nobody claimed back in 1991 – which might sound surprising. In the prologue of his Petersburg, Andrey Beliy, who wrote the novel between 1911 and 1915, exposed his symbolist manifesto in arguing that: “Petersburg, or St. Petersburg, or Piter (it’s much the same) genuinely belongs to the Russian Empire (…). Based on this assumption, Nevskii prospect [avenue] is a Petersburgan avenue (…). Nevskii prospekt is a straight avenue (between us) - because it is a European avenue (…). If one continues asserting the ridiculous legend – the existence of a 1,5 million Moscovite population – then one must admit that the capital is to be Moscow (…) and according to this absurd legend, it seems that the capital is not Petersburg. If Petersburg is not the capital, then Petersburg is not. It only seems to exist.” [Belyi (1994: 11-12)].

Discussions over the Petersburg “national idea”, that emerged in 1994 and culminated in 1998, examined the issue of “capitality” again, reminding that renaming occurred at a time when the prospect of making the burden of transition heavier was not trendy. The city was clearly not in a shape to exert any federal prerogatives, and Moscow was indisputably the centre of the country – with all the inconvenient that relate to the status of capital: bureaucracy, depersonalisation, corruption, superficiality, unintelligence, cosmopolitism, pedantry, etc. Ironically, these drawbacks were exactly those invocated by Moscovites against the imperial Petersburg at the end of the 19th century, as Lev Lurie [Round-table (1998)] underlined.

From an economic and institutional point of view, transferring the federal institutions from Moscow to Petersburg could actually have created more problems than it would have solved. [18] As for now, St. Petersburg hosts very few “central” organs of power exclusively. The Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the CIS is barely the only significant one. As for the “cultural capital”, the irony is grotesque – since not one section of the Ministry of Culture has ever been delocalised to St. Petersburg, which lags behind Moscow in most artistic fields. When Sergei Mironov, newly elected speaker of the Federation Council, asked the federal budget to grant St. Petersburg some extra funding for “the exercise by [his] city of some capital’s functions”, a strong “anti-Piterskaya” protest reaction was organised by Moscow elites, especially those linked with Mayor Luzhkov’s clan [Ostrovskii (2002)], who were eager to keep banks, the sieges of financial-industrial groups and the high loci of federal power in the Moscow capital. The Moscow and Kremlin clans are not favourable to this manifest attempt of the challenger city to elevate its status and try to capture financial flows. Duma deputy Piotr Shelitch, elected from St. Petersburg, was an adept of such a transfer of part or whole of the federal institutions, according to him the only way to do away with corruption in the federal organs of power [Shelishch (1998)]. Few Petersburgan intellectuals agreed with him then, and most of them argued that power corrupts in such a way that seizing capital’s functions might destabilise the city’s moral balance towards more crime and dirty politics. Remaining an “anti-Moscow” [Lanin (1998)], in this sense, could be less harmful for the city than taking the risk of “losing its identity” [Starovoytova (1998)].

Putin’s Russia poses the problem of St. Petersburg’s constitutional status as a “city of federal importance” in quite different terms. After being elected President in March 2000, the entourage of Vladimir Putin started talking about a possible transfer of the Higher Chamber of Parliament (the Federation Council) to St. Petersburg. The idea did not please the governors and speakers of Far Eastern and Southern territories. In any case, the question lost its relevance once Putin dismantled the institution and replaced it with a State Council which has much less influence on central politics. Petersburgans were consoled by the sympathy and attention their city got from “their” man in Moscow, but soon again they were disenchanted, when they realised that there was nearly no professional civil servant left in the corridors of Petersburg’s power organs, since all had left to work in federal administrations in Moscow.

Despite the fact that St. Petersburg is satisfied with being only n° 2 city of Russia, it feels permanently aggressed by Moscow’s prominence and thirst. To take but one example, the August 1998 default was presented in Petersburg discourses as a disaster caused by Moscow-based financial speculation and a justification for why the city was in a de facto situation of seizing as much economic autonomy as it could swallow. In September 1998, Governor Yakovlev was prompt to tell his foreign homologues and potential investors from the business community - “but there is another Russia!” in his opening speech to the Second Forum of Baltic Sea Major Cities [Malinin (1998)].

The ancestral opposition between the two cities was particularly exacerbated at the moment of renaming – a democratic and autonomous step taken by Leningrad that Moscow elites considered with a dark eye. Moscovites were scrupulous in avoiding to pass the Petersburg renaming on to their home topography. The “Leningrad” railway station (Leningradskii vokzal) in Moscow, for example, has not been renamed, though the hall of “Moscow” railway station (Moskovskii vokzal) in Petersburg, as if to remind who’s the master in town, welcomes passengers arriving from the capital with a bust of Peter the Great (nicknamed “the hairy”). Moscovites have still not dropped the old nickname they gave the meeting-point under Lenin’s statue, whose “bald stone” head lorded the hall in the Soviet times. The “Leningradskii vokzal” image has also been extended since 2000 to characterise humorously any place where there is a big concentration of Petersburgans – for example the White House, siege of the federal government in Moscow.

Refusing change? Deciphering the city’s relations with Lenoblast’

Leningrad oblast’ (abbrev. Lenoblast’), a region surrounding St. Petersburg from Vyborg in the North to Eastern Estonia on the Southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, has not followed the city on the tracks of renaming. Leningrad oblast’ was created in 1927. This rural territory was detached from the eponym city in 1931 and still navigates on its own as one of the 89 subjects of the post-1993 Russian Federation. Lenoblast’ has kept its “Leningrad” appellation mainly for practical reasons. Pronunciation of “Sankt-Peterburgskaya oblast’” is uneasy. Renaming would have been too costly for a population whose standard of living lagged far behind average. In the early 1990s, there was no guarantee that the population, traditionally less reformist than in town [19], would vote for de-naming Leningrad oblast’ or have it administered by the landlords of Smolnyi. The situation is radically different now, allowing to question why merging has still not taken place, though Putin, at least in principle, is favourable to the project. Since 2000, Lenoblast’ has a positive budget balance and joined St. Petersburg among the ten only donor subjects to the federal budget. This and an investment-friendly legislation have turned the oblast’ into one of the most attractive for foreign capital. The financial burden of fusion could thus be shared more equitably than a decade ago. Fusion is not a step in the unknown and in any case, most local organs of ministerial power – the military, the police, the natural catastrophe institutions - are already integrated de facto. Students go to the same universities, Lenoblast’ politicians have their office in downtown St. Petersburg, and Petersburgans go to the datcha in the oblast’ on holidays (a situation denounced by Lenoblast’, which does not see a rouble of the tax on revenues these people pay to the city budget).

The absorption of Lenoblast’ by the city (the most likely variant of fusion) would imply the creation of a 7 million inhabitants metropolis having direct territorial border with Finland and Estonia. Such a project was envisaged on many occasions since 1991 and especially in 1998, when the oblast’ governor, Vadim Gustov, spent a few months in Primakov’s government as Minister for regional policy and nationalities. Fusion city and its hinterland would unify the area’s transportation system (St. Petersburg would gain control over “new” ports and oil terminals located in the Lenoblast’ – Primorsk, Batareynaya Bay, Ust’ Luga), turning the territory into a major industrial and transport hub, competitive at a pan-European scale.

The first logical explanation why fusion is postponed is that local politicians would lose constitutional representation at federal level (half of the parliamentarians would have to give up their electoral mandate, and bureaucracy also be cut). A dual or turning presidency of the city administration and legislative assembly should be a fair feature, yet the federal experience of having a Russian vice-president, from 1991 to 1993, did not prove very satisfactory in terms of political stability. An alternative explanation is that ideally, effective fusion requires integrating infrastructures, harmonising legislation and policies before the unity is actually proclaimed. Probably drawing the lesson from Leningrad/St. Petersburg’s renaming, the local elite seems to prefer a wait and see tactic in the matter, knowing that reunification could not be done in one night, since it needs a 2/3 majority vote of the Russian Parliament to amend the Constitution. As for public opinion, it oscillates between indifferent and favourable, at the exception of the partisans of recreating Ingermanland, who envisage a territorial absorption of the city by the oblast’ for the sake of secession and association with a Confederal Finland or a Europe of Regions. [20] Going beyond St. Petersburg, for the 500 supporters of the “Ingermanland Party”, means establishing free city-state within the Russian Federation, much in the style of Novgorod the Great, whose golden age as a “democratic republic” had depended mainly on its trade relations with other city-states of the Hanseatic League. The Ingermanland Party appeared in 1997 and stopped updating its web page about two years later for unknown reasons. The least one can say is that the Ingermanland project, which includes issuing a special local “Petersburg citizenship”, is very marginal – yet the confederal idea is not inexistent, especially when it comes to seriously examining the opportunity for Russia to develop “Euro-regions” among its borderland regions with neighbour EU ones. The Euro-region Karelia, established in February 2000, is often recalled by the Russian leadership as a model for further regional integration between Russia and the EU. [21]

Another plausible explanation for the “non-choice” concerning re-unification of St. Petersburg and Lenoblast’ is that “federals” might just not be favourable to the project, on the ground that fusion opens a Pandora’s box for claims of territorial changes elsewhere in the Russian Federation, starting with Moscow and Moscow oblast’ which would have to unite in order to sustain competition from the Northern megapolis. The Petersburg/Leningrad case could well serve as a precedent for Tatarstan and Bashkortostan Republics to fusion and develop centrifugal trends, or for the Lebed’ brothers to unite Krasnoyarsk kray with the Khakassiya Republic. [Hedenskog (1999)]. The accidental death of the elder brother, General Aleksandr Lebed’, governor of the wide Siberian territory, cut this prospect short.

Fusion is always in conversations, yet it remains out of the agenda in St. Petersburg/Leningrad. The Kremlin for its part gives priority to other kinds of geopolitical restructuring in the federative units, within wider wholes, the Federal Districts, drawn by the Spring 2000 reforms according to pre-existing military boundaries. No surprise then, the Leningrad Military District was not renamed “St. Petersburg military district” neither. Military and their family of the Kronstadt garrison island (a closed district of Leningrad city, whose electors voted the more massively against renaming in June 1991) would probably not stand it, nor would the central headquarters of the Russian Ministry of Defence. Student soldiers of the Baltic Fleet and officers of military academies downtown probably show a stronger patriotic fibre under the red flag and the Leningrad appellation than the archaic coat of arms of St. Petersburg the “cultural” capital.

City of federal importance and importance in the Federation – the status issue

The prospect of renaming went hand in hand with discussions over the issue of St. Petersburg’s legal status within the new Russian Federation. Some feared renaming could be a step towards regional autonomy, if not secession of St. Petersburg, though most intellectuals knew that efforts towards self-improvement might be more useful for the city than any violent independence-seizing from homeland Russia. Analysing the debates of 1991 and their extension until late 1998 reveals that three options were envisaged.

Firstly, local elites claimed a constitutional elevation of the city’s status to that of a (free) Republic, with exclusive prerogatives and limited autonomy from the Federation. Secondly, especially after Putin’s accession to presidential power, the returning to St. Petersburg of part of the federal institutions, rather than the full accession to the status of “federal capital”, has been examined. Thirdly, the idea that St. Petersburg could fulfil a special diplomatic mission in Russia’s relations with European partners gained prominence in the debate over St. Petersburg’s status during the 2003 Jubilee.

The Petersburg idea has been the driving force of popular-political movements aiming at elevating the status of the city to that of a Neva Republic, a proposal defended by Marina Salie in 1991 and re-actualised in 1993 under the appellation Nevskii Krai (Neva territory). In 1991-92, the debate revolved more specifically around the project of establishing an urban territory with economic self-administration (the model proposed by Chubays and his colleagues from the Leontieff Centre, who tried to turn the city’s industrial field into a “zone of free entrepreneurship” in the early 1990s). As the economist Dmitrii Travin (1994) argued, the new St. Petersburg meant to be a model and a locomotive for late perestroika liberal reforms in the economic field, a mission that lost significance once ‘shock therapy’ liberalisation was generalised to the whole country. However, autonomy in fiscal, financial and monetary matters remained a battle horse of Igor’ Artemev, a Yabloko economist elected deputy at the State Duma and who was called by Yakovlev to take part in the gubernatorial team from 1996 to 1998 as vice-governor in charge of the City’s Finance Committee.

On 25 April 1993, the issue of granting St. Petersburg republican status came back on the agenda with the holding of another consultation of the city’s population, simultaneously with the all-Russian referendum organised by Yeltsin to back his policy [Matskevich (1993)]. The St. Petersburg Municipal Council added two questions to the four that the federal government was asking. The first, dear to Anatoly Sobchak, who, as a jurist and democrat, took part in the writing of the federal Constitution of 1993, asked Petersburgans whether they wanted the new Constitution to be “elaborated by an elected Constitutive Assembly and validated by a majority vote of the 89 subjects of the Russian Federation”. To this and the second question, on the prospect of “elevating the status of St. Petersburg to that of a subject of the Federation enjoying prerogatives similar to that of Republics”, 70% of the Petersburgan electors answered positively [Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti (1993)]. Despite this popular support, St. Petersburg did not succeed in “confederalising” its belonging to the Russian whole until the bilateral agreement the newly-elected governor Yakovlev signed with Boris Yeltsin in June 1996, that specified what being constitutionally a “city of federal importance” meant. The agreement, similar in that to the one Tatarstan Republic had signed in February 1994 with the federal centre, guaranteed that St. Petersburg would always get at least as much exclusive competences as the other subjects of the Russian Federation, including Republics. In January 1998, against Yakovlev’s will, the City Legislative Assembly adopted a Charter (Ustav) delimitating the principles of government of St. Petersburg. This first ever “Petersburg” constitution consolidated the city’s autonomy, clarified the sharing of prerogatives and obligations between central and municipal-regional organs of power that the Russian Constitution had left unexplained, especially in the fiscal and budgetary fields. Central medias interpreted this move as one towards getting more independence or even getting ready for secession [Ezhelev (1998)], a prospect that gained higher probability in 1998-1999 when intra-federative solidarity became seriously challenged both in the central institutions and in peripheral regions.

By the mid-1990s, the secessionist idea had started to contaminate St. Petersburg very seriously and the “Great Petersburg dream” win in popularity over that of securing a unitary Russia [Granin (1997)]. In April 1996, the young philosopher and writer Daniila Lanin registered the “Movement for the Autonomy of St. Petersburg” (Svobodniy Peterburg - Dvizhenie za Avtonomiyu), which lobbied the idea of granting the city the right to full self-determination, including in looking for ways to realise the autonomous development of the city within the enlarging Europe. [22] Contributions to this very animated debate on the status and mission of the “free” St. Petersburg were published by local newspapers like Smena, Nevskoe Vremya and especially Chas Pik [23].

The movement for the autonomy from the federal centre emphasised the need for St. Petersburg to become a free seaport city with independent rights much similar to that of Hamburg [Anufriev (1997)]. The idea of a “soft” separation from Russia and a pragmatic association to the European economic space reached its top popularity in 1997-1998, when several conferences were organised for intellectuals, historians, sociologists, economists and politicians to debate over the opportunity of separating Petersburg’s destiny from the misfortunes of unsuccessful economic reforms, “brown-red” reaction and governmental crisis [Round-table (1998)]. The argument was that St. Petersburg was not like the rest of Russia, which is as “Asian” and “barbarian” as Moscow [Startsev (1998)], and thus deserved to help itself out of the all-Russian chaos with the help of European/Western partners. Contrary to what happened simultaneously in ethnic-based national Republics, the “free Petersburg” idea did not intend to threaten the unity of the federal state [Kotsyubinskii (1998a)], but rather aimed at gaining more relative autonomy for testing “third way” reforms the centre was too shivery to impose. Most defenders of the “free-city” model believed that, in case Russia turned into a collapsed state or radicalised its anti-Western stance, a preliminary experience of autonomy, a Republican status and good relations with European neighbours, including the EU and NATO, would represent a honourable emergency exit for Petersburgans. This was seen as the only trumps to save the democratic acquis of post-Soviet St. Petersburg from the turmoil that eventually threatened Russian federalism after the August 1998 crisis.

One might argue that the “Times of Troubles” have been left behind since Putin was named Prime Minister of the federal government in August 1999. The latest developments reveal a shift to another kind of discourse – that St. Petersburg was called by Putin to play a concretely more important (however not formalised on paper by the Constitution) role in federal affairs and has thus far more leverage in Moscow to have its interests better taken into consideration by federal decision-makers. The substitution of Viktor Cherkesov as Representative of the President in the North-West Federal District by ex-Minister for social affairs and previous Ambassador Valentina Matvienko, appointed on 11 March 2003 to supervise North-West affairs and the Jubilee in St. Petersburg, seems to confirm this trend. The secessionist discourse has lost its popularity together with the improvement of the local and all-Russian economic situation. Nowadays, it has nearly been eradicated from the Petersburg idea thematic, which tends to focus on the external economic and “image-making” challenges the city faces to succeed in placing itself within the pan-European trade networks with improved transport infrastructures. The city leadership, ambitioning to turn Petersburg into a major transport hub within the Wider Europe, has carefully considered the opportunity the EU’s Northern Dimension represents for strategic development planning until 2015 [Marin in Conference (2003)]. Current discourses on the good of people-to-people contacts (between Petersburg civil servants, NGOs, scientists, youth and artists with their homologues abroad) reveal that the new St. Petersburg succeeded in mobilising its intellectual potential to compete with other urban centres on a regional and international scale, thus inaugurating a network civil society in which Petersburgans can feel at home [Megaregion (2002)]. In a post-modern view, being a capital city is not only a matter of official status, as evidenced by the fact that many world “second capitals” keep or gain residual sovereignty over their own cultural, economic and foreign political affairs. [24]

The third way – Russia’s diplomatic capital in Europe

The election of Vladimir Putin, a Leningrad native, President of the Russian Federation in March 2000 gave the city a new breath to exploit its inner resources and consider alternative opportunities that were not envisaged similarly ten years before. Democracy, transparency and market are undisputed realities of the city’s political orientations, but pragmatism now dominates the picture. The international arena and the project of being a financial centre are not as central in the city administration’s programme than under Sobchak, though the dream of becoming an “international cultural tourism centre” is still topical.

The EU is Petersburg’s most important partner according to official trade statistics, but all priorities are not indebted to this marker, since the “new” St. Petersburg is increasingly turning to the East and cooperation with India, Central Asia and North-Korea. Europe did not provide in time appropriate answers to the questions the new St. Petersburg was asking itself. The European Commission has a series of Recommendations over Kaliningrad, an all-embracing regional action plan for the external and cross-border policies of the 15, the Northern Dimension [25], but it has no common foreign policy in relation to St. Petersburg. The EU was noticeably absent from the Jubilee celebrations: despite the fact that Petersburg hosted an EU-Russia Summit in May 2003 and that the “window to Europe” myth was central in the feast, the EU hardly penetrated the market of dreams of the celebrations. All birthday presents sent to the city were nationally identifiable – the Flowered Clocks from Geneva, the Voltaire library fund from France, fragments of the Amber Room by Germany, elephants from Nigeria. One should only but complain that there was no joint implication of the Commission envoys in St. Petersburg during the jubilee preparations, nor any collective gift made “from Europe” to Petersburg, its best copy jewel in Russia.

The “21st century Petersburg” advertised by the Handbooks the City Committee for Investments provides foreign investors with is able to impose itself on arenas other than “European”– as an Eastern capital of the Baltic Sea area, as an administrative capital of Russia’s North-West, and as a bridge between Western and South-Asian markets. This is for the “local” urban development plan. Even if both discourses support each other, the one of Vladimir Putin concerning St. Petersburg’s “mission” is slightly different, since it puts forward the President’s birth city as Russia’s new diplomatic capital. Putin, nicknamed “Mayor n°2” by Petersburgans when he was heading the City Hall’s Committee for Foreign Economic Relations, just a few months after he had come back from intelligence service in Dresden, in 1990, was always near in Sobchak’s wake, however autocratic the mayor’s leadership is remembered to have been. It is said that having an appointment with Sobchak or getting an authorisation to open a joint venture in town at the time required his approval. At this post, Putin emphasised the “para-diplomatic” role of Petersburg, managing to “open” the city’s markets to foreign goods and investments and thus testing at a local scale the “civic business rules” he is now trying to establish in Russia and for the sake of the Russia-EU partnership [Marin (2002)].

Putin’s Petersburgan origins adds to the feeling that St. Petersburg’s destiny is, once again, intrinsically linked with and constitutive of all-Russian political developments. Vladimir Putin extends the myth of Petersburg’s Europeanity because of the tone and priorities of his foreign policy. He took the initiative for example of instituting a special Russian-German dialogue with young Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the so-called Petersburg Dialogue, which is a major informal leverage of Russia’s relations with the EU. The 2003 Jubilee, which gained its ambitious orientations under Putin’s patronage, clarified the face St. Petersburg intended to display in relation to the world and the fact that the city’s fame as a diplomatic capital did not stop at Europe’s borders. The time of a weekend, St. Petersburg was Russia’s capital, gathering 48 heads of state and governments from all over the world, all with numerous delegations, on the Neva banks and in the Konstantin Palace in Strel’na, from May 29th to June 1st. All went well, the city was showered with praises and important steps were made in the Russia-EU rapprochement, especially on the issue of visa regime.

Discourses of and on St. Petersburg now tend to emphasise the city’s position as a “Northern” capital. Questioning and emphasising the city’s position in the Russian North-West and within the Baltic Sea region became a new orientation of researchers and political advisers in St. Petersburg. These regional geographies of St. Petersburg’s belonging to the community of civilised cities re-emerged in the course of the 1990s and culminated on the fringe of the Tercentenary Jubilee [Conference (2003)].

Initial re-orientation to neighbour Baltic partners occurred first for pragmatic reasons (Finns and Germans were among the first tourists and investors who re-appeared in St. Petersburg). Trade with Estonia and Latvia also developed in the course of 1995-1998. Under Governor Yakovlev, the para-diplomatic line of St. Petersburg’s economic policies clearly meant to emphasise priorities at regional level [Marin (2002)]. Vladimir Churov, head of the international cooperation department of the City Hall’s External Affairs Committee, was an important artisan of the rapprochement with the Nordic and Baltic states, thus positioning Petersburg in the Northern Dimension project of the European Commission as early as 1997. St. Petersburg’s administrative and legislative organs of power participate in various regional organisations at different levels – the Council of the Baltic Sea states (CBSS), the Union of Baltic Cities, the Baltic Troika (with Stockholm and Helsinki) the Eurocity network, the Committee of Maritime Border Regions of Europe (Council of Europe), etc. One local radio bears this nickname (Severnaya Stolitsa) and the idea is recalled in the city’s handbooks for investors and tourists – St. Petersburg, with 5 million inhabitants, is the biggest European metropolis northern of the 60th parallel. Didn’t Peter the Great call it affectionately his “Northern Paradise”? The Northern Venice, the Northern Amsterdam, the Northern Palmyra are other nicknames the city recovered, together with fame in Europe, in the early 2000s. Being the “Northern Capital” is probably more honourable than remaining Russia’s “only second” capital indefinitely. In the late 19th century, when French-Russian relations ameliorated and Alexander III was welcomed in Paris, didn’t the French press wrote that the Russian tsar was coming “from the North”? It’s only with the Cold War that St. Petersburg/Leningrad became “Eastern”, which is just a matter of viewpoint, since for average Russians the city is nothing but “Western” and therefore not fully “Russian”.


In de-naming Petrograd (1914-1924) after Lenin’s death, Stalin intended to impose the “new” Leningrad citizens a symbolic screed, that of ever defending the Father of the Revolution’s memory against foes, from outside (the West) and especially from inside. In this sense, the de-naming of Leningrad in 1991 augured well of the revolution towards re-opening the city that mayor Anatoly Sobchak implemented from 1991 to 1996.

The renaming of St. Petersburg represented more than a mere “restoration” of what was before the Soviet dream Leningrad had incarnated since the 1920s, yet it amounted to less than a “rebirth” of what had made the city’s identity, the force and prestige of Petersburg three centuries ago. For the local population, killing Leningrad was a catharsis act of breaking away with the Soviet ideology and system.

Capital of paradoxes, contra(-)dictions and forced reforms, St. Petersburg was born again after a vehement, but peaceful, opposition between those who were called this time “reactionaries” (partisans of Leningrad) and the “democrat reformists” who organised the local popular consultation that led to the victory of the city’s “historical name”, St. Petersburg, on 12 June 1991. Since it was not followed by an elevation of the city’s constitutional status (not to talk of retransferring the federal capital back to the Neva shores), renaming missed a driving force that would have oriented towards the future the process of catharsis that went with renaming the city, its streets, squares and bridges. The young romantics of the early 1990s, who had no experience of government, business and foreign relations, dispatched their energy in all directions, and used the idea of renaming for egoistic and populist purposes, without looking too much into the notion of “change” and “Europe” embedded in it.

The strategic plan for developing the city’s economy that the Leontief Centre produced for City Hall in 1996-1997 made the “window to Europe” project more practicable in proclaiming St. Petersburg’s renewed role as a “gateway to Europe”. High political and business trends now tend to evidence that St. Petersburg, as a regional centre of Russia’s North-West and of the Baltic Sea area, is also a “springboard to Russia” for Europeans. Infrastructures still lack in order for the city (together or not with the Lenoblast’ remains to be seen) to proclaim itself an international transport hub, not to talk about the “Rotterdam complex” it already suffers from. Yet, in thinking the Petersburg megapolis as a bridge between Russia and Europe, the city’s policy-makers managed to do away with the ancestral “periphery complex” of being so eccentric relatively to Russia and Europe. To some extent, one can say that the city succeeded in assuming the mission of being Russia’s first Baltic Sea port and cultural/tourist/European/diplomatic capital again - a challenge that was implicitly embedded in the renaming project and priority in the strategic plan implemented by mayor Sobchak’s administration from 1991 to 1996.

One thing the democratic dream of the early 1990s “renamers” did not achieve is establishing a (Northern) European-like welfare-state system to solve social problems and guarantee the rule of law in local politics. Most foreign tourists who visited the city during the jubilee confessed their indignation as regards the money that was spent on prestigious manifestations in total disrespect for other emergencies like the poor living conditions of elderly people, the number of tramps and alcoholics wandering in the street and the absence of public toilets (probably hundreds times less numerous than beer selling-points). In that matter, not renaming nor the jubilee did help, since they reproduced only façade impressions to hide the street poverty that came back from another century, without trying to maintain the quality of the Soviet welfare and education institutions. In today’s Petersburg, working conditions, housing and the remaining prophylactic system lag far behind European standards. “Marginality”, “prostitution”, “drugs”, “AIDS”, words that appeared in the urban jargon together with “dollar”, “democracy” and “lifting barriers to Europe”, contributed to spoil the memory of the changes that occurred in 1991. “In Leningrad, there were not such things!” – here the nostalgic “defenders of Leningrad” definitely have a point. Criminality, corruption, the fleece practiced by the police, the “economy of favours” well described by Alena Ledeneva (1998), and the daily increase of “command” punch-ups and murders gave Petersburg a “capital of crime” reputation, propagated by Boris Nemtsov after the assassination of deputy Galina Starovoytova in November 1998 in front of her flat on Griboedov canal.

“St. Petersburg’s renaming did not solve Leningrad’s problems” - yet renaming structured the local political scene and provided a discursive toolbox for the artisans of reforms, giving them some assurance that St. Peter will protect the new regime from the assaults of counter-revolution. This paper has shown how the original debates over renaming divided society and its history in Manichean frames of “old” and “new”, a permanent opposition that was furthered by collective memory and that still operates for example in the remaining Petersburg/Moscow competition. Debates on the Petersburg idea, the Petersburg self (call it ethnos, identity, nationality, even religion!) and the Petersburg mission have fed a prolific process of upgrading the original myths, narratives and symbols that were borrowed from the Petersburg text by “renamers”. The proposals to elevate the city’s status to that of a Republic of the Russian Federation, to lay down its budgetary autonomy from Moscow and to guarantee its independence in terms of development orientations, including through foreign economic relations, were made in the course of the 1990s by the same intellectuals who had de-named Leningrad in 1991.

For Western observers, the “European” self of St. Petersburg is the main Ariadne’s clew to decipher and re-construct the city’s identity, in the wake of Peter the Great who is usually thought to have founded “his” city on “nothing” to “open a window on to Europe”. Petersburgans’ patriotism now oscillates between other things than Russian (us) and Western (them), yet they cannot feel at home in the middle, if it is Europe. The European is still “the other” Petersburg should imitate in order to become fully civilised, making the “Europeanity” of Petersburgans a constitutive element of a vast contemporary mythology. One could argue forever whether the Petersburg of now and then is European (“European only”, “European enough” are but variations). Reality, to my mind, lies more interestingly in the growing flows of people, goods, services and ideas that filled up the vacuum of Petersburg’s dialogue with its European model partners since the city name came back on the maps in 1991. My argument is that only from this societal dialogue, which developed most of all with the nearest, Northernmost, of St. Petersburg’s European neighbours (Finland, Sweden, Germany, etc.), can the symbolic boundaries laid down at the time of renaming be overridden.

To some extent, the process of de-naming and re-naming allowed to investigate the common “pre-Russian” and “pre-European” past the city shares with its neighbours of the Baltic Sea area. Markers in this re-explored history and especially in the new-discovered “pre-Petrovian Petersburg” revealed far less unproblematic than it seemed. Positioning the new St. Petersburg as the successor city-state of other pre-Petrine mythical places in the Russian North – Staraya Ladoga (now considered to be the oldest capital city of Russia), Novgorod the Great and Arkhangel’sk - gives the current Petersburg historiography a chance to draw the link between St. Petersburg and Europe through the platform of being a Nordic people. According to historians, Petrograd-Leningrad kept its title of “Northern” and “second” capital until the early 1930s, after what the word “capital” became taboo for more than two generations of Leningraders. It is only by the early 1990s that the expression “Northern Capital” was re-introduced by Petersburgans in discourses on the local “national identity”. In their minds, “Northern” (Karelian for example) and Scandinavian people are calmer, colder and more serious (the “hot” Finn or Estonian guy of Russian anecdotes) than average Russians, with the temperament of whom they cannot cope. The traits of these “near abroad foreigners” of the Baltic Sea area evolved over the past decade though, as evidenced by the fact that a Finn, Ville Haapasalo, stars in the serial films “Specificities of the Russian national hunting” (Osobennosti natsional’noy okhoty). More seriously, the nearest neighbours have more significance for the economic growth, cultural development and self-assertion as a civilised city of St. Petersburg than its “far abroad” trade partners, say the United States or South-East Asian countries. The last section of the paper, which tried to go beyond the Russian/European dichotomy as a dominant feature of the Petersburg self, attempted to evidence that the Northern dimension of Petersburg’s “Europeanity” is not only topical in current debates over the city’s identity. It is also recognised as probably the best symbolic, socio-economic and political platform for Petersburg’s effective integration into a space of regions and networks at a European scale.

The Tercentenary preparation and the media coverage of the 2003 celebrations in St. Petersburg (no “Leningrad” was invited to the party) allowed for important steps to be made to question the past and determine, not which identity cements the Petersburgan collective (this everybody knew), but rather, like Tchernyshevskii, chto delat’? what to do? in other words - how to develop the city’s cultural, scientific, and industrial potential without losing Petersburgs’s soul to the mermaids of capitalism, Westernisation and post-modernity. This question was in the air during the renaming process, yet Petersburgans went through many crises, deceptions and efforts in order for these stakes to be provided with effective answers ever since 1991 and especially since Vladimir Putin’s accession to the Russian presidency.

1. Local Russian-speaking newspapers used for this research are Vechernyi Leningrad/Vechernyi Peterburg, (Peterburgskii) Chas Pik, Leningradskaya Pravda/Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti, Nevskoe Vremya, Smena.

2. Available publications in Russian include a 1995 handbook of renamed streets [Ulitsy Sankt-Peterburga] and an Encyclopaedia of places [Toponimicheskaya Entsiklopediya Sankt-Peterburga (2002)].

3. Among those effective partisans of re-naming St. Petersburg, local Yabloko Party member Boris Vishnevsky (2003) notices the following – Vitaly Skoybeda, Aleksei Kovalev, Viktor Smirnov, Andrey Boltyansky, Aleksandr Shishlov, Mikhail Gorny, Vladimir Zharov, Aleksandr Patiev, Mikhail Begak, Sergey Egorov.

4. In Russian language, and more especially when it comes to the natsional’nost’ of St. Petersburg, one should introduce the word “identity” rather than speak of “nationality” or “nation” (which remind “nationalism”). There is no Petersburgan nationalism, but rather, in the terms of Morozov (2002: 6), a “city-identity” with no nationally embedded feeling of the self, though sometimes the formula “Petersburg ethnos” [Lanin (1998)] is used.

5. Psychologist A.I. Yur’ev [“Prednaznachenie Sankt-Peterburga dlya sudeb Rossii” in Conference (1999: 5)], commenting on the city’s “predestination” in Russia, enlarged the medical/ecological concept of biocenosis to Petersburg and affirmed that “any city in the world can be considered an element of a specific ‘city-cenosis’ (‘gorodotsenoza’), within which each occupies its room alongside others and fulfils a distinctive social function”. This perception of the city as a node pertaining to a system and interacting with its environment one finds among IR theorists who extend the tools of network sociology to the analysis of “extroverted” cities.

6. “A mozhet byt’ tol’ko ‘Marinka’?” Smena 20 June 1990.

7. Decision n° 98, 20 February 1989, Byulleten’ Ispolkoma Leningradskovo Gorodskovo Soveta Narodnykh Deputatov, n° 7, 1989, p. 1. The Leningrad decision of de-naming the district called after A.A. Jdanov was officially endorsed by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on 30 March 1989

8. Aleksander Sungurov (“Strategy” Centre), Alexei Titkov, Yurii Vdovin (Civil Society Centre) Leonid Limonov (Leontieff Centre), Vladimir Gel’man (European University at St. Petersburg), Viktor Voronkov (Independent Social Research Centre), Tatiana Nakorenok (Cultural-Social Centre “Na Pushkinskoy”) Vatanyar Yaguia (Legislative Assembly, head of the International Relations Commission), Boris Kuznetsov, Konstantin Khudoley (Faculty of International Relations), Vladimir Bol’shakov and others.

9. Cf. 7th session of the 21st Leningrad Soviet of Peoples Deputies, Decision n° 25, 30 April 1991

10. It is true that St. Petersburg never had any elected mayor. Still, as early as 1710, Peter nominated a “police commander” (Menshikov) who managed most aspects of the city’s life, including concerning flows of goods and people, work at the shipyards and security matters. His prerogatives and autonomy from the Tsar’s administration was, however, limited, as were those of the Leningrad executives from the Party. That is why Sobchak’s election amounted to such radical change in terms of autonomous political power of the local leadership.

11. The Leningrad Philharmony, founded in 1921 and called after Shostakovich, was the first such concert hall established in the Soviet Union. In the minds of citizens, it is associated to the resistance of besieged Leningrad to Nazi bombs – which were raining around the building on 9 August 1941 when the Symphony n° 7 (“Leningrad”) was performed.

12. “El’tsin, Sobchak, Sankt-Peterburg. Itogi: natsional’noe soglasie”, Vecherniy Leningrad, 14 June 1991. Statistics did not take into consideration non-voters, otherwise it would be fairer to assess that 35,49% of all the citizens with the right to vote chose the “yes”, and 27,61% rejected the proposal of renaming Leningrad St. Petersburg. These figures were put forward by defenders of Leningrad who objected in court that the wording of the question, which made the “yes” sound so natural, had deprived them of a third of the votes.

13. Kuybyshev was turned back into Samara, Gor’kii into Nizhny-Novgorod, Kalinin into Tver’, Jdanov into Marnupol, Ordjonikidze into Vladikavkaz, Leninabad into Khodzhent, etc.

14. Aleksandr Gertsen, “Moskva i Peterburg“ (1842) in Kralina (1988: 50) [my translation]

15. In September 1941, Anna Akhmatova declared on the Leningrad radio “The city of Peter, the city of Lenin, the city of Pushkin, Dostoevskii and Blok, a city of great culture and work the enemy threatens with death and ignominy. (…) All my life is linked with Leningrad – in Leningrad I became a poet, Leningrad became the inspiration of my verses.” in Kralina (1988: 184).

16. On 28 April 1991, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1991) published a “letter to the inhabitants of the city on the Neva”, in which he proposed to call the city “Svyato-Petrograd” (Saint-Petrograd, with a Russian form of “saint”) and to open the referendum to whole-Russian participation, a prospect that made the “Mit’ki” of Rubinstein street laugh a lot.

17. See the contributions by Pertti Joenniemi, Viatcheslav Morozov, Max Engman, Marko Lehti and Dmitry Spivak at the Conference “St. Petersburg – Russian, European and Beyond” organised by Turku and St. Petersburg universities, St. Petersburg, Faculty of International Relations, 13-14 June 2003

18. See Peterburgskyi Chas Pik (February 18th), Smena (February 20th) and Vestnik Sankt-Peterburgskovo Universiteta, n° 6, 1998.

19. Since decades, popular consultation and election results in the Lenoblast’ are the nearest to the all-Russian average, turning the region’s electorate into a sociological test standard revelatory of the political orientations in the whole country, including as concerns the share of communist votes which would be hostile to de-naming.

20. See the website of the organisation “Vol’nyi Peterburg – Partiya Ingermanland” on www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Congress/1433/index.htm

21. This is the case in the Strategy for the Development of Relations with the European Union in a mid-term perspective (2000-2010) presented by Russia in Helsinki in October 1999, as well as in Russian documents answering to the EU’s Northern Dimension or proposing a Strategic Plan for the development of the North-West Federal District until 2015.

22. The Movement for the Autonomy of St. Petersburg details its programme and provide press releases on the issue of Petersburg’s identity and place in Russia and the world on the website www.alkor.ru/page/freespb

23. Chas Pik is a local weekly that offered Petersburgans an arena for debate on the city’s “national idea”, “mission”, “way”, etc. all through the 1990s. It was founded in 1991, renamed Peterburgskii Chas Pik in 1998. By then, one of its redactors, Daniil Kotsyubinskii, had established, together with colleagues from Smena and Nevskoe Vremya, a discussion platform dedicated to the issue of the autonomy of St. Petersburg, which organised round-tables and political agitation (cf. www.alkor.ru/page/freespb). Chas Pik’s chief redactor since 1990 is Natalya Chaplina, wife of Viktor Cherkesov, a Leningrad KGB nomenklaturist who was for the past two years Representative of the Russian President in the North-West Federal District.

24. Examples include, in other federal or regionalised states: Barcelona, Spain (capital – Madrid), Rio de Janeiro, Brasil (with capital in Brazilia), Lagos, Nigeria (with capital in Abuja), Abidjan, Ivory Coast (with capital in Yamoussoukro), Sydney, Australia (capital Brisbane, then Canberra), Bombay, India (capital New Dehli), or, among St. Petersburg’s sister cities, Rotterdam, Osaka, Turku, Tartu, Cracow, Bordeaux.

25. See the Commission DG Relex webpage http://europa.eu.int/comm/external_relations/north_dim/index.htm


Selected bibliography


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BELELYUBSKII, F. & SOROKIN, A. (1991) “Kak Peterburg stal Leningradom” Pravda 31 May 1991.

BELENKOV, O. (1991a) “Margarinovyi pereulok, ili zigzagi toponimiki” Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti, 20 December 1991

BELENKOV, O. (1991b) “Pereimenovanie” Panorama, N° 10, 1991, p. 11-13

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CHESANOVA, Tatiana (1991) “Kak chelovek, gorod dolzhen nosit’ imya, dannoe emu pri rozhdenii”, interview of Anatoly Sobchak by Italian TV and the US Associated Press, Nevskoe Vremya, 8 June 1991

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KESSEL’MAN, Leonid (1991) “Sankt-Peterburg poka nam tol’ko snitsya” Chas Pik 10 June 1991, p. 8

KOTSYUBINSKII, Daniil (1994) “Velikii gorod dolzhen byt’ velikim” Chas Pik 12 October 1994

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KOTSYUBINSKII, Daniil (1998a) “Chem svoboda otlichaetsya ot nezavisimosti?” Smena 10 February 1998

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ANNEX 1 –districts (rayony) of Leningrad before and after their renaming

Soviet district name


post-1989 district name

Zhdanovskii (Jdanov)

Primorskii (Maritime)

Leninskii (Lenin)

Kalininskii (Kalinin)

Oktyabr’skii (October)

Admiralteyskii (Admiral), Kolomna

Kuybyshevskii (Kuybyshev)

Tsentral’niy (Central)

Frunzenskii (Frounze)


Kirovskii (Kirov)


Petrogradskii (Petrograd)


(source: 1988 Leningrad map and 1998 St. Petersburg map)

ANNEX 2 – the estimated cost of “returning St. Petersburg
its historical name”

Objects of renaming

Estimated cost

(in million roubles, May 1991)

Sociological study and popular consultation (referendum)


Signboards for 24 000 local companies


Preparation of new postmarks and official stamps


Editing of new official blanks


Issuance of official identity documents and permits


Spending for the local Interior Ministry organs (police)


Spending for Social Security institutions


Spending for transport and telecommunications structures






Source: Lensoviet (1991) – local official statistics

ANNEX 3 - Streets of St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad

and the “new” St. Petersburg: a selection of re-namings

(source: Il’ya Lapin, www.fragments.spb.ru)


City naming: key dates


27 May 1703 = ‘St. Petersburg’ founded by Peter the Great

18 August 1914 (new system) = ‘Petrograd’

12 March 1918 = RSFSR capital transferred to Moscow

26 January 1924 = ‘Leningrad’

12 June 1991 = referendum on renaming

6 September 1991 = ‘St. Petersburg’

Translated abbreviations


naberezhnaya (nab.) = embankment (emb.)

ulitsa (ul.) = street (st.)

prospekt (pr.) = perspective, avenue (av.)

ploshchad’ (pl.) = square (sq.)

bul’var (blv.) = boulevard (bd.)

Year in brackets = date of (re-)naming


1918 = 10 October 1918

1924 = 22 January 1924

1944 = 13 January 1944

1989 = 27 February 1989

1991 = 4 October 1991

1993 = 7 July 1993

Post-war toponymic renaming (1940s-1950s)




Nevskii pr. (Neva ave.)

Pr. Dvadtsat’ Pyatovo Oktyabrya (October 25 ave.) (1918)

Nevskii pr. (Neva ave.) (1944)

Dvortsovaya pl. (Palace sq.)

Pl. Uritskovo (Uritsky sq.) (1918?)

Dvortsovaya pl. (1944)

Dvortsovaya nab. (Palace emb.)

Nab. Devyatovo Yanvaria (January 9th emb.) (1923)

Dvortsovaya nab. (1944)

Izmailovskii pr. (Ismail ave.)

Pr. Krasnykh Komandirov (Red Commanders’ ave.) (1923)

Izmailovskii pr. (1944)

Isaakievskaya pl. (Isaac sq.)

Pl. Vorovskovo (Vorovskii sq.) (1923)

Isaakievskaya pl. (1944)

Aleksandro-Nevskaya pl. (Alexandre Nevsky sq.)

Krasnaya pl. (Red sq.) (1923)

Aleksandro-Nevskaya pl. (1952)

Marsovo pole

Pl. Zhertv Revolyutsii (Revolution’s Victims sq.) (1918)

Marsovo pole (1944)

Suvorovskii pr. (Suvorov ave.)

Sovietskii pr. (Soviet ave.) (1918)

Suvorovskii pr. (1944)

Frantsuzskaya nab. (French emb.)

Nab. Zhoresa (Jaures emb.) (1918)

Nab. Kutuzova (Koutouzov emb.) (1945)

Vladimirskii pr. (Vladimir (icon) ave.)

Pr. Nakhimsona (Nakhimson av.) (1918)

Vladimirskii pr. (1944)

Un-renamed toponymies


 Communist and Post-Soviet

Bol’shaya Dvoryanskaya ul.

Ul. Kuybysheva (1918)

1-aya ul. Derevenskoy Bednoty (First Poor Peasants’ st.) (1936) 

Blagoveshchenskaya pl. (Annunciation sq.)

Pl. Truda (Work square) 

Ivanovskaya pl. (Ivanov sq.)

Sotsialisticheskaya ul.(Socialist st.) 

Kalashnikovskii pr.

Pr. Bakunina (Bakounine ave.) 

Voskresenskaya nab. (Resurrection emb.)

Smol’naya nab. (Tar emb.)  

Nab. Robesp’era (Robespierre emb.)

Kadetskaya liniya (Cadet line)

S”ezdovskaya line (Congress line) 

Panteleymonovskaya ul.

Ul. Dekabrista Pestelya (1923) 

Rozhdestvenskaya ul. (lines) (Nativity st.)

1aya-10aya Sovetskaya ul. (Soviet streets One to Ten)

Post-1991 toponymic renaming




Admiraltel’skaya nab. (Admiral emb.)

Nab. Krasnovo Flota (Red Fleet Emb.) (1918)

Admiraltel’skaya nab. (1994)

Kazanskaya ul. (Kazan st.)

Ul. Plekhanova (Plekhanov st.) (1923)

Kazanskaya ul. (1998)

Troitskaya pl. (Trinity sq.)

Pl. Revolyutsii (Revolution sq.) (1923)

Troitskaya pl. (1991)

Troitskii most (Trinity bridge)

Most Ravenstva (Equality bridge) (1918)

Kirovskii most (Kirov bridge) (1934)

Troitskii most (1991)

Sennaya sq. (Hay sq.)

Pl. Mira (Peace sq.) (1952)

Sennaya sq. (Hay sq.) (1991)

Galernaya ul. (Galley st.)

Krasnaya ul. (Red st.) (1918)

Galernaya ul. (Galley st.) (1991)

Konnogvardeyskii bul’var’ (Horse Guard’s boulevard)

Blv. Professional’nykh Soyuzov (Profsoyuzov) Trade Unions blv.

Konnogvardeyskii blv. (1991)

Ul. Furmanova (Furmanov st.)

ul. Gertsena (Herzen st.) (1920)

Ul. Furmanova (1991)

Gagarinskaya ul. (1998)

Gorokhovaya ul. (Peas st.)

Komissarovskaya ul. (Commissar st.) (1918)

ul. Dzerzhinskovo (1927)

Gorokhovaya ul. (1991)

Ital’yanskaya ul. (Italian st.)

Ul. Rakova (?)

Ital’yanskaya ul. (1991)

Millionnaya ul.

ul. Khalturina (1918)

Millionnaya ul. (1991)

Kamennoostrovskii pr. (Stone Island ave.)

Ul. Krasnykh Zor’ (Red Sunsets st.) (1918)

Kirovskii pr. (Kirov ave.) (1934)

Kamennoostrovskii pr.(1991)

Konnogvardeyskii bul. (Horse Guard boulevard)

Blv. Profsoyuzov (Trade Unions blv.)

Konnogvardeyskii blv. (1991)

Lafonskaya pl.

pl. (Proletarskoy) Diktatury (1952)

pl. Rastrelli (1991)


Ul. M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrina

Ul. Kirochnaya (1998)

Rizhskii pr.

Pr. Ogorodnikova (Garderner’s ave.) (1923)

Rizhskii pr. (Riga ave.) (1991)

Kronverkskii pr.

Pr. Maksima Gor’kovo (Maxim Gor’ky’ ave.) (1932)

Kronverkskii pr. (1991)

Mikhailovskaya ul. (Michael’s st.)

Ul. Brodskovo (Brodsky st.) (1940)

Mikhailovskaya ul. (1991)

Staro-Petergofskii pr. (Old Peterhof ave.)

Pr. Gaza (Gaz ave.) (1933)

Staro-Petergofskii pr. (1991)

Panteleymonovskii most (Pantelemeon bridge)

Most Pestelya (Pestel’ bridge) (1923)

Gangutskii most (Gangut bridge?) (1989)

Bol’shoy Sampsonievskii pr. (Grand Samson ave.)

Pr. Karla Marksa (Karl Marx ave.) (1923)

Bol’shoy Sampsonievskii pr. (1991)

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