In blow to Lenin, St. Petersburg put back on the map THE SOVIET CRISIS

September 07, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- With his ideology and empire already in ruins, Vladimir I. Lenin's name was stripped yesterday from Russia's second-largest city, and Leningrad once again became St. Petersburg.

A vote of the presidium of the Russian Federation's parliament affirmed the preference of 54 percent of the city's residents for the original name, expressed in a referendum June 12, Tass reported.

The precise legal status of the name remains somewhat debatable, since some officials insist that only the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, the full republican parliament, has the right to make the change. As in so many other areas of legal and political life, the Soviet Union is reinventing itself, and nobody is sure of the rules.

But following the collapse of Communist rule, no one is likely to fight hard to preserve Leningrad. That battle was fought before the referendum, with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the Communist Party defending Leningrad, and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, Leningrad Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak and the Russian Orthodox Church all endorsing St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg -- "Sankt-Peterburg" in Russian -- was built in a northern swamp beginning in 1703 by the Russian Czar Peter the Great, who gave it the name of his patron saint and moved the capital there from Moscow in 1712. Despite the deterioration suffered in recent years, its Italianate buildings are still considered one of the glories of world architecture.

In 1914, the city was renamed Petrograd, a Russian coinage meant to replace the German "burg" as Russia went to war with the Germans. In 1918, Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow. In 1924, after Lenin's death, the city on the Neva River was renamed for him.

St. Petersburg is only the latest, and best known, of many Soviet cities, streets and squares that have seen their historical names returned over the past two years.

In part, the restoration reflects the Soviet cities' and republics' attempt to recapture their pre-1917 history, discarded or distorted by generations of Communist historians. In part, the renaming is a political act, replacing Marxist-Leninist ideology with local nationalism.

Just this week, residents of the Ural Mountains industrial center of Sverdlovsk, renamed for Bolshevik leader Yakov Sverdlov, voted to return its historical name of Yekaterinburg, for the Russian name of Catherine the Great.

The likely next victims of the new anti-Leninism are the Lenin Museum, which Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov is trying to evict from its grand building off Red Square, and Lenin himself, still preserved in his Red Square mausoleum.

Mr. Sobchak, the mayor of Leningrad -- make that St. Petersburg -- has proposed that Lenin's body be buried in a family cemetery plot in the city that for 67 years bore his name.

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