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June 12 St Petersburg outlasts Leningrad

On the 12 June 1991, the citizens of Leningrad overwhelming voted to return the name of the city to St Petersburg. It was a clear indication that Christianity would outlast Communism in peoples hearts and minds. Stalin famously asked how many armies the Pope had. The soft power of the Christian Faith proved much more enduring that the ideology of communism. In spite of its declaration of the Eighth Party Congress in 1920 that “the Party aims at the complete destruction of links between the exploiting classes and . . . religious propaganda, while assisting the actual liberation of the working masses from religious prejudices.”


The referendum was held simultaneously with the first Russian presidential elections, there were mayoral elections and a referendum upon the name of the city, which reverted to Saint Petersburg. This was the name of the city when it had been founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 and was named after apostle Saint Peter. The city was built on the swampy delta of the Neva River at the end of the Gulf of Finland as the centrepiece of the Tsars dream to "hue a window into Europe." He christened it with the Dutch rendering of the patron saint, "Sankt-Peterburg," to underscore his ambition to build a city that would match Amsterdam and other great European ports. It is historically and culturally associated with the birth of the Russian Empire and Russia's entry into modern history as a European great power. It served as a capital of the Russian Empire from 1713 to 1918 until the October Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks moved their government to Moscow.

On 1 September 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, the Imperial government renamed the city Petrograd, meaning "Peter's City", to remove the German words Sankt and Burg. In 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, stormed the Winter Palace in an event known thereafter as the October Revolution, which led to the transfer of all political power to the Soviets, and the rise of the Communist Party. On 26 January 1924, five days after Lenin's death, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad and the city has over 230 places associated with the life and activities of Lenin.

In the referendum of 1991 "Do you wish to restore to our city its original name, St. Petersburg?" The question, put to Leningrad's voters alongside ballots for a mayor and the president of the Russian republic, has set off impassioned debate all over Russia. The Communist Party and veterans of World War II campaigned ardently across the Soviet Union against what they portrayed as an insult to Lenin, the revolution and the wartime defenders of Leningrad. Reformers, artists and nationalists argued with equal passion that the nation must reclaim its Christian heritage. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church said "Leningrad is just a casing, an ideological carcass into which the city founded by Peter the Great was ordered to fit." Mr. Gorbachev acknowledged in a statement that "Leningrad holds a special place in the historical memory of the residents of the city and in the hearts of tens of millions of Soviet people. The famous dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn urged a return to St. Petersburg not to "Sankt-Peterburg" -- which he said was "alien to the Russian language and to the Russian spirit" -- but to something Russian like Svyato Petrograd -- a Russified rendering of St. Petersburg.

It was six years after President Gorbachev had pursued a policy of glasnost, opening up. A large majority of voters had voted yes and this was following a pattern of many cities such as Gorky, Kalinin, Brezhnev, Ustinov, Andropov etc had ditched their communist era names. Often with their former names restored. Moscow alone has restored more than 30 old names of streets and squares. "Petersburg, of course," declared Yulia Ivanova, a retired engineer, as she left a polling booth on Wednesday in the city centre. "We must return to the values that were thrown out in the past 70 years. We must return to the faith, the spirituality, and we should start by giving the city back the name it had 200 years." "Petersburg," said Aleksandr Mikhailov, a retired actor. "It's the natural name. We're all battling against what was ugly, what was unnatural these past 70 years."

The city became famous for its contrasts, a centre of extraordinary grandeur and wretched poverty, a potent force in Russian vice and literature. It propelled Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov to murder in "Crime and Punishment." To Tolstoy it was as cruel and foreign as Moscow was warm and Russian. Pushkin's long poem "The Bronze Horseman," which opened with a ringing paean to "Peter's Creation" and ended with the Yevgeny running in mad panic from the mountain statue of Peter chasing him through the streets. For many Russians the grand heritage was hijacked by the communists and finally recovered after 70 years. To reformers and Westernisers it is a "window to the West" that must be reopened once again.


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