Sunday, September 30, 2018

Why hasn’t Leningrad Oblast Been Renamed?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 29 – Changes in place names in the Russian Federation since the end of Soviet times have been far from complete and have resulted in some truly perverse situations such as when a statue of Lenin remains on a square now named for a cathedral or a street named for a Chekist intersects with one named for a victim of the Soviet security services.

            But perhaps the most glaring clash is in the northwestern corner of the Russian Federation where the city of St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, is located within Leningrad oblast, nomenclature that there has been remarkably little pressure to change. In a new article, Russian 7 asks why (

                The northern capital recovered its historical name on September 6, 1991, but only after what the portal says were “stormy discussions” in the city administration and media.   Mikhail Gorbachev opposed the change, and Anatoly Sobchak for a long time did not even allow the city soviet to discuss it.

            A poll taken in April 1991 found that 54 percent of the city’s residents favored a return to the pre-Soviet name; but even after the decision was taken, the issue has continued to divide the population. Indeed, in 2011, Vladimir Putin remarked that the return of the historical name St. Petersburg had “split the city.”

            That poll, of course, was not a referendum; and the decision was taken not by the population but by the city council.  And in that lies one explanation for why Leningrad was renamed but Leningrad Oblast was not. In the city government, liberals and democrats were dominant while in the oblast the communists were. They never allowed it to be discussed.

            Another explanation, Russian7 says, is that Moscow did not want to change the name of the oblast because it was associated with the defense of the northern capital during World War II. As commemoration of the war has become more important in recent years, interest in renaming the oblast has thus declined, even among the city’s residents.

            But perhaps the most important explanation is cost. While some say that changing the name would not be expensive, others point to the costs Russian municipalities have had to bear by doing so.  Renaming Kuibyshev Samara cost 30 million US dollars, Forbes estimated in 2012; and restoring the name Tver to Kalinin cost 20 million.

            As the Russian economy has gotten worse, these costs loom larger in the calculations of officials.

            However, there is an even larger explanation: Vladimir Putin clearly doesn’t favor renaming the oblast.  Six years ago, he was asked if he was “shocked” that the city of Leningrad had been renamed while the oblast had not. He responded that “for a long time already, nothing shocks me; I am accustomed to everything.”

            The Kremlin leader added at the time that questions of renaming places must be “de-ideologized” and the opinions of the population must be taken into account.  In his remarks, he implied that ordinary Russians are “accustomed” to living in Leningrad Oblast and so there is no reason to press for change.

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