Thursday, July 23, 2020

Talk of Amalgamating Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast, Cut Off by Pandemic, Now Resuming

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 21 – In the weeks before the pandemic hit, many in St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast were talking about combining the two federal subjects into one as part of Vladimir Putin’s on-again, off-again regional amalgamation effort. But the coronavirus crisis ended such conversations. Now, they are resuming.

            Petersburg’s Gorod-812 portal presents two new commentaries about the reasons for and prospects of such a combination, the first by Dmitry Zhvaniya, a journalist and activist in the northern capital, and the second by Daniil Kotsyubinsky, a historian who writes frequently on regional issues (

            Zhvaniya presents the conventional view that the two subjects should be combined into one; Kotsyubinsky in contrast argues that while part of Leningrad Oblast should become part of the city, another part more properly should become part of Karelia or Vologda and Novgorod Oblasts – or that all should form together a St. Petersburg Republic.

            If Zhvaniya’s position is one that the Kremlin quite likely wants to base its strategy on, Kotsyubinsky’s is a reminder that any change in the arrangements even regarding what Moscow views as two predominantly ethnic Russian regions is fraught with implications that the center very much wants to avoid.

            Zhvaniya says that de facto St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast are one “St. Petersburg gubernia,” with people regularly crossing the borders between them but with the latter not having its own center and the former not having found a status for itself either and with the latter having a name that exists only because the former used to have it.

            Combining the two, he argues, is not about nostalgia but about creating “a matrix” for the future,” for modernizing both the city and its surrounding territory.  Both are or at least can become “developing regions,” if Moscow and their residents agree to dispense with the administrative divisions left over from Soviet times.

            Kotsyubinsky’s argument is far more radical. He says that the current administrative borders “do not at all reflect the existing socio-economic realities” of the two. They may exist on printed maps but they do not exist in mental ones. But they cannot simply be combined together because Leningrad Oblast consists of two parts.

            One to the west is truly part of greater St. Petersburg, but the other to the north and eat is not.  “In essence,” he says, “the Western part of Leningrad Oblast is Petersburg’s hinterland, an enormous zone for development and recreation connected in the closest way and integrated with the ‘Petersburg’ center.” But the rest isn’t: it is connected more with other federal subjects.

            “The socio-economic face of the eastern part of the oblast is much more organically ‘combined’ with the landscape of its neighbors, Karelia and also Vologda and Novgorod Oblasts.” What that means is that Leningrad Oblast should be disbanded and divided in two, with the western part becoming along with the city the Republic of St. Petersburg and the eastern segment joining the others.

            “The establishment of a large Republic of St. Petersburg would help the city forever overcome its complex of being ‘a great city with the fate of an oblast’ and become a really self-standing European megalopolis closely integrated in ‘the Baltic ring’ and through it to Europe as a whole,” Kotsyubinsky says.

            Such a St. Petersburg Republic could logically acquire its own “state symbols … free from imperial heraldic cannons and giving a different more ancient … and organize Neva kray a Baltic-European vector of development.” 

            While the 20th century has compromised the idea of geopolitics, the historian says, “this ‘Petersburg geopolitics’ not only does not include in itself any threat to the interests of the residents of Leningrad Oblast or the dignity ‘of the small cities’ there but on the contrary gives them a chance for more dynamic and successful development.”

            But precisely for that reason, it is hard to imagine that Vladimir Putin would want to open what for Moscow would be a Pandora’s box not only in the northwestern part of the Russian Federation but more broadly as well and thus advocates for combining the two current federal subjects into one may face yet another obstacle.

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