Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Name of Russia’s Northern Capital Far from Settled among Its Residents

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 18 – Thirty years ago, the residents of St. Petersburg voted to restore the name their city had had in imperial times, St. Petersburg. But despite that vote and the passage of more than three decades, the city’s residents remain very much divided over what their city should be called.

            The June 1991 referendum did not result in an overwhelming vote for change, with only 54 percent voting to restore the imperial period name and 42 percent voting against. Indeed, had it not taken place when many older residents were at their dachas and therefore not able to vote, it might not have passed (versia.ru/kak-30-let-nazad-leningrad-stal-sankt-peterburgom).

            A recent poll suggests that while support for Leningrad has declined somewhat, support for St. Petersburg has as well, with a striking increase in the share of those who would prefer Petersburg, without the “saint” (nevnov.ru/898731-peterburzhcy-ne-gotovy-menyat-nazvanie-goroda-na-neve).

            Today, 26 percent of the northern capital’s residents say they favor the name Leningrad, nine percent back Petrograd, which wasn’t an option in the 1991 referendum, 38 percent favor St. Petersburg, but 27 percent favor Petersburg without the saint, which also wasn’t an option in the earlier voting.

            Lev Lurye, a journalist and historian who has explored the history of the name, says that this pattern  represents a kind of recapitulation of what happened at the end of the 19th century. Then, as peasants flooded into the city, many of them preferred to call the city just “Peter,” a name that the educated elite felt was insulting to a great city.

            Today’s new residents are happy enough with Petersburg but like their predecessors, they don’t see any reason to add “saint” to its name. At the same time, Sergey Shuvalov, a toponymist, says many in the northern capital again prefer Leningrad because of its association with the blockade of the city during World War II.


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