Lenin, Peter or reality--city must choose


LENINGRAD, U.S.S.R. -- In the public memory of this magical city, the great Russian poets and legendary czars who strolled the elegant boulevards of St. Petersburg compete with the Soviet workers and soldiers of World War II who held out heroically against the Nazis' siege of Leningrad.

And now the people have to choose. By decision of the year-old, radical City Council, voters will be asked Wednesday to decide whether Leningrad will remain Leningrad or return to its original name, bestowed by Peter the Great when he built a magnificent capital in a subarctic swamp.

The referendum poses Soviet patriotism against Russian pride, communism against capitalism, nostalgia for the youthful Stalinist superpower against nostalgia for the grandeur of imperial Russia.

The Communists' war cry is that Hitler, too, planned to restore the name St. Petersburg -- but that the Red Army --ed his hopes. Democratic activists acidly reply that seven decades of Leninism have reduced one of the world's great cities to a shabby shadow of itself, where the most widespread pastime is lining up to buy food.

As befits the topsy-turvy spirit of the times, young people are for the older name, old people for the newer name.

That's because old people remember enduring the Germans' 900-day siege, a feat of suffering and survival hardly rivaled in modern history. Yekaterina Titova remembered, sitting one day last week on a bench in peaceful Piskarevskoye Cemetery, surrounded by the mass graves of 470,000 of the 600,000 people who died of starvation, disease and bullets during the siege.

"Mama died of hunger. My brother died of hunger. My husband died at the front," said Mrs. Titova, 78, her eyes tearful, far-away, deep-set in a face of deep wrinkles.

She gripped a stranger by the arm. "They gave us 200 grams [7 ounces] of bread a day to haul the corpses away. Terrible, terrible! You can't forget it. The dead are always before my eyes," she said.

She was silent for a moment. "It's Leningrad," Mrs. Titova said finally. "Let it be Leningrad, for the sake of an old grandmother. I'll be gone soon, then let them call it what they want."

Across the city, in front of Kazan Cathedral, Dima Kiselnikov, 19, puffed an American cigarette and checked his watch. He was waiting for his colleagues in "Croesus," a new, private printing and brokering firm named, with high hopes, for the fabulously wealthy king of legend.

"I'm for St. Petersburg, of course," said Mr. Kiselnikov, who has a sparse beard and wore a corduroy sports coat.

"At its birth, the city was given a name -- not that of Peter I, but that of St. Peter, the protector of the city. When it was St. Petersburg, this was a city. Now look at this -- this dirt."

What about Vladimir Lenin? Mr. Kiselnikov rolled his eyes. "Paranoid schizophrenic," he replied. "You'd have to be at least that to take the economic ideas of Karl Marx seriously."

And so the battle lines are drawn in this city of 5 million on the Neva River. In addition to Leningrad and St. Petersburg, there is a third choice on the ballot: Petrograd, which lasted only a decade, from 1914 to 1924. The czar switched during World War I to the Slavic "grad" to avoid the "burg" of the German enemy. Petrograd took Lenin's name just five days after the Soviet founding father's death.

The name Petrograd seems to have few backers, but one of them is quite influential. Exiled novelist Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn sent a message to Leningrad in support of the pure Slavic name Petrograd -- in fact, he said, the best choice would be the Russian equivalent of St. Petersburg, Svyatopetrograd.

A big group of Leningraders is sitting out the name debate, figuring that they don't care what their city is called as long as it becomes a better place to live.

They are inclined to oppose any change because it will cost a lot of money to change signs and letterheads and the like -- 150 million rubles, opponents say; a few million, proponents say.

"What, is there going to be more food in the stores because it's St. Petersburg?" sneered Nikolai Lobachev, 44, a taxi driver.

Mr. Lobachev had just picked up his July rationing card: 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of sausage, half a kilogram of flour, 10 eggs and so on, ending with two bottles of vodka -- presumably to ease the pain of food rationing, introduced last year for the first time since the immediate postwar years.

The name issue is part of a trend in the Soviet Union over the past three years, in which a dozen or more cities and hundreds of streets have been returned to their czarist names.

But here it is complicated, for the city is blessed and haunted by a past almost too rich and paradoxical to be believed. At this time of year, even at midnight, an eerie brightness lights the most spectacular of Russian architecture -- built by Italian architects in the 18th century. Here the poet Alexander Pushkin was killed in a duel that might have come from one of his novels-in-verse. Here the Czar-liberator Alexander II, who had freed the serfs, was blown to kingdom come by a terrorist.

Here the fictional heroes and anti-heroes of Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevski forever walk the streets in readers' imaginations. And here, in October 1917, Bolshevik troops stormed the Winter Palace, meeting virtually no resistance and launching the momentous, costly experiment that seems now to be coming to an end.

Perhaps the most persuasive evidence of the Leninist experiment's demise is that in a day of interviews, not one of the backers of Leningrad even mentioned respect for Lenin as a reason for retaining the name.

In fact, many of those who will vote for Leningrad said that in the long run, they would like to restore the name of St. Petersburg. They simply argue that first the city's fabric and its economic life should be restored, then its name.

"I love Peter and his protector, St. Peter, and I love them a lot more than Lenin," said Daniil A. Granin, 72, one of the leading living Russian writers and a resident of Leningrad since childhood. "But I can't vote for St. Petersburg."

First, Mr. Granin said, a vote of the residents is inadequate to decide the question -- at least a Russia-wide referendum should be held.

Second, "The city is in such bad shape that it's too early to call it St. Petersburg," he said.

"Petersburg is its future, after a lot of work is done."

Changing the name is easy, and that's why it is being tried, Mr. Granin said, but that is the wrong approach.

"When a person is lying down on the operating table for major surgery," he said, "you shouldn't be arguing about what color to dye his hair."

Leningrad does have one distinguished backer, however.

On Friday, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev declared, "A great city bears the name of a great man." He added, "I am deeply convinced that there is no moral or political basis for changing it."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad