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In Leningrad, St. Petersburg Is the Winner

June 14, 1991|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LENINGRAD, Soviet Union — For the majority of people of this graceful city of canals, bridges and European architecture, the revolutionary name of Leningrad no longer described who they were and what they were about.

St. Petersburg, the name the city's founder had given it nearly three centuries ago, proved closer to their spirit as the fervor of Soviet socialism waned. So they did something about it.

Preliminary results showed Thursday that 55% of its 4.5 million residents voted to restore the name given to their city by Peter the Great when he founded it on the banks of the Neva River in 1703.

A small group of activists who spearheaded the drive to return the city's historic name gathered Thursday evening to toast their victory the Russian way, with shots of straight vodka.

"To the St. Petersburg that was for 200 years and will be for thousands of years to come," Dmitri K. Matlin, chairman of the Russkoye Znaniye (Russian Knowledge) society, said with his glass held high. "Long live St. Petersburg, and may it again be our country's window on Europe and the whole world."

Matlin, whose society collected the signatures of 100,000 residents to persuade the Leningrad City Council to hold Wednesday's referendum, declared the city's name already changed, although the legislature of the Russian Federation must approve the move before it becomes official. The vote is not expected to encounter serious opposition in the legislature, which has acquiesced to the results of referendums in the past.

"This is really a great victory," Matlin said. "On the 12th of June, the city became St. Petersburg again. The Communist Party nickname is gone from our city forever."

The city was named Leningrad in 1924 after Bolshevik leader Vladimir I. Lenin died. Although his family name was Ulyanov, he assumed the name Lenin for the revolutionary activities that eventually helped lead to the overthrow of the Russian monarchy in 1917.

"I did not believe it could happen," said Vladimir Shurin, 20, another member of Russkoye Znaniye celebrating the election returns. "This shows that communism is finished in Russia. St. Petersburg is a symbolic last blow."

The results of Wednesday's poll seemed to have taken everyone by surprise, even members of the city's election commission.

"No one expected this outcome," said Yekaterina M. Arsentyeva, secretary of the city's central election committee and owner of a small private business. "It's a pleasant surprise--and they are so rare."

Arsentyeva said the vote indicates that people are ready to turn their backs on communism, which has left their economy a shambles and their once-spectacular city a shadow of what it was. Instead, she said, they are ready to embrace the proud days of their pre-Soviet history and move quickly toward a free-market economy.

"When the issue first came up, few people supported it," she continued. "We thought it would be a shame to return the old name while the city was in such bad condition. But then we realized that a name is a symbol and that, in and of itself, it could help us work harder."

Anatoly A. Sobchak, who received almost 65% of the vote Wednesday to become the city's first popularly elected mayor, said he was proud of his people's decision on the name change.

"I am glad we are returning to our roots," Sobchak said in an interview with Leningrad Television. "I'm glad that the majority of Leningraders had enough taste to correctly answer the question put to them and to speak out for the return of the city's first name."

A large banner emblazoned with the name St. Petersburg--or, in the Russian pronunciation, Sankt Peterburg-- hung outside the artists' union's building, but the streets showed little sign of celebration over the vote.

Some passers-by said they had not yet heard the news. Others said they were happy about the referendum results but would not truly believe in the name change until the Russian legislature makes it official.

"I'm all for it and of course my spirits were raised by the news of the results, but I will not be satisfied until I know that it's for sure," said Vladimir A. Zenkin, 33, an artist, as he walked down Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main boulevard. "Once I know the change has taken place, I will feel myself a resident of St. Petersburg--and that will put me on a whole new plane."

Restored Names for Soviet Cities

Leningrad residents voted 55% in favor of restoring the name of their city to St. Petersburg, preliminary results indicated. Here is a list of Soviet cities that have reverted to their previous names.

Previous Name Restored Name Andropov Rybinsk Brezhnev Naberezhnye Chelny Chernenko Sharypovo Georgiu-Dezh Lisky Gorky Nizhny Novgorod Gotvald Zmiev Frunze Bishkek Kalinin Tver Kuibyshev Samara Kirovobad Gyanja Leninabad Khodjent Mayakovsky Bagdati Ordzhonikidze Vladikavkaz Voroshilovgrad Lugansk Zhdanov Mariupol

Source: The Economist

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