“One slash of the sword:” the history of renaming a city

St. Petersburg, The Church of the Resurrection of Christ. Photo from the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
St. Petersburg, The Church of the Resurrection of Christ. Photo from the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

On September 6, 1991, Leningrad was renamed St. Petersburg by Russian legislators following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The city had been known as Leningrad for 67 years, but in 1991, this question was put to Leningrad’s voters: "Do you wish to restore to our city its original name, St. Petersburg?"  Thus began one of the most impassioned debates across the Soviet Union in years.  To members of the Communist Party and veterans of World War II, to change the name would be an insult to Lenin, the revolution and the wartime defenders of Leningrad. Russian nationalists took the stance that the city’s name be changed to Petrograd, the Russianized name given to the city in 1914. Nationalists and reformers argued with equal passion that the nation must reclaim its heritage and make the change.

So where did this all begin? Peter the Great founded Sankt Peterburg as a “window into Europe” in 1703, creating a city built by French and Italian architects which announced to Europe that Russia had finally emerged into modern times. The name stood for most of the next two centuries until the summer of 1914 when the Russian Empire entered the war against Germany. The patriotism generated by the entrance into World War I resulted in attacks on German stores and the German embassy, and the renaming of the city was met with overwhelming approval (even though the city’s name had Dutch origins, not German ones). That name lasted until January 26, 1924 when the city’s name was changed to commemorate Lenin. In the decades that followed, the Soviet Union grew more isolated, drawing further into itself, sustained by the Cold War. However, when Mikhail Gorbachev adopted “glasnost” as a political slogan and strategy, feelings started to change. By the time 1991’s referendum was passed, it seemed to be a sign that Petersburg was reclaiming its former role as an intermediary between Europe and Russia.

In an article in Newsweek in 2014, Alexander Nazayran stated, “To rename a city of millions is to alter history with one slash of the sword. When St. Petersburg became Petrograd, it turned away from Europe, on whose very edge it stood like a child eager to be let into a room of adults. Then it became Leningrad, withdrawing further into itself. The return of the original name in 1991, after 77 years, was only a cosmetic change that does nothing to scrub away the Soviet sentiment that lies underneath, and which Putin seems to mine with stunning efficacy. Peters-burg has returned. And yet Petrograd remains, looking more like Leningrad with each passing year of Putin’s reign.”

It should be noted that in the 6 years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost, several cities, including Kalinin, Gorky, Andropov and others had their former names restored. However, no name change generated as much discussion, speculation and analysis as the one from Leningrad to St. Petersburg.  If you would like to read more about Russian history, we have many books in our History collection, including: Russian History, a Very Short IntroductionRussia: A History, and A History of Russia and Its Empire, From Mikhail Romanov to Vladimir Putin.

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