St Petersburg recovered its name after a 1991 referendum had voted heavily to change it back from Leningrad; (it had briefly been Petrograd). On September 6th, 1991, the Russian Parliament approved the name change, turning its back on its communist past, and harking back to its glory days as an imperial city and Russia’s capital.
Peter the Great had founded the city in 1703, wanting a more convenient port than Archangel, further to the North on the White Sea. The reforming Tsar wanted closer links with Europe, both trade and cultural. He moved the capital from Moscow to St Petersburg, and it remained so, barring a brief 4-year reversion, until the communists took power in 1917 and switched it back to Moscow.
The city is a monument to fine architecture, with much of its public buildings in a style called Petrine Baroque, developed by Trezzini and others. Many Russians dub it “the window to Europe” because it represents the westward-looking face of Russia. It is also called “the Venice of the North” on account of its many waterways. It was originally built on swampland and water.
Because of its far North location, there is a period in the summer when the nights do not grow completely dark for about a month. This is the city’s famous “White Nights,” a major tourist attraction. Large numbers choose that period to visit the city’s combination of its Russian heritage with European-inspired architecture and culture.
Not all visitors have been benign, however. Following the Nazi invasion of 1941, the city (then called Leningrad) was besieged by German forces for nearly two-and-a-half years. The siege cut off most food supplies and was one of the most destructive in history, with over one million civilians killed, most from starvation. It was also one of the most cruel, and was not lifted until January, 1944.
The city recovered, and when Soviet system was overthrown, its citizens voted to restore the name that spoke of its history, its culture, and its greatness. It discarded the name associated with brutality and murder, even though it had resisted Nazi conquest under that name.
The old man had been interviewed on television in the street while Soviet Russia was still communist. The interviewer asked, “Where were you born?” and the man replied, “St Petersburg.” “And where did you do your courting?” he was asked. “Petrograd,” he replied. “Where did you live your life?” the questioner went on. “Leningrad” was the answer. “And where would you most like to live?” was the final question. The old man replied with a sigh, “St Petersburg.”
I hope he was still alive to receive his wish.