LENINGRAD — THE city that started as Peter the Great's window on the West in the 18th century, then became the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, is struggling to establish its true identity. An opinion poll is scheduled for June 12 - the same day as the Russian Federation presidential election - on whether to change from Leningrad back to St. Petersburg, the city's original name when founded by Peter in 1703.
The name-change issue mostly revolves around ideology. But part of the debate is also rooted in the city's experience during World War II that makes the outcome unpredictable.
With the Soviet Union mired in a political and economic crisis, many appear to support ridding the city of its communist heritage. But, opponents counter, changing the name would cost about 140 million rubles (about $82 million at the official exchange rate) that the city could better spend repairing decaying buildings. They add it would only heighten tension as reformers and hard-liners battle to shape the city's, as well as the country's, future.
"The main problem confronting society is improving living conditions. Going back to St. Petersburg won't improve anything," said Peter Alexandrov, the co-chairman of the Public Committee for the Defense of Leningrad, the group coordinating the effort to preserve the city's current name.
Supporters of the proposal are mainly young and market-minded, who argue that restoring St. Petersburg is the only way the city can rid itself of a communist mentality that blocks fundamental political and economic change.
"Leningrad makes the people feel as though they are slaves psychologically - robots created by [Bolshevik leader Vladimir] Lenin and [dictator Joseph] Stalin. What we call 'Homo Sovieticus, said Alexander Rodin, a member of the Leningrad City Council. "We have to change the name back to St. Petersburg in order to make the Soviet a free person, receptive to the principles of a market economy."
The Soviet Union's second-largest city has already experienced several name changes. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, with Russia fighting Germany, Czar Nicholas II changed the imperial capital's name from the Germanic-sounding Petersburg to the Slavic-sounding Petrograd. The switch to Leningrad came in 1924, a few days after the death of Lenin, the founder of the Communist state.
Old names regain status
Lately it has become fashionable to restore czarist-era titles to cities that were renamed following the 1917 revolution in honor of Communist heroes. Gorky, for example, has been rechristened Nizhny Novgorod, while the Siberian city of Sverdlovsk is considering whether to revert to its old name of Yekaterinburg.
Although Mr. Alexandrov says it's generally up to the cities to determine their names, he insists Leningrad is different, not only because it is associated with Lenin, still the Soviet Union's most respected figure, but also for its resilience during the Nazis' 900-day siege in World War II.
"It's a city that belongs to the entire Soviet people," said Alexandrov, speaking in the committee's tiny office nestled behind exhibits of rusting soldiers' helmets, anti-aircraft guns and other war relics at the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad. "It's not only the birthplace of the revolution; it's perhaps the greatest symbol of our victory over the fascists."
Alexandrov's committee draws support not only from orthodox Communists, but also war veterans and survivors of the siege, which claimed about a million lives. For them, Leningrad is synonymous with the sacrifices made during the war years to defeat the Nazis. For this reason, even if they support a move to the market, they oppose changing the name.
"I have two sisters who died during the siege and I fought the entire war on the Leningrad front," said 78-year-old Alexander Lipov. "It's sacrilege that young people want to overturn what we fought so hard to preserve."
Other, mostly elderly, residents oppose St. Petersburg because they associate it with czarist repression. The poll is nonbinding, and even if Leningraders vote for St. Petersburg, the national legislature should have the final say in the matter, Alexandrov said. Many political observers say the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, would likely be unwilling to approve the change.
Debate over authority
"It was the national legislature that changed the name to Leningrad. Only the national legislature can change it back again," Alexandrov said.
St. Petersburg proponents say only the City Council can make the decision, because its deputies were elected by popular vote, whereas the Communists have always lacked legitimacy.
"The Bolsheviks illegally seized power and had no moral or legal right to name the city Leningrad," said Margarita Dobrokhotova, a member of the City Council's Cultural Commission.
A significant number want neither St. Petersburg nor Leningrad. Petrograd is the most popular alternative, but other names have been offered, such as Nevagrad, after the river on which the city is situated.
And then there are those, such as Violetta Tikhomirova, an engineer and former Communist Party member, who want to retain the current name out of a desire to establish a sense of stability.
"We've changed history so much in recent times we don't know what to teach our children," Ms. Tikhomirova said. "We have to stop somewhere. Let Leningrad remain Leningrad."