WORLD

‘Leningrad’ under siege

A debate over a city’s name heats up

MALCOLM GRAY June 10 1991
WORLD

‘Leningrad’ under siege

A debate over a city’s name heats up

MALCOLM GRAY June 10 1991

‘Leningrad’ under siege

THE SOVIET UNION

WORLD

A debate over a city’s name heats up

It was Czar Peter the Great’s window to the West, the cradle of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the heroic city that withstood a 900-day siege by Nazi forces during the Second World War. Now, Leningrad, which was renamed in honor of Vladimir Lenin five days after the Communist leader died in 1924, is divided by a new battle. Its reformer-dominated city council, led by popular Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, wants to restore the city’s original name, St. Petersburg. In a controversial referendum that is scheduled to be held along with Russia-wide presidential elections and mayoralty races on June 12, municipal voters will be asked if they prefer the name that the city received at its 1703 founding to its current name. That proposal has angered many of Leningrad’s 1.5 million blokadniki, or siege survivors. But Sobchak has remained steadfast on the issue, adding that the most obvious incarnation of the Lenin legend—his embalmed body in a mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square— should be laid to rest once and for all. Lenin, said Sobchak, “should be buried in St. Peters-

burg,” where his mother and sister already lie.

The fact that Leningrad, the city where the Bolsheviks seized power, is even considering the name question is a clear sign of the profound changes that are sweeping the Soviet Union. In many communities across the fragmenting country, local governments have made such highly charged gestures as removing statues of Lenin. In Moscow, the central thoroughfare that once bore the name of socialist hero Maxim Gorky recently reverted to its old name, Tverskaya Street, and the former city of Gorky, where dissident Andrei Sakharov languished in internal exile £ for six years, is again known ^ as Nizhny Novgorod. But in § Leningrad, the name-change * controversy has divided Sobchak’s supporters and, observers say, may not pass. Deputy mayor Vyacheslav Scherbakov told Maclean ’s last week that he was convinced voters would reject a switch back to St. Petersburg. “I myself am against any name change,”

added Scherbakov, a 51-yearold former captain of a Soviet nuclear submarine.

Still, in Leningrad and other centres across the Soviet Union, steps to shed the Communist-dominated past go beyond such cosmetic changes and are usually accompanied by strong demands for economic reform. Foreign governments have added their own pressure— and Moscow is showing signs of responding. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is eager to secure Western economic aid and to win an I invitation to the July summit 9 in London of the Group of I Seven (G7), the world’s ma^ jor industrial powers. Last 9 week, in an apparent show of

1 good faith, Prime Minister

2 Valentin Pavlov presented a

3 draft bill that commits the 2 Kremlin to removing major 1 barriers to long-term foreign - investment, and three of Gorbachev’s advisers travelled to Washington to present the U.S. government with new proposals for economic and political reform.

Meanwhile, would-be reformers ranging from Sobchak to Gorbachev received encouragement last week from an unabashed capitalist: former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. During a four-day Soviet visit, which included stops in Moscow and Leningrad, Thatcher urged the leaders of the G7 countries—Canada among them—to invite Gorbachev to the London summit. But she warned that Western aid would not flow unless the Soviet Union launched far-reaching reforms. She urged the Soviets to abolish government control over the faltering economy and restore private property rights. Said Thatcher: “The guarantee of stability in any society is private property—it makes people independent and responsible.” In a May 27 speech at Moscow State University, she added: “Your bureaucracy ruins all good intentions. And while it predominates, no foreign assistance will help take your country out of its economic crisis.”

By including Leningrad on her itinerary, Thatcher visited one of the world’s most beautiful cities, a canal-laced northern metropolis of five million people that is renowned for its neoclassical architecture and museums and galleries that are filled with vast artwork collections. But although the grandeur remains, Peter the Great’s window on Europe is also a begrimed, run-down place of potholed streets, frequent shortages of food, overcrowded slums and a severely polluted Baltic coastline. However, Sobchak and other city council reformers have announced ambitious plans to make Leningrad more than what rival Muscovites sneeringly claim is a museum city. Senior city officials take pains to dispel the tourist-brochure image of Leningrad as simply a repository of

past power and glory. Last week, Scherbakov stressed that Leningrad was second only to Moscow as the Soviet Union’s most important industrial centre, with factories in the outlying suburbs producing chemicals, farm machinery and armored vehicles.

Sobchak and other reformers say that they want the Kremlin-operated defence plants in the region to turn out more tractors and fewer tanks. In fact, they are hoping to convert most of Leningrad’s municipally owned enterprises into privately owned operations by outright sales, long-term leases or the formation of joint-stock companies that would be owned by the operation’s employees. And as part of that shift from a centrally planned economy, the city government wants to make Leningrad a free economic zone, enticing foreign manufacturing and service firms to an area encompassing 80,000 square miles through generous tax concessions and exemptions from customs duties. In May, Leningrad won support for that program from Boris Yeltsin, the powerful chairman of the Russian legislature—and the heavy favorite to become the republic’s first popularly elected president in next week’s voting. And with the deepening economic crisis prompting a truce in the continuing unity battle among Russia, the other 14 republics and the Kremlin, Scherbakov and other Leningrad officials predict that the Soviet government will not obstruct the zone’s establishment.

Certainly, grandiose development plans have been part of Leningrad’s recent history—and not all have reached fruition. For one thing, some city officials say that they are no longer counting on a billion-dollar urban redevelopment deal between the city and a group of North Americans headed by Cleveland financier Cyrus Eaton Jr., son of the Canadian-born steel magnate and philanthropist. A group of Canadian investors, led by Toronto real estate developer Edwin Cogan, is no longer an active partner in the deal. But Eaton remains bullish, saying that he is seeking European investors to finance the undertaking.

In marked contrast to that megaproject, the city’s privatization of shops, restaurants and businesses is beginning to show modest but encouraging results. In one instance early this year, Leningrad officials auctioned off the premises and equipment of 40 small, unprofitable state enterprises to private owners—on condition that the new owners continue supply-

ing approximately the same services to customers. Vladislav Gerasimov secured the right to operate a run-down dry-goods store for a cash outlay of $550. Soviet law still bars him from buying the premises outright, but the 29year-old former naval officer has a 40-year lease with the city for the relatively low rent of $1,150 per month. Gerasimov acknowledges that some elderly women in the working-class district have complained to him about prices that are slightly higher than those in state stores. That is because Gerasimov, in turn, buys his merchandise from state factories at

market prices. In any event, he earned back his $550 investment during the first three days in business. He added: “Most people who come in here say that they are happy to see scarce items like safety pins and thimbles. There is nothing on the shelves of state stores.”

On a cool, rainy morning last week, a steady stream of customers kept Gerasimov’s three clerks busy. Many shoppers said that they wanted to see more small stores in the area, offering shoppers a choice of goods and competitive prices. At the same time, the new store owner and most of his customers expressed their firm commitment to retain one aspect of life in Leningrad: they do not want to change the name of their city.

In the turbulent atmosphere of Leningrad city politics, where Sobchak and his supporters must strive to win the backing of 400 elected deputies of the city’s assembly, the namechange proposal has swollen into a full-blown controversy as voting day approaches. It is an issue that has produced some odd affiances, including one between Communist party members and exiled dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Now living in Vermont, the Nobel Prize-winning author, whose Russian nationalist views receive regular coverage in Soviet media, argued last week that all Russians, not just Leningraders, should vote on the name-change issue. And, he added, the name Petersburg violated Russian linguistic and historical traditions. He suggested that the Germanic “Petersburg” should be replaced by such Russified forms as Petrograd or Svyato-Petrograd—literally, “St. Peter’s City.”

In Leningrad itself, local Communists have led the campaign against a name change on the grounds that it would be too costly—an estimated $45 million—to alter the city’s name on signs, stationery and equipment at a time of more pressing problems. At a news conference last week, Leningrad party leader Boris Gidaspov also argued that the name-change proposal dishonors Second World War blockade veterans—and the 667,000 who died. Said Gidaspov: “If Leningrad had fallen in 1942, Moscow would have fallen and Russia would have fallen. The fascists would have been in England and today’s news conference would have been in German.”

In response, council member Dimitri Mezentsev says that reverting to St. Petersburg would be a signal to the world, and potential investors, that the city is undergoing dramatic changes. Mezentsev noted that changing the name of Stalingrad to Volgograd in 1961 did not slight the soldiers á who won one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War in a city that no longer commemorates Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. But the angry voices of blockade veterans have convinced Mezentsev that the name-change proposal is doomed to fail.

He and other Sobchak supporters say that Leningrad residents will endorse the popular, 54-year-old lawyer in the city’s mayoralty election. But if Sobchak continues to occupy his elegant office in the 18th-century palace that houses city hall, many analysts say that they are increasingly convinced that he will do so as mayor of Leningrad. Although the city and country are rapidly discarding many of the trappings of 74 years of Communist rule, some symbols, including the name of an officially designated heroic city, have clearly become embedded in the country’s consciousness.

MALCOLM GRAY in Leningrad