St. Petersburg: Resilient Capital of Change
FOR journalist Elena Zelinskaya, it is the small apartment where her grandparents hunkered down during the grim 900-day siege laid by Hitler's armies during World War II.For the late Russian philosopher Daniil Andreev, it was the Bronze Horseman, the towering equestrian statue of Peter the Great that dominates Decembrists' Square overlooking the Neva River. For Russian novelist Daniil Granin, it is Piskaryovka cemetery, where most of the 1 million Leningraders who died during World War II lie in unmarked mass graves. For nearly every resident of this remarkable city, it seems, there is some place that has come to symbolize the soul of St. Petersburg - some place, as Andreev once put it, where Russians have found their roots and the "connecting point" that links the country's past and future. As the city of Lenin, the former Russian capital languished. Food shortages are endemic, its grand architecture faded and decayed, its citizens uncharacteristically dispirited. Once again the city of Peter, at least in name, it is hard to suppress the dream that it could someday reclaim its place as one of the great cities of Europe. "We're like a spy that has lived with a double identity," says Ms. Zelinskaya, who directs a Russian news service. "Going back to our original name symbolizes the re-creation of a normal life." After nearly 70 years as Leningrad, the city voted to restore the name St. Petersburg last September. Although the change has boosted morale, it has not rescued the city from the grave consequences of economic decay. "The changes we've gone through so far have not amounted to a turning point," says the city's deputy mayor Vyachaslav Shcherbakov. "The real turning point for the city will come only with serious economic change." To comprehend what makes this city of winding canals and stately architecture so resilient, even in adversity, residents say it is necessary to go back to the beginning. Literally created for greatness, Peter saw his new capital as more than a center of political power. The city was to be, in the words of one Russian commentator, "the spiritual as well as political capital of Russia." To recall the names of even a few of St. Petersburg's more illustrious residents - Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, Nijinsky and Pavlova - is to comprehend just how completely Peter succeeded. It is also to understand why St. Petersburg has maintained such a sure sense of itself and of its place in Russian history, even under the stress of hardships few cities have had to endure. "Petersburg never grew from a village. It was born as a capital," says Mr. Granin. "After so many years there still exists an aristocratic strain in the soul of St. Petersburg." Understanding St. Petersburg also means reckoning with its role as a catalyst for change. For Peter, who built it from scratch on the easternmost reaches of the Baltic, it was literally the vehicle for dragging Russia out of the Middle Ages and into an era of modernization and Westernization. At the hands of its later namesake, the Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the city became the point of entry for another novel Western idea, Marxism. Seventy-five years later, St. Petersburg played a key role in undoing the Communist revolution Lenin instigated when its city fathers repudiated last August's coup attempt, opening the door to democracy and free-market reforms throughout the former Soviet Union. Nothing unusual, say St. Petersburgers, for a city that was already in the forefront of recapturing political freedoms with an active underground press and noncommunist political movements. "Whatever happens in Russia happens here more quickly," says public-opinion analyst Leonid Keselman of the Center For Social Processes, a private research organization in St. Petersburg. A launching point for great change, the city has also demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to resist outside forces. During the Nazi blockade, Leningrad held fast but lost more dead during the war than the United States and Britain combined. Through wars, revolutions, famine, and bloody communist purges, residents say, there is no doubt where the city's heart has been. "This city has been dominated by Peter, not Lenin," says a professor at Leningrad State University. Doubtless it is the Peter factor that explains the attitude of superiority that is so often evident when conversation here turns to the subject of Moscow. In an ironic twist on Tolstoy, who once pronounced St. Petersburg a den of iniquity, St. Petersburgers tend to view the Russian capital, with its drab, stolid office buildings and apartments, as a city that lost its soul during the reign of the Soviet commissars. "Moscow's finished. It's a broken communist city," says the university professor flatly. "St. Petersburg has retained its integrity." "St. Petersburg is the single Russian city which is still in the same style, architecturally, historically, intellectually, and culturally," says Zelinskaya. Founded in 1703, the city actually takes its name from the apostle Peter, Peter the Great's patron saint. During World War I, it was changed to the less Germanic "Petrograd," then, in 1924, to Leningrad. Not everyone has welcomed the restoration of the city's original name. For Communists, of course, Leningrad symbolized an era of dominance now passed. For many World War II veterans and "blockadeniks," as they are known here, the old name was a symbol of the city's heroic stand against Germany. "For those of us who lived and suffered in Leningrad, it will always be Leningrad," says Uri Melmikov, a professor at Moscow's Diplomatic Institute who lived in Leningrad during World War II. Another group of St. Petersburgers worries that changing the name of the now-faded imperial capital may be premature. "St. Petersburg in its present state doesn't deserve the name. It's a shell of the real thing," says a university student. "Let's restore it first, then rename it." No dreamers, St. Petersburgers know such a restoration will be long in coming. No defeatists, they know that, one way or the other, it will recur. "We're not seeing tragedy in our future," says Mr. Scherbakov. "We're looking at the future with hope."