Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The New Saint Petersburg: Trapped in Time (1)?

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The New Saint Petersburg: Trapped in Time (1)?

Article excerpt

The naming of St. Petersburg follows a distinct pattern. Emerging in the context of early modern Russia, the city gained a name that, through its Dutch and German, rather than Russian, connotations signaled some degree of cultural openness. The choice was very much in line with the overall attempt to bring Russia in touch with the Enlightenment and make it part of European civilization, thereby breaking the isolation caused by Russia's somewhat peripheral location in Europe. Petrograd, the name used for a short period after World War I, expressed a different logic. Spurred by the anti-German feelings that prevailed in 1914, burg was translated into the Russian grad. Moreover, the religious connotations were dropped. With Peter the Great and Russia's own history as a point of departure, the name represented a step in the direction of national closure. Leningrad, the name assumed in 1924 five days after Lenin's death, strengthened this feature even further.

Naming obviously matters, and my concern here is with how we might interpret the recent reemergence of the old name of St. Petersburg, a name originally given by Tsar Peter I after his patron saint, Peter the Apostle. The question is what such a renaming, passed through a popular referendum in September 1991 and complicated by the fact that the city was also administratively detached from the surrounding Leningrad region with its old Soviet-era name, means both in the new Russia and, more generally, in post-Wall Europe.

City names are often societally deeply rooted and sedimented. If they are changed, it is probably for rather profound reasons. So, what spurred the return of the name St. Petersburg? What hides behind the city's radically different view of itself and how has the new name been thematized in the discourse that has followed, remembering that the impact of renaming may be enabling as well as constraining? In what way have these changes in self-perception, signaling an ability to break with previous mental and political borders, been reflected in the policies pursued vis-a-vis the intra-Russian as well as the external environments? Are the changes merely symbolic or do they express a broader background and have more concrete consequences in public policies? The argument to be developed here, though a constructivist approach that focuses on the boundary practices, both intellectual and material, of a regional actor, may provide essential insights not just about St. Petersburg itself but also the unfolding of political space both in Russia and in the EU-Russia relationship more generally.

Turning Back or Looking Forward?

There is no doubt that abandoning the Soviet-era name of Leningrad implies a repositioning of the city in both temporal and spatial terms. It does so in providing the St. Petersburg with an old/ new symbolic frame, distinguishing the city from the Leningrad oblast and lifting it out of a number of constraints embedded in the city's posture in the context of the socialist project. There is, at least in principle, much power involved in the move. Installing such a "lens," or "prism," tapping into an alternative memory, allows the city to see itself--and perhaps also Russia at large--in a different perspective. Going back to the name St. Petersburg brings back memories of a time when Russia endeavored to be part of a singular European civilization, instead of striving for a distinct one of its own. The name chosen enables the emergence of new, more relational, and perhaps increasingly self-reflective, visions. The move in the sphere of symbolisms has at least potentially a liberating impact, with some elements residing in the past being restored in order to provide for an altered sense of place and belonging.

An interpretation along these lines has been presented by a group of German scholars. (2) In their view, St. Petersburg is not just linking itself with an historical European identity, but is again in tune with time and able to cope with various aspects of change in being truly post-Soviet. …

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