From the CIAO Atlas Map of Europe 

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CIAO DATE: 03/02

The New Saint Petersburg: A Case of Border-Making or Border-Breaking?

Pertti Joenniemi

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute
November 2001


The naming of St. Petersburg appears to form a distinct pattern. The city emerged in the context of early modern Russia and gained a name that signalled — by having Dutch and German rather than Russian connotations — some degree of mental openness. The choice was very much in line with the overall endeavour of breaking the isolation caused by Russia's somewhat peripheral location in view of the rest of Europe.

Petrograd, the name used for a short period since the First World War, represented a different logic. 'Burg' was translated into Russian 'grad', this change being spurred by the anti-German feelings that prevailed in 1914, and the religious connotations were dropped. Petrograd represented, with Peter the Great and Russia's own history as a point of departure, a step in the direction of national closure and Leningrad, the name assumed in 1924 five days after Lenin's death, strengthened this feature even further.

Naming obviously matters and the key concern here consists, thus, of how to interpret the recent re-emergence of the old name of St. Petersburg, the one given originally by Tsar Peter I after his patron saint, the Apostle Peter. The questions is what such a renaming — passed through a popular referendum in September 1991 and compounded by the fact that the city was also administratively detached from the surrounding Leningrad region with its old Soviet-time name — means in the new Russia and more generally the post-wall Europe.

The paper probes, in endeavouring at addressing this question, into the process of re-naming, taking into account that city names are often societally deep-rooted and quite sedimented. If changed, there has to exist rather profound reasons for such a move. The question thus reads what is behind the return of St. Petersburg. What spurred such a change and what hides behind the city's radically different view of itself? Moreover, in what way have these changes in self-perception — signalling an ability to break with previous mental and political borders — been reflected in the policies pursued vis--vis the intra-Russian but above all the external environment? Are the changes merely symbolic or are they also visible as to their background and consequences in a more concrete fashion in the policies pursued?

The focusing on St. Petersburg represents a deliberate strategy. It entails — among other things — looking away from Moscow, the Federal Government and the policies of the central authorities. In other words, the question is posed whether there is anything different and of interest taking place in the more peripheral parts of the country, in its northwestern region and in the vicinity of its EU borders. And more particularly, does the applying of a constructivist approach and the focusing on the boundary practices — both mental and real — of a regional actor such as St Petersburg add anything essential to previous research and a more centre-oriented approach? Could it be that also the policies of bordering and outlining political space pursued by a not-so-central actor warrant attention in having a constitutive impact not just on the unfolding of Russia at the turn of the millennium but also the way the EU-Russia relationship is being devised in the post-Cold War years? These are the main issues this paper aims at addressing.