The Great October Revolution began here in St. Petersburg in 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized the reins of a battered Russia in a frenetic time that the American journalist John Reed called the “10 days that shook the world.”
Leningrad, as St. Petersburg is now known, is thus a kind of holy city in the Soviet Union, the city of the vanguard of the revolution.
Yet now, 70 years after the revolution, the Soviet Union’s second-largest city hardly seems in the vanguard of anything. Leningrad is, in fact, a little out of date and out of step with the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The Moscow media, including the government newspaper Izvestia, have attacked city officials here in recent months for failing to allow Leningraders the right of full and open criticism as practiced in Moscow under Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost , or openness.
Much of the initiative and dynamism of the Communist Party in Leningrad may have been knocked out by Stalin’s murderous purge of party officials after World War II. But there also may be a good deal of intercity rivalry in the Leningrad Establishment’s suspicion of what goes on in Moscow.
Leningrad is the most Western of Soviet cities, for Czar Peter the Great wanted St. Petersburg to be his “window to the West” when he founded it in 1703 and made it his capital. The Bolsheviks, however, moved the capital back to Moscow toward the end of World War I out of fear of German encirclement. Once ensconced in the old capital of medieval Muscovy, the Bolsheviks decided to stay.
Leningraders feel more sophisticated than Muscovites and have long resented the transfer of power and culture. It is a bit like Barcelona’s resentment of Madrid, Montreal’s resentment of Toronto and San Francisco’s resentment of Los Angeles.
The situation in Leningrad underscores the difficulty of applying Gorbachev’s reforms outside Moscow. Some of the problem stems from personnel. The centralized Soviet government has found it easier to fire officials and appoint new ones in Moscow than farther away in cities like Leningrad. Reform decrees out of Moscow thus have to be implemented in Leningrad by officials identified with the policies that have to be changed.
“We hear about all the changes in Moscow,” said Natasha Uspenskaya, a 60-year-old Leningrad environmentalist. “But nothing has changed in Leningrad. The same people are in charge.”
Arkady Dragomoshenko, a 41-year-old poet and playwright trying to register his unofficial theater troupe with the government, described how the Leningrad bureaucracy defies Gorbachev’s reforms by stifling proposals through inaction and petty harassment.
“If you quote Gorbachev to them,” he said, “they will quote Gorbachev right back at you, but they will not do anything. They will not reject your proposal but tell you it has been passed up to someone else. After a month, they will say that one phrase in your letter needs rewriting and that you should start all over again. We could appeal to Moscow to overrule Leningrad, but Moscow seems very far away.”
Since Gorbachev came to power, various environmental groups have organized in Leningrad. Two main goals are to halt construction of a dam that could pollute Leningrad’s Neva River and to prevent the demolition of old buildings.
Officials have proven less sophisticated than other Leningraders. In one troubling case, Leningrad city authorities demolished the old Hotel Angleterre--regarded somewhat romantically ever since Soviet poet Sergei Yesinin hanged himself there in 1925--even while environmentalists were pleading for its salvation.
Speeches in the Park
When city officials then decided to punish a 24-year-old environmental leader by refusing him admission to Leningrad University, Izvestia condemned the officials for failing to show tolerance.
City officials backtracked a bit and began allowing some protest groups to make speeches in Mikhailovsky Park every Saturday--a little like those in Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park. But this still does not guarantee Leningraders the same amount of unfettered talk that exists in Moscow.
A visitor to Leningrad finds several reminders of the October Revolution. The cruiser Aurora, which played a part in the revolt, is docked in the Neva River, and the old Winter Palace of the czars is now the Hermitage Museum. It houses one of the world’s finest art collections, including a remarkable assemblage of early Picassos and Matisses bought by two Russian industrialists before the revolution and confiscated afterward.
According to the myths of the Communist Party and heroic Soviet films, the Aurora’s shelling of the Winter Palace softened the Russian provisional government’s resistance inside the palace until it could be stormed by masses of Bolshevik workers and soldiers. In fact, the Aurora needed to fire only one blank shell to persuade those inside to surrender peacefully to the small detachment of Bolshevik troops. But fact has never interfered with myth, and the Aurora is often reproduced on the “Happy October Revolution” cards that Soviet citizens send to each other.
A visitor also finds that, from the point of view of urban architecture and life, Leningrad benefited from the decision almost 70 years ago to lose its status as a capital. Leningrad, with a population of 4.8 million, looks like an aging, poor--but distinctly European--city.
In contrast, a procession of Soviet dictators has ravaged Moscow with enormously wide streets and ugly public buildings that make the city difficult to walk in and painful to behold.
In Leningrad, one can walk through the neighborhood near the Griboyedov Canal where Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote and set his novel “Crime and Punishment” in the 1860s. The neighborhood is full of elegant, baroque apartment buildings that look down upon lovely stone and iron bridges.