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Millions of Russians vote; Yeltsin leads

As she came out of the polls on Russia's election day, Wednesday, Alexandra Tarbashin said yes, it might be nice to live in St. Petersburg. But it wasn't the Petrograd she was born in, nor the broken-down city of Leningrad she lives in 75 years later. So, she said, she couldn't vote to take back the old name. That was the most controversial question on the ballot when Leningraders flocked to the polls on a sunny day that also happened to be the birthday of the city's founder Peter the Great, and the feast day of St. Isaac, its patron saint.

Just after midnight, city election official Yuri Lyovin reported a trend of 54 percent for St. Petersburg in the first preliminary results, but it was still too early to call. Probably more sure was a victory for Boris Yeltsin as Russia's first elected president, and the election of Anatoly Sobchak, his ally, as Leningrad's mayor. Sobchak is a leader of the campaign to restore the name of St. Petersburg.

In any case the name referendum is non-binding. Only the Russian parliament can officially change the city's name. The elections for president took place throughout Russia, but for the first time major cities also elected their mayors, a new office, and Leningrad added the referendum on its name.

While other radical reformers have toppled Lenin statues in outlying Soviet republics, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has pointedly stopped short of criticizing the revolutionary leader who for 70 years of Soviet history has been half George Washington, half God. This city is Lenin's greatest monument, and the Communist Party has gone all out to prevent changing its name.

"The great city bears the name of a great man," Gorbachev said last week. "V.I. Lenin has gone down in history as one of the greatest thinkers, politicians and statesmen of the 20th century. ... I firmly believe there are neither moral nor political grounds for changing."

"St. Petersburg!" Alexandra Tarbashin's husband, Vassily, also 75, said angrily, voicing the widespread argument that the city has far more important things to do than name-changing. He pointed down to the green socks showing through his open sandals. "Maybe some time, but not now. I can't even find socks here."

So it went through poll interviews with people who were born in St. Petersburg before 1914 or in Petrograd between 1914 and 1924, when the city's name was changed to Leningrad.

I set out thinking I would find someone who was born in St. Petersburg and wanted to die there, and there must be some. But the very senior citizens I talked to responded to the name of Leningrad because they had either fought or survived here during the 900-day siege in World War II, or shunned the change as clashing with more important things that need to be done.

Over a million people lost their lives either from fighting or from starvation during the cruel winters. Piskaryav Memorial Cemetery Park, where hundreds of thousands are buried in common grassy mounds, is their monument.

As in another St. Petersburg I know, the proportion of older people is higher here than elsewhere in the country.

About 25 percent of the population is over 60, according to Sobchak. Those who remember the siege, the blockadniks, are opposed to the name change. Others are wary of offending them.

"Of course" she voted for Leningrad, said 78-year-old Miranda Vladimirovna.

"I've lived in Leningrad most of my life and I want to finish it in Leningrad, not St. Petersburg," said 89-year-old Anastasia Alexandrovna, peering with determination through thick eyeglass lenses. "I know nothing about St. Petersburg."

The vote for St. Petersburg seemed to come mostly from the young.

"I voted for St. Petersburg because I'm sick and tired of Lenin and his party," said 27-year-old Anna Medeva, a teacher of Russian literature.

Alexander Mejevich, a 32-year-old police officer, had another answer. Why not, he asked, restore the name of the central city that was St. Petersburg and leave the newer suburbs of sometimes rickety high-rises to be called either Leningrad or by suburban names?

Each voter got three ballots. One was for the Russian election, containing the names of Yeltsin, former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, former Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin and three others. The second ballot carried only Sobchak's name and that of the Communist candidate Yuri Sevenord.

The third, smaller piece of paper, asked if the voter was in favor of taking back the name of St. Petersburg, Da or Nyet, Yes or No.

The voter was supposed to mark out all the other options but his own choice.

The 50-year-old Sobchak was virtually mobbed by cameramen and reporters who followed him right into the voting booth when he voted at 10:15 a.m. at Middle School 204 on Khulburina Street. For nearly an hour thereafter, he answered questions and sometimes argued with angry voters.

To one man who protested that the city was filthier than it had been after World War II, Sobchak, a leading democrat, replied that under Stalinism all the government had to do was give orders; that's not true in a democracy.

In a wide-ranging news conference Tuesday, Sobchak pleaded eloquently for his city to resume the role Peter the Great set before it, as "a window on Europe, the link between Russia and Europe."

He had spent years in Moscow trying to get action, he said, and like Peter the Great had concluded that it was impossible.

If it is re-named St. Petersburg, he said, the city should not again become the Russian capital but rather the "financial center, the cultural center, the religious center, the scientific center" of the nation.

Peter the Great was born 319 years ago Tuesday. The monarchists who have re-emerged as a small but vocal group here organized at the church inside the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first building Peter erected in 1703 at the mouth of the Neva.

The final blessing came from Father Pavel at the Assumption Cathedral:

"God bless the citizens and the city of St. Petersburg."

But maybe not yet.