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Leningrad votes for a "symbolic rebirth' as St. Petersburg

Lenin's greatest monument teetered and began to fall Thursday after inhabitants of this historic city voted to restore its original name of St. Petersburg _ the longtime imperial capital of all Russia. Voters here also joined the rest of the country in choosing Boris Yeltsin, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's great rival, as Russia's first elected president and Anatoly Sobchak, a Yeltsin ally, as the city's first real mayor.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times at noon Thursday in an office at the Marinsky Palace that once served the Czars and Grand Dukes, an elated Sobchak, a national figure in his own right, hailed all three victories.

With nearly all districts heard from, St. Petersburg won nearly 54.8 percent of the vote to 42.6 percent for Leningrad _ in defiance of appeals by President Mikhail Gorbachev and other Communist officials that the city retain the name of V.I. Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The percentage for Sobchak himself hovered around 65 percent.

"It is a symbolic rebirth," the 53-year-old Sobchak said of the referendum on the city's name, "a return to history, of regained values . . . of a people's tradition. . . . a decision of great political and psychological meaning."

Since Wednesday's referendum was non-binding, the change in the city's name will now be up to the Russian Parliament. When the Lensoviet, the city council, next meets on June 25, Sobchak said, it will take note of the vote and ask the Parliament to act.

Then, he predicted it would ask that Lenin's body be taken out of its mausoleum in Red Square in Moscow and returned to the famous Volkhov Cemetery here to lie beside that of his mother as he requested in his will.

This, too, is a claim likely to infuriate the Soviet Communist Party, which elevated Lenin to a near god nearly 70 years ago and made his tomb in Red Square the center of an empire and place of pilgrimage.

Yeltsin's election as president of Russia and even Sobchak's as mayor of Leningrad may be more immediately significant than a non-binding referendum here, but the victory for St. Petersburg will be the most humiliating of defeats for those Communists still clinging to power and historical respectability.

Other Russian cities, Stalingrad included, dropped their communist names without benefit of referendum or national approval, but Leningrad's name and past make it different.

A large painting of Lenin still hung behind Sobchak's desk, but only, said a friend, because it hid a big hole in the wall behind it that nothing else has yet been found to cover. Like Yeltsin, Sobchak quit the Communist Party last year.

For 211 years from its founding in 1703 by Peter the Great, the city he named St. Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia and its window on the outside world. When World War I broke out, the imperial government Russified the name to Petrograd.

The Bolshevik revolution slammed the city's window shut, and the capital moved to Moscow. The decline began. When Lenin died in 1924, Petrograd became Leningrad.

Today a city of 5-million, its streets are full of potholes. Makeshift sewer pipes run above ground along many streets, the hospitals, transport and other city services are dilapidated, and many people are still living in communal apartments.

The paint is peeling on the pastel palaces designed by Italian architects that made St. Petersburg one of the most beautiful and greatest capitals in Europe. Yet the faded beauty is still there, an attraction for thousands who come to see the remains of its imperial past rather than its until recently communist present.

For 900 days, from September 1941 to January 1944, the city held out against the besieging Germans. Over a million people lost their lives either in the fighting or from starvation during the cruel winters.

The advocates of changing the name appeared to have captured most of the under-60 vote. But it was the memory of the siege, even more than reverence for Lenin, that made the decision to restore the name of St. Petersburg so hard. About 25 percent of the population is over 60. Going around the polling places on Wednesday, I couldn't find an older person who favored the change in name.

On the eve of the vote, Sobchak recalled that "on the banks of the Neva, Russian blood has often been shed," first in the 13th century when Prince Alexander Nevsky stopped the advance of the Baltic knights.

"The blood from their wars is no less important than the blood spilled in the Great Patriotic War," he said.

The second argument in favor of Leningrad was the money that would have to be spent for the change when so many more important needs such as streets, hospitals, children and public services are clamoring to be addressed.

Sobchak ended his campaign by claiming that he wouldn't spend a ruble on the name change. In our interview Thursday, he added that the transition would take several years and that not even old identity cards would be changed now. Only the new ones would be issued with the name St. Petersburg. And the city would launch a charitable fund to help pay for the cost.

World Chess champion Gary Kasparov has promised to raise $2-million for a renamed St. Petersburg, money that Sobchak told a news conference earlier this week would be spent on children.

The money saved from Sobchak's promised reorganization of the city government and drastic cuts in personnel would help provide one free meal a day for the city's school children, he said _ "what politician could oppose that?"

Sobchak hope that Yeltsin's victory Wednesday will mark the end of the quarrel between Gorbachev's central government and the Soviet republics, of which Russia is by far the largest.

If so, Sobchak said, Wednesday's elections could be the beginning of social and economic stability. The political struggle between the two men over power and the future shape of the Soviet Union has helped bring about a near economic collapse.

Gorbachev has no other choice just now than to cooperate, he said, and Yeltsin realized the need for Gorbachev.

"Only if the quarrel between the center and the republics stop can we be successful," Sobchak said.

That, of course, is the overwhelming question.

In 1887, one of imperial St. Petersburg's homesick sons, Pyotr Dementyev (Peter Demens), gave its name to a settlement on Florida's West Coast.

Thursday's interview with Sobchak ended with his message of greeting to St. Petersburg, Florida _ "your beautiful city that was named after our city."

"I hope our cities will establish close cooperation with each other and and will exchange groups of school children, musical and drama companies," he said.

"We are open for cooperation with the whole world and first place belongs to the city established by a Russian that is named St. Petersburg."

He nodded sympathetically about the Florida St. Petersburg's failure to get a baseball team. He also asked if exhibits about the Russian St. Petersburg he brought to Florida last year were now in the Florida St. Petersburg's "city museum." I didn't know.