Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Next Stop, Yeltsingrad? Blink and You'll Miss It

Being a Russian major in college offered few advantages, but there is one that still comes in handy on occasion. I remember how my friends and I would prowl the campus pub, winning beers from our fellow students by betting against those who thought that Stalingrad and Leningrad were different names for a single city.

We didn't stop to think about it at the time, but we were taking advantage of an interesting Russian cultural and linguistic phenomenon, namely the practice of changing place names whenever the political winds shift. Take, for instance, the city of Rybinsk, which was called Shcherbakov from 1946 to 1957 (in honor of some Communist Party hero who has left no trace in history), and then was Rybinsk again until 1984. From 1984 to 1990, the city went by the name Andropov. Now it is Rybinsk once again.

I ran up against the phenomenon last week during a visit to Volgograd. Volgograd, you see, was called Tsaritsyn before the revolution and was renamed Stalingrad in 1925. In 1961, after the winds shifted, the name Volgograd was adopted.

However, as I was told, no one in Volgograd likes that name (which means "city on the Volga"), since the Volga is a vast river with many cities on it, and this generic name says nothing about this particular city.

However, changing the name that no one likes has proven impossible since half the population wants to return to Stalingrad (to honor the memory of the battle) and half wants to skip right back to the romantic sounding Tsaritsyn. When I asked one local babushka how she felt, she answered: "Ya tsaritsynka" (I am a woman of Tsaritsyn).

As for St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, formerly Petrograd, the situation was less complex, although veterans of the blockade opposed restoring the city's pre-revolutionary name. But most Russians, even those who have no love lost for Lenin, would agree that the name Sankt-Peterburg (note the hyphen) sounds foreign and is difficult to pronounce.

When the debate over changing the name was raging in 1990, Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- apparently taking the disliked Volgograd as his model -- suggested Nevograd (city on the Neva). As has so often been the case in recent years, no one paid much attention to Solzhenitsyn.

Historically, though, Sankt-Peterburg has always been a difficult name for Russians to swallow. Russian sources from the 20 years following the city's founding by Peter the Great in 1703 reveal more than 30 spelling variations of this name. In fact, Russians had trouble with all three components of the name, with various authors writing Sankt, Sant, San, Piter, Peter, Petr, burg, burkh and burk. More or less randomly, they would occasionally throw in an "s" or a "z" between "Peter" and "burg."

Peter the Great generally preferred to write Sankt-Piterburg. But he was no slave to consistency.