Walking on Words: Topography, Place, Names, and Oral History in St. Petersburg

Julie Buckler, Harvard University

This paper departs from the work of the early-twentieth-century excursionist-kraevedy Nikolaj Anciferov and Petr Stolpjanskij, who documented the palimpsest-like layering of names across features on the city's surface. Anciferov contributed extensively to this effort, producing toponymic studies of Sadovaja Street and the Strelka port area on Vasil'evskij Island, as well as a theoretical program for examining a microcosm of the larger urban organism. Stolpjanskij is known for his singularly detailed "thick descriptions" that delve beneath the surface of his time to uncover the changing fortunes of a particular Petersburg spot, as often reflected by its chronological sequence of names. For both Anciferov and Stolpjanskij, place names are more than a part of a city's history, since names contain and preserve this history in themselves. Both note the telling instances when a change of name attempts to codify a corresponding shift in official ideology, local identity, or conversely, when a name remains long after its object has disappeared from the Petersburg cityscape. The Fontanka Canal, for example, was named for the Summer Garden's elaborate system of fountains, which was destroyed by the 1777 flood and never reconstructed.

In fact, the names of streets, bridges, squares, embankments, and other aspects of urban topography have been a favorite preoccupation of Petersburg cultural history throughout the twentieth century, as further evidenced by the popular Gorbachevich-Xablo volume Pochemu tak nazvany? from the 1960s, which continues to appear regularly in new, updated editions. (The differences between the 1985 and 1996 editions are particularly instructive in revealing the returns to the tsarist era nomenclature instituted after the break-up of the Soviet Union.) The contemporary Petersburg "folklorist" Naum Sindalovskij has similarly contributed to the project of resurrecting and explaining Petersburg historical toponymy through urban legends and myths. Various writers from the nineteenth century have also documented the names associated with the Petersburg cityscape. Evgenij Grebenka ("Peterburgskaja storona"), Apollon Grigor'ev ("Zametki peterburgskogo zevaki"), and Mixail Pyljaev ("Zamechatel'nye chudaki i originaly") all muse upon the phenomenon of Petersburg naming. There were no official names in St. Petersburg until 1738, when a commission established the first set of 257 names, only 12 of which are still in use (Litejnyj Prospect is one). The middle of nineteenth century, with its social upheavals, represents a moment of widespread official name changing, as does, of course, the period after 1917. But official changes often failed to take effect, as Petersburg residents continued to use the old familiar forms. In 1944, historical names were returned to some streets and squares (including Nevskij Prospect and Palace Square) to reflect a concession to the city's new identity as a celebrated "war hero."

How is it that names--written on maps, referred to in all manner of documentation about the city--are nevertheless part of Petersburg's oral history? How do written and oral systems coexist within the larger cultural system of the city? How successful are recent attempts to capture oral history between the covers of published cultural histories? This paper will use several specific examples of name change and evolution to illustrate the principles at work in attaching names to urban objects. I will discuss the theory of city names presented by Anciferov and compare his ideas to those expounded by J. Hillis Miller, Walter Benjamin, and other Western commentators on this aspect of urban archeology. How does the history of naming in Petersburg help or hinder the cultural historian from "reading" the Petersburg cityscape across time?