“We went to bed in St. Petersburg, and woke up in Petrograd!” 

On 31st (O.S. 18th) August 1914, St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd, by decree of Emperor Nicholas II.

The following day, on 1st September 1914, the Highest Order of Emperor Nicholas II to the Governing Senate was published on renaming St. Petersburg to Petrograd. The decision on renaming the capital of the Russian Empire: Sankt Peterburg / St. Petersburg to Petrograd, meaning “Peter’s City”, was to remove the German sounding words “Sankt” and “Burg”. [ “Sankt-Peterburg,” was actually the Dutch-influenced name that Peter the Great gave the city in 1703].

The Emperor’s decree was just the beginning of a large-scale anti-German campaign that swept Russian society at the beginning of the First World War. Not without excesses: Russian nationalists vented their anger against German shops, restaurants and businesses, even the German embassy was not spared. Anti-German sentiment launched conspiracies, and many people were accused of being spies. The Empress Alexandra Feodorovna herself was even accused of being a German spy! The entire anti-German campaign that swept Russian society was of course further fuelled by the press.

It is believed that the initiator of the renaming of the city was the Minister of Land Management and Agriculture Alexander Vasilyevich Krivoshein (1857-1921). On 11th August 1914, he was received by Nicholas II and convinced the Emperor of the need to issue a decree renaming the capital.

The Russian poet Ivan Ivanovich Tkhorzhevsky (1878-1951), later wrote that Krivoshein himself told him: “Many attack him [the Sovereign] for renaming the city Petrograd. Rukhlov (Minister of Railways) allegedly said to him: ‘who are you, Your Majesty, to correct Peter the Great!,’ of which the Sovereign responded: ‘The Russian name is dearer to the Russian heart … “.

The Emperor received support of the renaming of the capital, from the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Nikolai Alekseevich Maklakov (1871-1918), and the chief prosecutor of the Holy Synod, Vladimir Karlovich Sabler (1845-1929). It is interesting to note that with the outbreak of World War I, with Germany as Russia’s chief opponent, Vladimir Karlovich chose to replace his German sounding surname with his wife’s maiden name, Desyatovsky.

As the military historian Anton Antonovich Kersnovsky (1907-1944) noted, “yesterday’s cosmopolitans have suddenly turned into ardent nationalists. Fury against everything “German” became the dominant note. People who seemed to be quite reasonable, suddenly demanded that their surnames of German origin be changed into a Russian form.”

The very next day after Nicholas II’s decree, one St. Petersburg newspaper announced: “We went to bed in St. Petersburg, and woke up in Petrograd! .. The St. Petersburg period of our history with its German tinge has ended … Hooray, gentlemen! ..”

PHOTO: map of Petrograd, 1914

Their euphoria was echoed by Petrogradskie Vedomosti: “Somehow this name sounds much nicer to the Russian ear! In Petrograd … from now on a new era will shine, in which there will no longer be a place for German dominance which has affected St. Petersburg. Fortunately, it has outlived its time and place in our city’s history”.

It should be noted, that the idea of renaming of St. Petersburg was discussed back in the days of Empress Catherine II and Emperor Alexander I. Writers, in particular Derzhavin and Pushkin, sometimes referred to St. Petersburg as “Petropole” in their works. In some decrees issued by Catherine II herself, the place of their publication was the “City of St. Peter”.

The Russkoye Slovo newspaper recalled that as early as the 1870s, Savophiles began a movement in favor of renaming St. Petersburg to Petrograd: “Historical documents confirm that the Slavophiles tried to introduce the use of this name into all aspects of everyday life in the capital. For instance, in correspondence and in personal conversations, they completely avoided using the name Petersburg, and even on the envelopes of letters they wrote “Petrograd”, as a result of which misunderstandings often arose between the Slavophiles and representatives of the post office, who claimed that they could not guarantee the delivery of letters bearing the destination city as “Petrograd”. This movement, however, failed to have any real effect on changing the city’s name at the time.”

It was assumed that not only the capital would be renamed, but other Russian cities bearing German sounding names as well. They wanted to rename Ekaterinburg – Ekaterinograd, Orenburg – Orengrad. They also wanted to rename both Shlisselburg and Oranienbaum, among many others. These plans, however, did not materialize.

The renaming of St. Petersburg caused a mixed reaction in society. According to Tkhorzhevsky, “the city was renamed without consulting the city’s residents: it was as if St. Petersburg had been demoted.” Lawyer and writer Anatoly Fedorovich Koni (1844-1927) was also not happy: “The historical name associated with the founder of the city and borrowed from Holland, reminiscent of the “eternal worker on the throne [Peter the Great]”, was replaced under the influence of some patriotic whim by the meaningless name of Petrograd, in common with Elizavetgrad, Pavlograd and other similar,” he wrote . Even the mother of Nicholas II, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, sarcastically remarked on this occasion that, “Peterhof would soon be renamed Petrushkin Dvor”.

Kersnovsky even called the renaming of St. Petersburg as the “crown of stupidity”. He wrote: “the ignorance of our educated circles, from which the initiative came, was amazing. Tsar Peter I named the city “St. Petersburg”, which he founded in honor of his saint [St. Peter] – and on a Dutch, not a German model and, of course, did not think to name it after himself. St. Petersburg in Russian could be translated “Svyatopetrovsk”.

PHOTO: a Metro station in St. Petersburg reflects the city’s name changes

Petrograd was by no means to be the last change in the name of the great Russian city.

On 26th January 1924, five days after Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin’s death, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. a name which the city retained for nearly 70 years. On 12th June 1991, simultaneously with the first Russian presidential elections, the city authorities arranged for the mayoral elections and a referendum upon the name of the city. A majority favoured restoring the city’s pre-World War One name St. Petersburg again.

It should also be noted the surrounding administrative region still retains the name “Leningradskaya Oblast”

In June 2019, Russian politician and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) Vladimir Zhirinovsky (1946-2022), called for renaming St. Petersburg to its pre-revolutionary name PETROGRAD. Nothing, of course, ever came of his request.

© Paul Gilbert. 31 August 2022