New view on the reasons for assigning the name “Yakubovich” to the street

In the latest issue of the Russian edition of the New Toponymic Journal, the St. Petersburg journalist Alexey Erofeev’s article, "What's in a name?", was published.


Issue #4, 2010

Street of “the brave Caucasian”…?


Proposals are still submitted to the Interdepartmental Commission of Naming to return some Petersburg streets their former names . Although in some cases the persons in whose honour the streets were named, are appealing to neither those who seek to return the prior name, nor the supporters of the new names received in the Soviet times.

Recently, a grand exhibition called “The chosen ones of Clio”, covering three centuries of secular art in Russia and the more than one thousand year long history of our country, opened in the Russian museum,. Among the characters from the books, there are a number of figures whose names are engraved on monuments or exist in the toponymy of Russian cities. For example, Alexander Nevsky, Stepan Razin, Peter the Great and other representatives of the Romanov royal family, Alexander Suvorov, the Decembrists, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the leaders of the Revolution, heroes of the Great Patriotic War, and heads of state from the post-Communism era including Yeltsin and Putin. An important point to note however is that the organisers of the exhibition have not made a judgement as to which of the figures should be considered “true” heroes, which ones are somewhat difficult to be considered as heroes, and which ones are villains. The use of a subjective, good-evil value judgement is unacceptable in the science of toponymy. Nevertheless, such an approach has been known to be used and, in fact, continues to be. Such an approach has been advocated by the representatives of some social-political unions in spite of common sense even up to the present day. It is precisely the political component of this issue and the attention paid to it it in mass media which have scuppered plans to return some St. Petersburg streets their former names. One such former name is connected with Alexander Ivanovich Yakubovich. It is even more appropriate to mention him considering that in 2010 it will be 185 years since the Decembrists’ revolt.

The Decembrists’ revolt is a topic vastly explored by the historians. Streets in different cities of Russia (including St. Petersburg, of course) bear the names of the officers of the Russian Army who dared to stand up to those in power..

No matter what kind of attitude one has towards this event that significantly influenced the path of our history, a number of people question the necessity to commemorate the Decembrist Yakubovich; especially considering the choice of the street bearing his name, which happens to be the closest street to the place of the revolt.

The present name of New St.Isaak Street was given to the street on October, 6, 1923. Although it used to be called Decembrist Yakubovich Street, the defining word, “Decembrist”, went almost completely out of use by 1926. This is understandable as the toponymic construction seemed rather cumbersome and besides, Decembrist Square was very close by. Yet still, how is it that here, almost at the very site of the historical event, it is not Kahovsky Street that we see, in honour of the man who shot at the general-governor Milardovich; not Pestel Street, in honour of one of the main organisers of the secret society behind the uprising; and not Ryleyev Street, in recognition of the fact that Ryleyev lived only a couple of hundred metres from this spot in 1825?

In fact, Kahovsky Alley only appeared in 1945, and the initial October resolution immortalised only three Decembrists – Pestel, Ryleyev and Yakubovich. Pestel and Releyev Streets were located next to each other due to the close friendship between the two men, and they were coming to the Transfiguration Cathedral. Yakubovich Street was a short distance away , but closer to the place of the actual events.

It seems that from the point of personality propaganda – and this is the question taken into consideration most when renaming places with a political context –, Yakubovich’s services in the fight against Tsarism were evaluated higher than those of Pestel and Ryleyev.

At the same time, historians of the Decembrist movement consider that Alexander Yakubovich, unlike others, did not prove himself as a fighter against injustice and lawlessness. Why is it then that he and not another happened to be granted the significant honour of being forever immortalised in the name of a central street of the city on the Neva?

Taking a closer look at the personality of Yakubovich and at the date when the street was named in his honour, one could identify symbolic meaning in this street receiving the name of the Nizhniy Novgorod dragoon regiment captain.

A good-looking, smooth-talking, Cicero of sorts , and what’s more, respected by the soldiers for his well-earned military successes, he was called the “brave Caucasian”, in recognition of the difficult tasks he carried out on the orders of general Yermolov. He was also a frondeur, critical of the powers that be. Without necessarily having the burning flame of a revolutionary inside of him, he nevertheless spoke of the Tsar’s assassination. The Tsar in question was Alexander I, who, in Yakubovich’s opinion, had unfairly offended him by having him sent to the Caucasus mountains in 1818. To Yakubovich, however, the fate prepared on December, 14, 1825, capture the imperial family. Prince Trubyetskoy mentions this very ten days after the revolt. Yakubovich himself states that he was supposed not to “seize the Palace, but proceed with the troops to the Palace or Peter Square”. (Peter was the official name for Senate Square) and on the behalf of the society, scream “Hooray, Konstantin!” untl the summoning of the Council and the Senate. These words contradict the testimonies of other revolt participants who declared that the storming of the Winter Palace by the guard crew was in the plans, and that it was supposed to be led by Yakubovich himself. At the same time, Trubetskoy and Ryleyev noted certain traits of Bonapartism in Yakubovich and were undertake certain measures against the dictatorship of the “brave Caucasian” upon seizing power.

Let us now put together the pieces and the dates. 1923 is not only the time when Petersburg streets were being reamed in honour of dignified historical and cultural figures in line with the Bolsheviks’ wishes; Autumn 1923 also saw the Bolsheviks fighting for power behind Lenin’s back, while he was ill and isolated from the high politics politics in Gorky. Back at the end of December, 1922, Lenin dictated a letter to his secretary Maria Volodicheva that came to be known as “Lenin’s will” which in particular stated that “comrade Stalin, having become the general secretary, has accumulated immense power in his hands”. In January, 1923, he dictated (now to Lidia Fotieva) something of a postscript to the “will”, in which provided evaluations of the leaders of Bolshevik party.

The following was written about Stalin: “Stalin is too rude, and this is a flaw tolerable in such surroundings as our internal communications among communists, , but intolerable in a man occupying the position of the General Secretary. This is why I am suggesting to my comrades to appoint a different person to this position…”. The quote can be stopped on these words and it must be remembered that the renaming of Petersburg streets was happening at the time when the head of the executive committee of Petrosovet was Grigory Zinovyev. The nature of his postion and the fact that immediately following Lenin’s death it was Zinovyev who initiated the name change from Petrograd to Leningrad, indicates that he might have at least something to do with the process. Although, this happened 3.5 months after the story with New St.Isaak Street becoming Yakubovich Street, Zinovyev’s passion for treasuring the memory of former leaders is still clearly evident.

It is also necessary to remember that Stalin abhorred Grigory Yevseevich Zinovyev. He had been expelled from the party twice, and was twice readmitte, but in 1936 he was executed by a firing squad on charges relating to the “Trotsky-Zinovyev terrorist centre” case. Nevertheless, another things it should not be forgotten that in the pursuit of leadership and power in the party taking place whilst Lenin was ill, he united with Stalin against Trotsky. In the case that Stalin should be defeated, Yakubovich, as a person with dictatorship inclinations and the fame of being “the brave Caucasian”, was a rather suitable figure for around which to construct the cult of the leader required in this frm of working class dictatorship. Caucasian Jughashvili-Stalin.

In the light of the facts already mentioned, renaming this street, situated not far from the former Tsar’s residence, after the “brave Cacasian”, seems at least rational. For a street so close to the sight of the Decembrist rebellion, there doesn’t seem to be a better choice. Moreover, we should remember that Yakubovich turned out to be the only Decembrist who was not sent to be executed, but instead immortalised in the name of a famous street.In any case, this cunning “bow” to the new leader, who unlike Yakubovich, wasn't called “the brave Cacausian”, didn't save Grigory Yevseevich Zinovyev from execution and disgrace.

The name of Zinovyev was replaced in the names of all official institutions after 1926. The name of Stalin was erased from everything possible that was named after him in Leningrad, but “the brave Caucasian” Yakubovich, who 98 years after the Decembrists' uprisal turned out to be a bargaining chip between two communist leaders who abhorred each other, is still an important toponymic featre of St.Petersburg.

What about New St.Isaak Street? Is this name set to return on the map of the city? In the nearest future at least, this is quite unlikely, although they have returned in some forms, for example in the names of organizations: “on the Znamenskaya”, “on the Nikolayevskaya”, etc. This year, at the corner of Yakubovich Street and Konnogvardeysky Lane in house number 24, the New St.Isaac Office Centre was opened.

Perhaps, the centre would have been no different from other business centres were it not for one small little detail. Here history is treated with respect. In the times of Catherine the Great, the building housed the Sarepta Society for a century and a half – the Society adopted this name in honour of their Germanic origins. Everything possible is now being done to restore the historical value of the building. Three staircases in the New St.Isaac Office Centre were returned their original names by the owners of the building: the Staircase of the War of 1812, the Peter Staircase and the Staircase of Petersburg Bridges. The walls of the first are decorated with replicas of paintings, devoted to the 1812 War, of the second – paintings devoted to the founding of St.Petersburg, and the third boasts old photographs of Petersburg bridges.

The name New St.Isaak Street is a very characteristically Petersburg-esque. The prefix “New” relates to the fact that there was an Old-Isaacs which provides an opportunity for the curious to recall the history of the appearance of the new (contemporary) St.Isaac’s Cathedral – a masterpiece by Auguste de Montferrand. The Cathedral was also the first Isaac Church of Schwerfeger which was located closer to the Neva, in the cross-link to the very Old-Isaacs Street, which is now called Galernaya Street.

In conculsion in Nicolas II’s “Notes on the Accession to the Throne” when the Tsar speaks of Yegune Obolensky as “one of the most evil conspirators”, while mentioning Ryleev as the host of the gathering for the conspirators, the Tsar writes: “Another person, a monster in all senses of the word, Yakubovich ... managed with cunningness and a somewhat bold appearance to receive a warm welcome in the house of the Count Miloradovich, and captivating the kind heart of the Count, become close with him. What Obolensky couldn’t find out in the courtyard of the Palace, Yakubovich learnt from the Count, who, so to speak, often spoke too much”.