Zealous, anti-Communist reformer

Anatoly Sobchak who died on February 20th, aged 62, was one of Russia's more zealous reformers

Anatoly Sobchak who died on February 20th, aged 62, was one of Russia's more zealous reformers. Pro-democracy and virulently anti-Communist, he was responsible for many of the important changes from Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost era up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992.

He will be remembered particularly as the man responsible for the change of Russia's second city's name from Leningrad back to St Petersburg following a referendum in 1991. However, his drafting of the 1993 Russian constitution, which gave extensive power to President Yeltsin, was perhaps his greatest contribution to life in today's Russia.

When the tanks were brought on to the streets of Moscow in August 1991 in an attempted coup etat to oust President Gorbachev from power, Anatoly Sobchak was on a visit to the capital. His presence of mind in flying back to what was then Leningrad and rousing the people against the threat of dictatorship played a major part in keeping anti-democratic forces from controlling the city.

As mayor of St Petersburg he was the first person to bring Russia's current acting president, Vladimir Putin, to political prominence.


At that time Anatoly Sobchak's dream was to turn the city into a successful "free enterprise zone". St Petersburg needed a boost. Its wonderful architectural fabric was under threat from years of neglect. The introduction of a free-enterprise zone would, he felt, make St Petersburg the financial capital of Russia and provide the engine for renewal in one of the world's most beautiful cities. The plan did not work.

Under the dynamic, if less-than-democratic rule of its mayor, Yuri Luzkov, Moscow surged ahead of its rival. It was Moscow, not St Petersburg, that became the country's financial centre. Its ancient buildings were restored. The huge cathedral of Christ the Saviour, destroyed by Stalin, was rebuilt.

St Petersburg, during the period of Moscow's renewal, suffered from stagnation. Fingers were pointed at the mayor. Anatoly Sobchak was criticised for his increasingly frequent trips abroad, notably to Paris. Allegations of corruption followed and in the mayoral elections of 1996 he was defeated by one of his deputies, Vladimir Yakovlev, who promised to do for St Petersburg what Luzhkov had done for Moscow.

When an investigation began into his affairs in 1997, Anatoly Sobchak left St Petersburg to live in Paris. He had begun to suffer from heart problems and gave this as the reason for his departure. Only last year, when charges against him were dropped, did he return to Russia. His final humiliation came at the hands of the electorate in December 1999 when he was defeated in a bid for election to the State Duma.

Anatoly Sobchak is survived by his second wife Lyudmila, and two daughters.

Anatoly Alexandrovich Sobchak: born 1937; died February, 2000