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Russia: St. Petersburg Prepares To Recapture The Limelight -- But Will The Glow Last?

  • Jeremy Bransten

For the past several months, St. Petersburg's palaces have been shrouded in scaffolding. The elegant footbridges spanning its canals are getting a fresh coat of paint and the city's signature Peter and Paul Fortress is awaiting a new golden spire. Russia's former imperial capital is preparing to celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding in style, marking what local leaders hope will be a turning point in the city's history. RFE/RL reports on preparations for next year's jubilee and what happens once the party ends.

St. Petersburg, 27 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- By European standards, 300 years is young for a city. But St. Petersburg wears its patina of old age well -- so well, in fact, that many of its richly ornamented 18th- and 19th-century buildings are at the point of decay after decades of neglect.

The 20th century put Peter the Great's city through trials few other European cities have endured. The Bolsheviks' decision to move the country's capital back to Moscow in 1918 began a long process of decline, but far worse was to come: first, Josef Stalin's purges, which liquidated much of the city's remaining intelligentsia in the 1930s; then, the Nazis' 900-day siege during World War II in which more than a third of the city's inhabitants perished. Little thought was given to preserving architecture in those years, and even less during the subsequent decades of industrialization, when priority was given to establishing a ring of military-industrial plants around the region.

Through it all, the soul of St. Petersburg, say its proud inhabitants, has survived. And indeed, the city's imposing facades still impress visitors, and its world-class museums still draw crowds. But first appearances can be deceiving. University professor Elvira Osipovna said: "Restoring the interior of the buildings behind the facades would require an enormous sum of money from the federal budget. The state of the city's housing is depressing. I am not referring to new construction -- that is going ahead and it's a good thing. But I am referring to the center and the part of the city located between the center and the outlying, so-called 'sleepy' districts. I've spent a lot of time walking around the areas where Dostoevskii's novels unfold, for example, and it's a scary sight. The courtyards are horrible, the staircases are grim, and you can imagine what the apartments themselves look like."

Osipovna cited another example: the Stroganoff Palace -- one of the numerous noblemen's residences scattered throughout the center, which lend the city its aristocratic air. Restoration work on the building began well before the current anniversary preparations and will have to continue long after the party is over. "This palace took three years to build, and was richly decorated -- the interior decor was especially fine -- but the state in which it was left by the military enterprise that was located there is impossible to describe. The building's chief restorer said it would take 33 years to bring it back to its original glory. So slowly, restoration work continues, but it has only taken place over the past five to seven years," Osipovna said.

The Russian federal government has allocated the equivalent of more than $50 million for the restoration of monuments and infrastructure projects in St. Petersburg ahead of next year's 300th-anniversary celebrations. A special committee has been formed that takes its orders directly from President Vladimir Putin, himself a city native, who takes pride in personally showcasing St. Petersburg's treasures to visiting dignitaries. Scores of exhibitions, concerts, and other special events are due to culminate, at the end of May 2003, in a global summit to which 40 heads of state have been invited. If all come, the government says, it will be the largest gathering of world leaders on Russian territory ever.

St. Petersburg founder Peter the Great would surely have approved of such plans. The Russian tsar was noted for his relentless dedication to making his city a resplendent European capital and a tireless promoter of its beauty. He even went as far as to commission promotional engravings of planned -- but at the time unbuilt -- palaces, for distribution to foreign courts.

But what happens when next year's party ends? Where will St. Petersburg, with its freshly repainted palaces, find itself? Will the city finally have succeeded in re-emerging into the limelight after so many decades in Moscow's shadow?

Economist Lev Sovulkin of the St. Petersburg Leontiev Center, an independent think tank, said the city's government and its inhabitants have yet to face some hard truths, which will not be changed by the anniversary festivities. With some 85 percent of foreign investment flowing directly to Moscow, and the country's countless ministries and state-owned corporations all headquartered there, the Russian capital has an overwhelming economic advantage. And the difference is increasingly apparent. "Comparing the gap between St. Petersburg and Moscow and St. Petersburg and Russia's other cities of over a million inhabitants -- in Soviet times and today -- we can see that the gap between Moscow and St. Petersburg has widened and the gap between St. Petersburg and other cities has narrowed," Sovulkin said.

A decade ago, developments seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. Initially, after the collapse of communism in 1991, when Russia emerged as an independent state, St. Petersburg's administrators, under then-Mayor Anatolii Sobchak, adopted many progressive economic measures designed to give the city Russia's most attractive investment environment.

St. Petersburg began privatizing state companies ahead of Moscow; Western banks opened their first Russian branches in St. Petersburg. The city was the first in Russia to create a system of targeted housing subsidies in a bid to liberalize the real-estate market. St. Petersburg appeared finally set to realize its historical ambition of regaining its status as Russia's "Window on Europe."

But reforms stalled. Dissatisfied with the pain of economic restructuring, voters chose new, less economically liberal city leadership. The foreign corporations moved to Moscow, followed by scores of domestic companies. Over the past five years, a brain drain has set in that has seen many of St. Petersburg's leading administrators, business leaders, and even artists moving to newly vibrant Moscow, where their salaries are tripled and their ambitions realized.

Economist Sovulkin said that brain drain will be reversed not by repainting the city's facades but by returning to the path of liberal reform so that St. Petersburg's many pressing economic problems can be resolved permanently, foremost among them the city's derelict housing stock. At present, nearly 40 percent of people in the city center live in Soviet-era communal apartments, with two or more families sharing a common kitchen and bathroom. Sovulkin said: "You do not get a city in good shape by painting it every day, or before every holiday. You need to create genuine owners of these buildings so that they can themselves hire companies, at lower expense, to restore them. Give the buildings away to private owners. At this point, the city collects rents but these rents are not put back into the upkeep of the property."

Sovulkin said St. Petersburg cannot hope to emulate Moscow's development model, but it does have a few aces of its own. The key is to adopt a development strategy and concentrate on setting policies to achieve those goals. "St. Petersburg could become a tourist center. But 3 million current annual visitors, both on business and for leisure, in total: It's laughable, just laughable. So what do you need to change things? You need to create conditions so more hotels can open -- mid-range establishments. You don't need to build them, you just need to create the conditions so these hotels can open and investors can invest in them. The local environment has to be made tourist-friendly," Sovulkin said.

Local authorities, he suggested, could also concentrate on the lucrative convention business, using St. Petersburg's unique geographical and historical setting to position the city as a center for Baltic and Scandinavian conferences and business meetings. They could also trade on St. Petersburg's once-leading status as a scientific and military research center to launch high-tech development areas, but tax breaks and other incentives would have to be given, to make the city a more attractive alternative for investors than Moscow.

Although he admits the terminology may strike some Petersburg residents as crass, Sovulkin likened the process to commercial branding. For decades, the city's residents have sung St. Petersburg's praises in almost automatic fashion. They invariably describe their city as Russia's most cultured, its inhabitants as Russia's best-educated, and its museums as the worlds' best, all while doing little to ensure it remains that way.

"St. Petersburg has tremendous potential. It has great potential due to its historical legacy. But all these 'brands' by which the city is known to the outside world, both in Russia and abroad, have to be filled with content, or else they will become meaningless. First, conditions have to be created to attract investment and then these investments must be put to good use, to highlight our strong suits. This is the main challenge facing not only the Petersburg authorities but the entire population," Sovulkin said.

Whatever happens in the near and distant future, St. Petersburg's residents will always have, as a refuge, their writers, their poets, and their belief in the city's uniqueness. Many claim a symbiotic co-existence with their city -- an emotion that can be hard to describe but is very deeply felt. Osipovna voiced those feelings in saying, "People who were born here or have spent many years here cannot help feeling this aura that helps people spiritually and defines their way of life, thoughts, and feelings."

Natalya Batozhok, head of the 300th-anniversary planning committee, told RFE/RL she is ready to defend her city's reputation as Russia's intellectual and cultural center any day. "A theater premiere that doesn't open in St. Petersburg cannot be called a true premiere," she said. "And no foreign visitor who comes to Russia without seeing St. Petersburg can claim to know our country."

Batozhok conceded, however, that once the festivities conclude and the federal funds dry up, her city will have to find another formula for success. "I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately," she said. "But I haven't hit on the right answer yet."

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