Russia's former imperial capital, St. Petersburg, marks the 300th anniversary of its founding today. Birthday celebrations will last for several days and culminate this weekend, when more than 40 world leaders arrive in the city to take part in cultural events and a series of summits with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prague, 27 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "There, by the billows desolate,
He stood, with mighty thoughts elate,
And gazed; but in the distance only
A sorry skiff on the broad spate
Of Neva drifted seaward, lonely.
The moss-grown miry banks with rare
Hovels were dotted here and there
Where wretched Finns for shelter crowded;
The murmuring woodlands had no share
Of sunshine, all in mist beshrouded.
And thus He mused: 'From here, indeed
Shall we strike terror in the Swede;
And here a city by our labor
Founded, shall gall our haughty neighbor;
'Here cut'-- so Nature gives command --
'Your window through on Europe; stand
Firm-footed by the sea, unchanging!'
Ay, ships of every flag shall come
By waters they had never swum,
And we shall revel, freely ranging."
The opening lines of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin's epic poem "The Bronze Horseman" are known to every Russian schoolchild. The verses take their inspiration from the city's famous equestrian statue of Tsar Peter the Great. They describe his founding of the city on the desolate banks of the Gulf of Finland in May 1703, following a battle against the Swedes that gave Russia its long-sought access to the sea.
Pushkin portrayed St. Petersburg's foundation as an epic struggle between nature and man. Peter the Great's single-minded determination to build a majestic imperial capital -- a "Window on Europe" -- on what was frozen, flooded swampland cost thousands of lives. But ultimately, he and his heirs succeeded and the city became the shining center of Russian political and cultural life.
And this week, as Pushkin has Peter himself predicting, ships of every flag -- or, rather, presidential aircraft from every continent -- will land here, bringing more than 40 world leaders to take part in St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary.
They will be honoring a city that has stood at the center of Russia's imagination since its foundation.
Generations of Russian poets and writers have had a love-hate relationship with St. Petersburg, seeing it as a metaphor for Russia's unparalleled capacity for grandeur and its equally unrivaled capacity for imposing cruelty and enduring hardship. Fedor Dostoevsky called St. Petersburg "the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world."
The nation's obsession with St. Petersburg faded for most of the 20th century. The Bolsheviks' decision to move the country's capital back to Moscow in 1918 began a long process of decline. Soviet leader Josef Stalin murdered much of the city's intelligentsia in the 1930s -- by that time known as Leningrad -- and the Nazis' 900-day siege of the city during World War II killed a third of the city's inhabitants.
But St. Petersburg survived to see its star ascend once more. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city regained its original name. In the year 2000, native son Vladimir Putin was elected Russian president.
Putin has been the driving force behind the latest efforts to showcase the city as a center of arts and culture, which he views as symbolic of a resurgent Russia. Under his direction, the authorities allocated hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal budget to restore the city's faded facades and countless monuments, in time for its 300th anniversary.
As Putin explained in an interview aired on Russia television today, it was a project worth undertaking. "Everything that is characteristic of our country's history is reflected in the city's history," Putin said. "To be a citizen of Russia and an inhabitant of this city is at once a great honor and a heavy burden because our city was built in the face of many difficulties. At all times, even in the most difficult periods of its history, the city was always magnificent and great."
Today, 27 May, marks the official anniversary of the city's founding. Parades, outdoor concerts, and street fairs will be capped by a giant laser show tonight on the banks of the Neva River. But in many ways, today's events are a dress rehearsal for the weekend, when world leaders arrive in the city for what promises to be an extravaganza of culture and politics.
Fourteen thousand hotel rooms have been set aside for the foreign officials, their aides and accompanying journalists. U.S. President George W. Bush alone is flying in with 700 staffers. Thousands of extra police are being deployed and plans call for the city's Pulkovo Airport to be closed to ordinary traffic for four days, beginning Friday (30 May), as the city prepares to host the biggest international gathering in its history.
Putin will use the occasion to host a series of bilateral and multilateral summits at the 18th-century Konstantinovksii Palace, restored from dereliction to its original splendor in the space of 18 months, at a cost of $300 million -- mostly from private donors, according to the government.
On 30 May, leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) will convene for a summit at the palace. They will be followed by leaders of the European Union on Saturday (31 May), for a Russia-EU summit. Bush will hold a bilateral summit with Putin on Sunday (1 June).
Chinese President Hu Jintao, who met Putin for talks in Moscow yesterday and today, will also travel up to St. Petersburg for the festivities. He is due to open a Chinese garden at the city's Institute of Oriental Studies.
So what do ordinary St. Petersburg residents think of their city's anniversary and the impending media onslaught? Anna Sharogradskaya, director of the Press Development Institute, told RFE/RL by phone from St. Petersburg that feelings are mixed.
"Everyone remarks that if it weren't for the anniversary, the city most probably wouldn't have come up with the funds to make itself so beautiful. People are taking part in the various events around town, the different street fairs. And I'm sure that many people will go to see the laser show. On the other hand, working people are worried about all the traffic restrictions. These restrictions are too numerous to allow you to make any plans. And most city residents will be focused on just surviving this period -- we'll have a chance to enjoy the city after this is all over," Sharogradskaya said.
Local politicians have in fact advised residents, after today, to stay out of the city center as much as possible and consider even going out of town this anniversary weekend so the foreign dignitaries will not be inconvenienced. Happy Birthday, St. Petersburg!
("Pushkin's Bronze Horseman" -- Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1955. English translation by Waclaw Lednicki.)