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Last Updated: Monday, 26 May, 2003, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
St Petersburg gets lavish face-lift

By Rob Parsons
BBC, St Petersburg

Russia's window on Europe, city of light, Venice of the north, call it what you will, is readying itself for the party of its lifetime.

According to legend, St Petersburg was born one cold misty morning 300 years ago. The date - 27 May, 1703.

Double-headed eagle restored to entrance to Winter Palace
Buildings are being restored to something like their former glory
The history of the city is a story of the triumph of human will over the elements. That day all those years ago, the tsar of Russia, then at war with Sweden, galloped across the marshland where the Neva river runs into the Gulf of Finland.

Seven feet (2.1 metres) tall, Peter the Great must have cut a formidable figure in the saddle.

As he splashed up on to Zayachy Island, he paused and dismounted. Plunging his sabre into the soft turf, he proclaimed: "Here shall be a city".

The first stones were laid of what was to become the Peter and Paul Fortress, a symbol both of Russia's might and its inner pain. In time, the dank cells of the Peter and Paul were to incarcerate many of the country's most famous political prisoners.

Driving force

The city that emerged from the swamp was a political statement set in stone and plaster. Peter built it as a gateway to the Western world, a means to drag Russia kicking and screaming if necessary into modernity.

And scream it did. St Petersburg is quite literally built on the bones of thousands of serf labourers. But what emerged was also a statement to the rest of Europe: Russia could no longer be ignored.

This city was born as a king's capital and the truth is it will always remain so - the tsarist blood of St Petersburg cannot be erased
Daniil Granin
The driving force behind this year's anniversary celebrations is President Vladimir Putin - himself a native of St Petersburg.

After decades of international isolation, he wants Russia to become an accepted part of mainstream Europe. And there is talk that he wants St Petersburg to play a major part in the country's transformation.

Rumours are afoot that some ministries may be moved to the old imperial capital.

No expense is being spared - central government has made available more than $1bn to lift the city's sagging cheeks and jowls.

St Petersburg is a creation of the utmost beauty, a shimmering, translucent ensemble of Baroque palaces and pastel facades.

Feverish preparations

But a sense of profound melancholy hangs over its streets and bridges.

The weight of St Petersburg's tragic history is a ubiquitous and at times oppressive presence - as many as a quarter of its inhabitants are thought to have fallen victim to Stalin's purges in the 1930s and more than a million to have died during the 900-day siege by the Germans in World War II.

Newly weds drinking toast by the Neva river
St Petersburgers are happy with the attention the city is getting
But the air of destitution owes at least as much to decades of appalling neglect. The 1917 revolution may have begun in St Petersburg but its victors showed the city scant gratitude.

The capital was moved to Moscow, it was renamed Leningrad and its once fine avenues fell into a long and profound decay.

That may now be changing. The few weeks since the end of winter have witnessed feverish preparations for the birthday celebrations.

Teams of workmen are restoring buildings to something like their former glory. Nevsky Prospekt, once the most famous avenue in the Russian Empire, has been resurfaced and repainted.

Much of the money for this comes from the state but - and this is a new development in Russia - charity is also playing a part. A group of entrepreneurs has formed a body for the protection of the jewel in the city's crown - the Hermitage Museum.

Caution and cynicism

But there are fears the city won't be ready for the celebrations. As a clock on Nevsky Prospekt counts down the minutes till the anniversary, craftsmen at the Hermitage are still laying gold leaf while workers lay pipes and pavements outside.

Konstantinovsky Palace
Pensioners' cottages were destroyed during the palace's restoration
The party is planned on an epic scale with street celebrations, regattas on the Neva, outdoor concerts of classical and rock music, firework displays, exhibitions and a season of opera and ballet at the world-famous Mariinsky Theatre.

The three-day G8 summit beginning on 30 May is another sign of Vladimir Putin's ambitions for his home town.

But while the people of the city are happy at the belated attention their city is getting, they are not exactly falling over themselves in gratitude.

Why should they be? Three hundred years has taught them a degree of caution and world-weary cynicism.

Why, they ask, is the city's only airport being shut down for the three days of the summit and why, when so many roads and houses are in desperate need of repair, are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on a presidential palace just outside the city?

The people of this, the most European of Russian cities, are proud of the city's cultural heritage.

But the hundreds of pensioners whose country cottages and gardens were razed to the ground to make way for the restoration of the Konstantinovsky Palace are seething with rage.

Grudgingly happy

No one asked their opinion and no one has offered them compensation.

Someone in the Kremlin decided their dwellings would be an eyesore for the visiting heads of state and that was that. No matter that some of them had been there since the end of the war.

The new Amber Room
The Amber Room, looted by the Nazis, has been restored
Some things, it seems, die hard. Like Peter the Great, Mr Putin wants Russia to be part of Europe. But like him, he also seems unable to mend old ways.

In the run-up to the summit, the state has employed 10,000 people in conditions of utmost secrecy to work on the palace night and day.

Yet for all the resentment that teems beneath the surface of this glorious city, you sense that the people of Peter, as they call it themselves, are grudgingly happy.

Daniil Granin is a writer and a native of the city. He's silver haired now and old enough to have experienced the war years at first hand.

He tells me that for all the faults of the present administration at least it's addressing the problems.

"Putin is reviving the city at last - maybe not as the capital city but restoring its importance. A bit like New York in the US.

"This city was born as a royal capital and the truth is it will always remain so. The tsarist blood of St Petersburg cannot be erased."

Russian city's angry anniversary
27 May 03  |  Europe
BBC's St Petersburg tributes
23 Apr 03  |  Entertainment


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