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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 November 2007, 18:56 GMT
St Petersburg: A Kremlin launchpad
By James Rodgers
BBC News, St Petersburg

St Petersburg
St Petersburg was the Russian capital for more than 200 years
St Petersburg was created to establish Russia as a European power.

In the modern state, the city has served as the launchpad for the political careers of the most powerful people in the Kremlin - starting with President Vladimir Putin himself.

Russia's two First Deputy Prime Ministers, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, were both born here.

President Putin surprised everyone when he nominated Viktor Zubkov as prime minister. The two men had worked together before Mr Putin moved to Moscow.

Whichever of the Kremlin "clans" provides Vladimir Putin's successor, the new president is likely to have extensive contacts in the same circles.

'Putin's plan'

Vatanyar Yagya is a member of the city legislature for the pro-Putin United Russia party.

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov (left) and President Vladimir Putin. File photo
The "St Petersburg clan" has grown in strength in the Kremlin

You cannot go anywhere in Russia during this election season without seeing some reference to "Putin's plan". I asked Mr Yagya what that meant to him.

"Putin's plan is to further raise of the role of Russia in world politics. Unfortunately, we must admit that in the 1990s Russia lost its place, its position became much weaker. Russia lost her weight," he said.

"President Putin's direction in the first decade of this century has been dedicated to its restoration."

Many in St Petersburg share that view.

'Strong country'

The Soviet-era housing on the edge of St Petersburg seems a world away from the neo-classical elegance of the city centre.

Real democracy can live with a strong power
Yevgenia Merkuleva
St Petersburg resident

One such block is home to Yevgenia Merkuleva, her husband, her parents, and her 17-month-old son, Maxim.

Yevgenia feels that her child is growing up in a better Russia than the one she knew in the 1990s - that is why she supports President Putin.

"With Putin our country became a strong country, and foreign citizens don't think about Russia as a wild country as it was maybe 10 years ago," she says.

I pointed out that many people in the west feel that since Mr Putin came to power, there was no real democracy in Russia.

"There is a point of view that real democracy can live with a strong power," she insists.

Struggling opposition

Not everyone agrees.


Those who do not are absent from mainstream politics. Their demonstrations attract at best a few thousand, and they are kept under strict control. On Sunday, riot police broke up the latest "Dissenters' march".

Konstantin Golokteev has been campaigning for the liberal opposition Yabloko party, which - as elsewhere in Russia - is struggling in St Petersburg.

He accepts that many ordinary Russians associate western-style democracy with the wildness which worried Yevgenia in the 1990's.

"It is difficult to explain to people that democracy is good. But, in any case, we have no choice. We have to explain it," he explains.

Mr Golokteev adds that image is not the only obstacle: "We have no access to mass media, we have no access to newspapers. We have no access to arrange any public events."

'Brighter side'

In this environment, a new kind of activism is taking shape.

Elena Minchonuk is a member of a protest group called "A living city". They campaign for better protection for St Petersburg's architecture.

But Ms Minchonuk says that - in today's Russia - even that makes the authorities nervous.

"Every time they can invent something which can prevent us from doing it, they always do that - because it attracts people's attention. People start getting aware of the problem. And what they do nowadays is everything to drag people's attention away from the problems," she says.

In this election, the Kremlin is concentrating on the brighter side of life.

But here, in President Putin's powerbase, there are differing views of how the city, and the country, should look now, and in the future.

St Petersburg has traditionally been the starting point for new ideas, and European influence, in Russia.

Some of its citizens want it to retain that role - but "Putin's plan" remains the dominant force.

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