ST. PETERSBURG — THE golden caravel that sits atop the spire of the classical Admiralty building on the Neva River here has long been a symbol of St. Petersburg, and of the purpose for which the city was first built nearly three centuries ago.
''A window on the West'' was Czar Peter the Great's dream, a port on the Baltic and a new Russian capital that would let in great draughts of fresh European air to the medieval country.
And when the walls around the Soviet Union began to collapse, both city leaders and foreign investors hoped to reclaim St. Petersburg's historic name -- the Soviets had baptized the cradle of their revolution ''Leningrad'' -- and its commercial role.
But five years later, despite City Hall's best efforts, St. Petersburg has lagged behind the capital of Moscow in intellectual and political influence and as a business center.
''In the intellectuals' model of social development, St. Petersburg claimed absolute leadership because the educational level of its people, its cultural life, and so on made the city a leader in democratic reform,'' says sociologist Leonid Kesselman.
But early blueprints of political reform proved too simplistic, Mr. Kesselman acknowledges. And in a Russia where financial and political capital is increasingly amassed ''in a Soviet, nomenklatura style, St. Petersburg cannot be a leader.''
No big names
In the business world, meanwhile, ''there was a wave of investments during the first years of change, but for the past 12 months it has calmed down,'' one foreign banker here says. ''We haven't seen any big names recently.''
And in the hotel trade, a good indicator of economic vibrancy, ''there is still no serious animation of the market'' acknowledges Sergei Kovalyov, the man in charge of attracting foreign investment for the city's hotels.
The authorities here have pinned their hopes on three advantages they say St. Petersburg can offer business executives: the port, the city's wealth of high-technology industries, and its fabulous artistic treasures, which attract tourists from around the world.
Mayor Anatoly Sobchak has also devoted much personal effort to making his city Russia's banking center -- a dream that appears to be on hold.
The mayor managed to persuade the French bank Credit Lyonnais to set up its Russian headquarters here, and the German-French bank BNP-Drezdner has done likewise. But none of the other big foreign banks has been tempted.
And Credit Lyonnais has moved its cash-transactions department -- the biggest profitmaker -- to Moscow, where the inter-bank market is more active.
Officials say privately that if they were setting up in Russia today, they would probably not do so in St. Petersburg.
Although 100 Russian banks have established themselves here, they are few compared to the 700-plus in Moscow.
''Moscow is a banking center for administrative reasons, while St. Petersburg is developing as a center because of industrial projects here,'' says Alexei Miller, an investment official in the mayor's office.
''St. Petersburg will become a financial center when there is something here to finance,'' Mr. Kovalyov says bluntly.
Port of good hope
As a motor for economic development, St. Petersburg's port should be a major asset.
The nearby Baltic countries -- Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania -- are wary of their former ruler and have turned their backs on Russia now that they are independent. Rather than a corridor for Russia to Western Europe, they form a buffer zone.
That makes the St. Petersburg port, which already handles 25 percent of Russia's exports and a third of its imports, especially important.
But it is the most expensive outlet on the Baltic, according to shipping experts. And it has a reputation among importers for carelessness that leads many of them to ship goods to Western European ports and truck them from there.
''They have a lot of plans to improve the port, but they haven't got the investment, and they haven't got cracking on it yet,'' says one Western diplomat here.
The city's modern industrial potential, meanwhile, is awaiting the same boom that Russia is as a whole, officials here say. ''St. Petersburg is in Russia, after all,'' says Mr. Miller, the investment official.
And that is not an advantage when it comes to tourism, either, when Russia's reputation for crime and poor service outweighs even the treasures of the Hermitage, the famed art museum.
However much this cultured, educated, Western-oriented city might like to be a bridge, with its fate tied as much to Europe as to Russia, that cannot be. Moscow's weight is too heavily felt.
For St. Petersburg, that is only a burden. ''If they start making everything go through Moscow again,'' warns Alexander Tarasov, manager of the local Otis elevator plant, ''nothing good will come of it.''