Popular discontent sours St. Petersburg's big bash

Next week, Russia's 'Venice of the North' begins celebrating its tricentennial.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Yelena and Alexei Sinkeyevich live in an exquisite 18th- century house facing a tiny canal crisscrossed by wrought-iron bridges in the heart of this historic city.

Their building could star in an advertising poster for the huge celebration next week to mark the 300th birthday of St. Petersburg, the "Window on the West," built by reformist Czar Peter the Great.

But pass through the building's bright- red front door and the grandeur fades. A dank, dark vestibule leads to a cracked concrete staircase. Old brickwork peeks through gaping holes in crumbling plaster walls. The Sinkeyeviches say there have been no repairs inside their apartment or the rest of the state-owned building in decades, but workers did come around earlier this month to slap fresh paint on the facades of all the houses on the block.

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"It's all on the surface," says Ms. Sinkeyevich, a survivor of the horrific 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad who took part in the city's postwar reconstruction. "They are just showing the city's 'parade side' for this occasion."

The jarring contrast between hastily applied cosmetics and underlying decay has helped turn what should be a joyous birthday bash into a firestorm of public recrimination and controversy.

Angry residents complain that the $1.3 billion budgeted by the Kremlin to ready St. Petersburg for its long-awaited post-Soviet coming-out party has yielded a latter-day Potemkin Village. The gilt will begin to dim the minute thousands of invited foreign dignitaries depart, critics say.

The Russian parliament's Accounting Chamber is investigating the "disappearance" of tens of millions of dollars in renovation funds. And human rights activists warn that plans to shut down the entire city center for a week of celebrations, close the airport, and limit road access to St. Petersburg may be unconstitutional.

"What good is a celebration that is to the detriment of the inhabitants of the city?" says Boris Pustintsev, head of Citizen's Watch, an independent human rights group. "One would expect things like this to happen in North Korea, not here."

An April survey of St. Petersburgers conducted by the independent Center for Public Opinion Studies found that 59 percent believed the planned week-long series of parades, outdoor shows, special theater performances and church services, beginning on May 23, will be "exclusively for the political elite."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Long considered one of Europe's most beautiful cities, this Baltic "Venice of the North" has been overshadowed by its mighty sister, Moscow, ever since the Bolsheviks moved the capital south in 1918.

But even in its genteel Soviet-era decline, St. Petersburg's magnificent palaces and legendary art museums attracted about 5 million tourists annually. Recent years have seen fewer than 2 million visitors, however, while sociologists report a net outflow of skilled labor and business investment from the city.

The tricentennial was intended as a chance for St. Petersburg to rebound, to show its best face to the world, and attract much-needed foreign investment. "We hope this celebration will create a good, positive spirit in the city," says Yevgeniya Chapligina, press spokeswoman for the official celebrating planning committee. "We want the people of St. Petersburg to feel proud again. It hurts when we hear all this criticism. Instead of being a joyous occasion, the anniversary is dragged in the mud."

At the height of the festivities next week, St. Petersburg's most famous son, President Vladimir Putin, will host almost 50 world leaders, including US president George Bush, at a lavish party at the Konstantinovsky Palace, a czarist-era royal residence on the Gulf of Finland that was recently renovated at an estimated cost ranging beyond $300 million. The leaders' entourages alone will total more than 15,000 people, while tens of thousands of other Russian officials and foreign dignitaries are also expected.

As part of the festivities, the re-created Amber Room will be unveiled after 24 years of reconstruction. The sumptuously decorated chamber vanished after German troops looted the Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg during World War II.

Since becoming president, Putin has worked hard to restore the prestige of his native city by making it the venue for important state occasions and summit meetings with foreign leaders. Like his professed hero, Peter the Great, Putin has sought to highlight St. Petersburg's Western architecture, liberal spirit, and proximity to Europe over Moscow's stifling bureaucracy, conservatism and Asiatic feel.

But many of the authorities' efforts to make the city more presentable have only fueled a public backlash.

Some central roads - where foreign guests are likely to drive - have been repaved three or more times, while nearby side streets are pocked with old, unfixed potholes. The beautiful czarist mansions and public buildings facing Nevsky Prospekt and other downtown streets look spanking new but, when closely inspected, they sometimes turn out to be tumbledown wrecks, their inner courtyards strewn with garbage.

"Maybe foreigners will be fooled, but the city's residents see these things and it really irritates them," says Igor Pavlovsky, political editor of the independent RosBalt news agency in St. Petersburg. "Our authorities have demonstrated that they just are not capable of organizing something like this."

Human rights activists say police have reverted to Soviet methods by sweeping the city of some 800 vagrants and homeless people, stepping up document checks for all citizens, and announcing that they will close much of the downtown area while Putin and his foreign guests are partying next week.

"It's impossible to ensure security for thousands of high-ranking visitors without causing some inconveniences," says Ms. Chapligina. "But we have also taken steps to involve people."

She says museums will be free, some events will be held twice - once for VIPs, then again everyone else - and that further popular celebrations of the city's 300th anniversary will be held later in the year.

But some experts warn that once the anniversary excitement dies down, St. Petersburg will be no further ahead. The city's worst problem is its post-Soviet reputation as Russia's capital of crime and corruption.

Charges by the parliament's Accounting Chamber that at least some of the money allocated to sprucing up the city has been misspent or lost, will do little to repair that image. At a January meeting Chamber head Sergei Stepashin highlighted a few cases of malfeasance, including the disappearance of $30 million earmarked for road-building, which he said was "simply hidden in the bushes."

Many in St. Petersburg blame the city's governor since 1996, Vladimir Yakovlev, for the problems. But the fallout could spread to Putin.

"Corruption exists everywhere in Russia, but it is much more pervasive in St. Petersburg," says Vassilisa Revtova, an expert with the Institute of Sociology in St. Petersburg. "Instead of displaying our city's best face, this 300th anniversary is turning into a showcase for all its worst faults."

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