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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 / May 22, 2003


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.

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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.

"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."