PRINCE CHARLES'S four-day visit to the former Czarist capital of St. Petersburg marks the first time an heir to the British throne has set foot on Russian territory since the House of Windsor's Romanov cousins were executed in 1918 in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The visit of Prince Waleski, as he is called in Russian, was prompted by an invitation from reformist Mayor Anatoly Sobchak as part of a plan to restore St. Petersburg to its Czarist splendor. It is hoped that world attention to the decaying plight of the once-regal city will help drum up foreign investment.
The prince, however, will hardly see the splendor of the former imperial capital during his brief sojourn. Once-proud monuments are crumbling, elegant pastel buildings lining the Neva River are fading, and gangland-style violence has become so widespread that the United States State Department has warned Americans to ``exercise extreme caution'' when traveling to the city alone.
St. Petersburg - named for Czar Peter I, who founded the city in 1703 - was known as Russia's cultural ``Window on the West.''
``If St. Petersburg is a window in Europe, then for me, it's a window through which I can see Russia,'' the prince was quoted as saying during his visit by the daily Sevodnya newspaper.
The visit may also serve as an imperial impetus to help heal a rift between the British royal family and the state responsible for executing the deposed Czar Nicholas II and his family.
Britain denied the Romanovs asylum under pressure from its government, and the royal family shunned the Soviet Union following the executions.
Only in recent years have lower-ranking family members broken the ban and visited Russia and other former Soviet republics. Princess Anne visited Moscow in 1990 as a member of a British equestrian team. And the prince's mother, Queen Elizabeth II, may visit the city later this year.
The bones of the Czarist family, meanwhile, have been recovered from a pit in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg and identified in Britain. Lyudmila Fornichyova, a spokeswoman for Mayor Sobchak, told Interfax News Agency the remains could be buried in St. Petersburg sometime next year.
The prince urged Russians to preserve their cultural and architectural treasures despite their economic hard times.
``In Britain, in particular, we managed to destroy very large parts of our heritage,'' the prince said. ``So please learn from our lesson, and do not make the same mistakes we have.''
Yesterday the prince, a student of the Russian classics, signed an agreement for his Business Leaders Forum to produce a facsimile edition of 18 large notebooks by Alexander Pushkin, a distant relative of the prince and Russia's most famous poet.
The reproductions will be sold to scholars around the world. Proceeds from the sale will be used to help repair the Institute of Russian Literature, where the 170-year-old priceless Pushkin manuscripts are housed in a dank basement.
On Tuesday, the prince laid a wreath at the cemetery commemorating half a million victims of the 900-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad, as the city was known in the Soviet era, before making his hospital rounds. He was expected to visit the Hermitage Museum later in the visit.
On Monday, Prince Waleski kicked off his visit by touring the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the glittering 18th-century church where Peter the Great and other Romanovs are buried. Small groups of tourists chanted ``Prince Charles! Prince Charles!'' as he walked along the banks of the Neva.
Russian newspapers gave prominent coverage to the visit, publishing photographs of Prince Waleski in costumes ranging from full regal attire, complete with crown and ermine robe, to riding gear.
Some newspapers, however, preferred to speculate on Charles's love life rather than the visit. ``His separation from the charming woman Diana has caused a lot of gossip,'' the daily Worker's Tribune commented.
Other less-ardent monarchists gave scant attention to the visit. ``Who's Prince Charles?'' construction worker Nikolai Kovalyov asked. ``I've never heard of Lady Diana,'' echoed student Svetlana Izvestkova.