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St. Petersburg Faces Hard Times

August 15, 1998

St. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) _ The old woman has lived in St. Petersburg for nearly a third of its history. Her life has been hard, but like the city, she has borne it with grace.

She was there for the revolution, when Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and claimed an empire. Today, on the great Palace Square, one of history’s most bloodstained stages, teen-agers whirl about on in-line skates.

She was there for the siege of World War II, when soldiers of Nazi Germany surrounded the city and starved it for 900 days. A million people died, more or less, and she remembers the bodies littering streets where, today, black Mercedes Benz automobiles carry thuggish-looking men in suits to chic restaurants.

For roughly 90 years, Valentina Vladimirovna Bobrovskaya has lived in this elegant, tormented city, home of Dostoevsky and Nijinsky, Peter the Great and the young Vladimir Lenin. She cannot imagine a life lived elsewhere.

``I went to Moscow once,″ she says, a bit gruffly. ``Didn’t like it much. That was before the war. People were so rude. I didn’t like the people, so I didn’t like the city.″

Her companions _ three old ladies, sitting on two facing park benches, taking the sun _ nod their agreement. It turns out, though, that she’s the only one who’s ever been to Moscow.


For a brief moment this summer, St. Petersburg was again on center stage. The last czar, Nicholas II, was buried in the city’s Peter and Paul Cathedral, and Russians were reminded this was once the capital of a vast empire, the place from which all of Russia’s great power flowed.

It was a stirring moment. But it also was a reminder of how much the city has slipped into the shadows of post-Soviet life.

One of the first acts of the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution was to return the capital to its ancient center, Moscow, and relegate St. Petersburg to the status of Russia’s second city _ second in size and importance, if not in attitude.

Since then, the divide has only grown, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of a market economy in Russia, it has grown greater still.

Moscow is Russia’s one and only boomtown. St. Petersburg still exhibits dreams of grandeur, but they seem far-fetched, at best. The city administration envisions it as the future financial capital of Russia, a bizarre claim considering the vast majority of the country’s wealth is centered in Moscow.

As Moscow has leaped ahead, St. Petersburg has languished. Tens of thousands of people have gone jobless. Attempts to revive the city’s shipyards, its largest industry, have mostly failed. The city has moved slowly in developing the tourist business that would appear to be its economic salvation. Its first post-Soviet mayor, championed as Russia’s great liberal hope, stands charged of corruption.

And yet, walking the streets of the city on a summer evening, the setting sun glinting gold off the canals, couples strolling along the great boulevards and along the banks of the Neva River, one can’t help but think this remains a glorious city, one of those rare places that somehow lift and ennoble their inhabitants and give expression to the better side of the human spirit.

``St. Petersburg is such a city that from the moment of its founding, the culture was alive and vibrant,″ said Timur Novikov, an artist who leads a movement to return to classical styles of art.

``At no time was it stagnant, whether it was during the time of the revolution or during the Second World War. And during the recent years, none of the negative processes the city has gone through have influenced the culture in St. Petersburg. It’s just the sophistication of the city.″

Even through the Soviet period, much of the old spirit of St. Petersburg survived. Its sophistication can still be seen in its architecture, theaters and museums, including one of the finest art museums in the world, the Hermitage.

All these remain vital, but with a new gloss added by places like Gostiny Dvor, an old department store that has been partly transformed into a shopping ``gallery″ that is as much a museum as a store.

Here, in shops facing creamy yellow porticoes alive with the chatter of songbirds, St. Petersburg’s new aristocracy can buy women’s shoes from Charles Jourdan for 2,000 rubles ($330) or a jacket from Sonia Rykiel for 6,550 rubles ($1,090).

There’s just one thing missing: customers.

``This is the beginning,″ said Zoya Kozhevnikova, the manager of the shopping center. For now, sales are modest but sufficient, she insisted. ``We hope in the future there will be more and more.″

Kozhevnikova is tall and blond and 23, with the features and self-confidence of a fashion model. Her hair is tied in a pony tail; she looks smartly elegant in a black Gianfranco Ferre blouse and a short, black Escada skirt. She is a St. Petersburg native and proud of it.

``I adore St. Petersburg,″ she said in passable, British-accented English. ``I like the classical things in fashion. We are a conservative city _ maybe not conservative, but intelligent. Our buildings are straight and elegant and classical. St. Petersburg was always considered to be an intelligent city in comparison to Moscow, which was just a big market before the revolution.″

Moscow these days resembles a big, often coarse market once more. St. Petersburg remains classical, elegant _ and poor.

St. Petersburg and its suburbs have a population of 6.5 million, roughly half that of Moscow. Last year, retail sales for St. Petersburg and the surrounding region totaled just under $7 billion _ only about one-sixth as much as in Moscow.

German Gref, a vice governor of St. Petersburg who is in charge of land development, said it was unfair to compare the two cities. Moscow gets far more support from the federal government and gets tax revenue from the many national and international companies with their Russian headquarters there, he said.

``Though it should be said,″ he conceded, ``that Moscow’s government does well with the money they get.″

He ticked off his administration’s policies, which he considers to be laying the foundation for strong economic growth: tax cuts for corporate earnings, extra tax breaks for big investors, an increase in government spending, restructuring of city-held enterprises, development of the city’s infrastructure and support for the tourist industry.

The problem is, much of the administration’s program is stuck in the city legislature, the victim of a political feud between city Gov. Vladimir Yakovlev and top legislative leaders.

Anyway, said Christian Courbois, a spokesman for a group of small international businesses in St. Petersburg, it all adds up to ``too little, too late.″

Foreign investment in St. Petersburg has stalled, he said. The city’s roads and ports are crumbling; the customs service is not only corrupt but incompetent; the idea of a ``money culture″ is just beginning to catch on.

In addition, he said, the city has done little to encourage tourism, despite having so many attributes. There are no decent mid-priced hotels; taxis and museums gouge foreigners, charging them up to 10 times what they charge Russians. There is no city tourist office, and virtually nothing in the way of international marketing.

``Tourism should be a huge, huge industry here,″ Courbois said. ``But it’s going to take awhile. They’ve got to clean the city up. They’ve got to protect tourists from getting ripped off.″


In an evening in St. Petersburg, it is possible to see things scarcely dreamed about, even now, in much of Russia.

A group of teen-agers sit strumming guitars and drinking beer along the Neva, their backs to the Winter Palace. In a park, two young women lean against a pathway railing, kissing passionately. Nearby looms a statue of Catherine the Great.

In a cafe, a young couple dressed in black sit smoking, sharing the earphones from a portable cassette player, nodding their heads in time to the music. A boutique window offers a display of ``Tsar″ perfume by Van Cleef and Arpels. The United Colors of Benetton window displays this season’s colors in St. Petersburg: black and white.

Elegant and simple.


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