Russia: Capital Event

St. Petersburg’s 300th birthday celebration in May attempted to be all things to all people: a slick promotional campaign, complete with costly renovation projects, to attract foreign tourists to Russia’s one-time imperial capital; an opportunity for meetings by Russian President Vladimir Putin with top world leaders; and a treat for St. Petersburg’s own inhabitants. As such, it failed to satisfy anyone completely but succeeded better than many skeptics had feared.

After more than two years of preparations and billions of rubles in improvements, the city proved more or less ready for visitors. The whole spectacle may have been reminiscent of a Potemkin village, but officials pledged that all the planned projects would be completed after foreign guests and well-wishers had departed.

“On Tuesday [May 27] a wonderful event occurred,” gushed Izvestiya’s Yelena Rotkevich (May 27). “St. Petersburg suddenly resembled a genuine European city. In a single night, the scaffolding was removed from the facades, the steamrollers left the streets, and the earthmovers departed from the parks. Stunned residents and guests were greeted by streets that had been scoured clean; neat lawns; clean, bright building faces; and even smiling police officers.”

Valentina Sharapova, writing in Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti (May 27), enumerating the eminent scientists that St. Petersburg had given the world, commented: “Three hundred years isn’t so many for a city. It’s a transition from youth to adulthood. And yet, our city long ago earned the title ‘great.’ It was made this way by those who lived here and those who live here now. They were inspired by Petersburg’s stone walls, and the city absorbed their energy, their creativity, their talent, which was passed on genetically from one generation to the next.”

In an article titled “One Jubilee, Two Holidays,” Moskovskie Novosti’s Borislav Mikhailichenko wrote (May 27) that officials had made the rounds of workplaces a month before the celebrations, suggesting vacations to prevent traffic problems. At the same time, they sent faxes to companies listing street closings, only to backtrack later from their statements. “Now no one can persuade residents in the center of ‘Peter’ that they won’t have to show their passports to get to their own homes and that certain residents wouldn’t be better off stocking up on provisions and staying at home,” Mikhailichenko wrote.

The city’s governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, downplayed the discrepancy between official celebrations and those for ordinary Russians. In an interview with Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti (May 24), he said: “I think that reality will set things right. It’s a shame, of course, that some willingly declined to participate in the holiday.…I say with an open heart: esteemed residents of St. Petersburg and Leningrad: Participate in the holiday. It’s for you. Judge for yourselves. During the anniversary there will be nearly 2,700 events. Of these only 11 are for VIPs—guests of the summit.”

Kommersant-Vlast (June 2) reported that Peterburgers’ worst fears—that the improvements would be mainly in the city center and that they would be restricted to tourist sites—had been realized. Yet Trud (June 3) published an interview with St. Petersburg Vice Governor Aleksandr Vakhmistrov, who asserted: “I can assure city residents that we have done everything that we promised.” Smena (May 28) also published an upbeat appraisal of the renovations.

Izvestiya’s Rotkevich wrote (June 1) that Putin’s meetings with U.S. President George W. Bush and European leaders exceeded expectations. Instead of harsh words from the European Union about Chechnya, for example, there was praise for the recent constitutional referendum in that republic. “According to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the celebratory mood made possible the achievement of the kind of relations when politicians ‘can frankly take up the touchiest subjects without the formalities of protocol.’ ”

“And at the Putin-Bush meeting, as we expected, there were the widely broadcast declarations about sunny Russian-American mutual relations,” wrote Yan Travinsky in Smena (June 2).

If Putin and Bush glossed over essential differences concerning the war in Iraq and Russia’s nuclear assistance to Iran, this is probably so because, as Yuri Rubinsky of Moscow’s Institute of Europe told Moskovskie Novosti (May 27), “Russia, with its nuclear arsenal and unstable economy, still represents a risk factor.”