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The Sunday Herald (UK)
May 18, 2003
Russia tastes its past and future

St Petersburg has survived some major invasions before, says Angus Roxburgh in the nation's second city. But can it handle the visiting hordes set to mark its 300th birthday?   THE word 'Stakhanovite' has gone out of fashion in Russia. It was the term used for hero workers in the Soviet Union, who laboured to produce three years' worth of pig iron in just one year, or otherwise matched the feat of the original demon worker, a miner named Aleksei Stakhanov who produced 14 days' worth of coal in a single sweaty shift in 1935. The word should be revived to honour those who are now busting a gut to get the city of St Petersburg into tip-top shape for its 300th birthday celebrations in just over a week's time. Already many of the city's fine Italianesque buildings are gleaming with fresh yellow and white emulsion, but many others remain under scaffolding, with workers shinning up and down the poles like monkeys -- and not a hard hat in sight -- slapping on putty, plaster and paint.

The enormous square in front of the Winter Palace was entirely resurfaced in just two days last week by an assault division of steamrollers. Parks have been raked as flat as bowling greens, and acres of fresh turf have been brought in to replace the dowdy yellow stuff left after the long winter.

Even nature did its bit. A heatwave, plus torrential rain last week, turned the trees green almost overnight. In short, the place will look gorgeous, but there still seems to be an awful lot to do. Looking out of a window of the Hermitage art gallery and museum at the frenzied building work going on in one of the courtyards, I expressed doubts as to whether it would be completed on time. 'They will finish it,' said my guide. 'This is the Russian way.'

The city's current most honoured son, Russian President Vladimir Putin, plans to use the occasion to put his home town in the world's eye, by welcoming dozens of presidents and prime ministers to the celebrations. Taxi drivers are warning of chaos, and signs on the city limits advise out-of-towners to keep away. Lev Lurie, deputy editor of the city's glossy listings magazine, Kalendar, says it will be better to be anywhere other than St Petersburg on its anniversary, and his magazine has printed a list of alternative venues.

The restoration of Russia's second city has not been without scandal. Watching workmen banging brand-new paving stones and cobbles into place near the Winter Palace, two St Petersburg acquaintances pointed out that the mayor's wife runs the paving-stone factory.

The celebrations are expected to attract as many as two million tourists to the city, but some might find their hotels lacking basic facilities. Three top-class hotels which hoped to open their doors in time for the anniversary have just announced they will have to put their opening back. The $18 million (11.1m) five-star Grand Hotel Emerald, for example, still hasn't been connected to the water main or to the electricity grid. Its deputy director, Yelena Globa, blamed local bureaucrats.

St Petersburg, known as Leningrad during the Soviet period, was founded in 1703, built from scratch on barely inhabitable marshland. Peter the Great had the swamps drained, canals built, and palaces and government buildings erected with such speed that the town became Russia's capital and a major ship-building centre just nine years later. Thousands of serfs, Swedish prisoners-of-war and slave labourers died in the process, frozen to death or eaten by wolves.

The 300 years of history being celebrated this month have witnessed revolution, civil war, Stalinist purges, a 900-day siege by the Nazis and not very successful attempts since the end of communism to turn the city into Russia's financial centre.

'No, that hasn't happened,' says Lev Lurie. 'But St Petersburg is still the most dynamic place in Russia. We've got everything -- culture, crime, gangsters and the best software and rock musicians.'

Some of those achievements will be proudly displayed at the end of this month.Others will be kept firmly out of sight.

Angus Roxburgh examines the history of St Petersburg in The Castle In The Swamp on BBC Radio 4 next Saturday at 3.30pm.

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