Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#17 - JRL 7229
Japan Times
June 16, 2003
St. Petersburg may rule again

MOSCOW -- St. Petersburg, the former capital of Russia, has turned 300. Founded in a Baltic swamp at a frightening cost by the only outstanding Romanov reformer, Czar Peter the Great, it remains the architectural wonder of the nation. The "Venice of the North," as St. Petersburg was labeled in the 18th century by awe-struck foreign visitors, proudly commands the shores of the Neva and its channels. It is a magic jewel set in the darkness of the northern night.

In a way, St. Petersburg created modern Russia. Inspired by the conquest of the Baltic coast where he placed his city, Czar Peter proclaimed Russia an empire -- and it has been staking out its claim ever since. The old capital, Moscow -- a believer in miracles, insane prophets and arcane rituals -- had been unable to provide Russia with a secular culture; St. Petersburg gave it one. The molder of the Russian language, Alexander Pushkin, and the chronicler of the Russian spirit, Fyodor Dostoevski, both belonged to St. Petersburg. Even rebellious Leo Tolstoy, who made Moscow and its environs his very special domain, set the core of his two masterpieces, "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," in the cold splendor of St. Petersburg.

The city also provided Russia with an aura of abundance and tragedy. The Romanov court became the most opulent in Europe; even Queen Victoria was envious of its luster. All consequential Russian historical dramas unfolded there, too. The "holy devil" Grigory Rasputin, facilitated the downfall of the Romanovs with his outrageous debauchery and witchcraft in the imperial capital. Vladimir Lenin masterminded a communist revolution there.

Yet, under Lenin, the city lost some of its glamour; St. Petersburg was too close to the frontier for Lenin's taste. Paranoid about his safety, the leader fled the city and moved the seat of government back to Moscow in 1918. Since then, St. Petersburg has been known as a capital with a provincial destiny, its people constantly grumbling about their loss of stature and envious of Moscow.

The residents of St. Petersburg have a well-deserved reputation for being condescending, cold and insultingly polite. Calling Moscow barbaric, they know their city and its history very well, and harbor high ambitions for it.

With the collapse of communism, St. Petersburg has much to put itself in the vanguard of Russian capitalism and cultural postmodernism. To a certain degree, it has succeeded. Few Western tourists bypass it now, and its writers and artists frequent New York, London and Berlin. The age-old competition between the country's two leading ballet schools, the Moscow Bolshoi and the St. Petersburg Kirov, is now over. The Kirov company commands the unadulterated support of Western audiences, while the Bolshoi has been downgraded to a tourist site, an artistic Disneyland.

Last but not least, President Vladimir Putin comes from St. Petersburg. While hardly an intellectual, he is still a snob who promotes his birthplace with zeal and determination. He had a Romanov palace on the coast restored as his residence to impress foreign dignitaries. He goes to St. Petersburg as often as he can, and he was the engine behind the 300th anniversary brouhaha, to which the international beau monde was invited to shiver at a number of gargantuan outdoor events. At Putin's orders, the city received an expensive face-lift and prepared itself to meet every wish of its wealthy foreign guests.

Actually, many residents left St. Petersburg on the eve of the festivities, apprehensive of the crowds and slightly disgusted by the reload of imperial cant. And cant it was indeed; a hundred meters away from the beautified central avenues sat crumbling 19th century buildings with dirty and gloomy courtyards that look like they belong in a Dostoevski novel.

One can only wonder whether Putin might be toying with the idea of moving the capital back to St. Petersburg. His assertive leadership, which emphasizes imperial continuity and grandeur, has won overwhelming support among Russian voters. He has silenced all his critics and now pretty much has a free hand domestically and internationally.

Putin clearly prefers his hometown to Moscow, and who can blame him? Since the times of Czar Peter, St. Petersburg has been associated with progress and cosmopolitanism. In addition, a move would keep the nation busy for at least a decade. A few years would be spent getting the approval of the Russian legislature; the architectural reshuffle would take another two or three years; then the excitement of the relocation would come.

What could be a better distraction from the social ills of a Third World country that barely sustains the lives of its poor and lavishly nurtures its rich with oil and gas revenues?

A move would also boost Putin's political capital in the West. Like Peter the Great, he could sport the mantle of a Westernizer.

Legend says St. Petersburg is a cursed city; its foundations rest on the bones of serfs who were conscripted to build it. In many ways it is now a ghost town, its imperial chancelleries occupied by obscure regional bureaucracies, its palaces populated by random tenants. Will the Venice of the North have a fresh start or will it remain in a state of limbo?

Constantine Pleshakov, a former member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is a freelance writer.

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