St Petersburg: one of Europe's treasures

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

It has been pretty tough for St Petersburg over the past 299 years, but the city still finds much to celebrate as it enters its fourth century. Marius Benson looks at the city of the Tsars.

The Winter Palace is
undergoing renovations

The article on page five of the St Petersburg Times was headed: Inauspicious Start to Military Trade Show.

It began: "The weeklong Russian Expo Arms 2002 — a forum for weapon makers to show off their goods to foreign buyers — got off to a bad start Tuesday after a visitor was wounded during a rocket launch."

Sometimes it seems like Russia is always just having one of those days.

Seven decades of those days under Communism gave way more than 12 years ago to a new dawn of hope — walls tumbled, freedom reigned.

Well certainly it reigned for the criminals, corporate thieves and corrupt public officials who gave away national assets to their cronies.

While in the West Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher patted Mikhail Gorbachev, and themselves, on the back, the Russian economy went into freefall and along with it life expectancy and every other social indicator.

To the small extent Gorbachev is not forgotten in Russia today — he remains a contender as the most hated man in the country. The man who knocked everything down without building anything in its place.

In fact if you want to see a Russian with a puzzled expression, try asking them who their Russian heroes are today. When I put that question to two guides who were showing us around some of the rural retreats built by the Tsars and Empresses, a long pause followed.

After a while they suggested a star skier might fill the bill.

Still gloom is an accepted part of life in Russia, not an aberration from the seamless happiness that is life's promise in the West — an aberration that must be dealt with by large doses of therapy and anti-depressants.

But in mid-summer, when Nevsky Prospekt is still bright with daylight at 11 at night, depression is not the general mood of St Petersburg.

It is now 299 years since Peter the Great decided to establish his imperial capital on the swampy delta of the Neva River.

It was a tough project and probably about 40,000 Swedish prisoners of war died in the first wave of building on the marshlands.

They were entitled to wonder what was so Great about Peter — as was his own son who was tortured and killed at his father's orders, and possibly by Peter's own hands.

Brutality and paranoia have been the hallmarks of Russian rulers for centuries. They all had a fair bit of blood on their hands, but few can also boast the achievements of Peter, the great moderniser of Russia.

The greatest of those achievements for the visitor to Russia today is St Petersburg itself.

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