Putin's historic hometown no home on the Texas range

Having visited Crawford, Russian president invites Bush to St. Petersburg

May 25, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Now that they have wrapped up most of their summit's serious business, the leaders of the United States and Russia can leave the grandeur of Moscow and head for a homier place.

President Bush took President Vladimir V. Putin to his ranch in rough-and-ready Crawford, Texas, in November. Now Putin has responded, inviting Bush to drop in on the faded beauty of his hometown, St. Petersburg.

Putin was born in St. Petersburg, Russia's second-most important city. He went to college and got his first taste of politics there. What can Bush expect to find? Not much to remind him of Texas.

Crawford, population 630, is by all descriptions a ranch hand in chaps and spurs, an old cattle town smack dab in the middle of the prairie.

St. Petersburg is a dowager princess among cities, a great cultural center suffering from 70 years of Soviet misrule and a decade of post-Soviet economic chaos. It is filled with broad canals, recently restored Orthodox churches with balloon-shaped domes and fantastic colors, and crumbling neoclassical palaces. Tchaikovsky, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Nabokov all called it home.

Bush won't see any cattle grazing in this 18th-century port city of 4.2 million, built by Peter the Great. (The same can't be said for all big cities in the former Soviet Union. Cows wander through the public parks, for example, in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.)

St. Petersburg has a famous philharmonic, jazz clubs, rock bands, chamber orchestras and, of course, magnificent museums, opera and ballet.

Instead of the tenderloin and catfish offered in Crawford, St. Petersburg might tempt Bush with caviar served with sour cream on a buckwheat cake. The Russian version of barbecue is called shashlyk, though it is usually pieces of pork - not beef - that get grilled. And making a good shashlyk is a point of pride for every Russian man.

In Russia, St. Petersburg is best known for its bridges and for its indomitable spirit, for its determination to suffer anything rather than surrender to an enemy. The city - then called Leningrad - endured a 2 1/2 -year siege by the Nazis during World War II in which 670,000 people died, many of starvation. The fighting was fierce. Even last year, sappers pulled 300 unexploded mines and other munitions from the ground, 56 years after the war ended.

In czarist times, St. Petersburg was the capital. And residents of the former capital and residents of the present capital have always felt something of a rivalry.

Moscow is not just the capital. It's the center of banking, politics, commerce and media. Economists estimate that 85 percent of Russia's wealth is funneled here. In terms of its importance to Russia, Moscow is a little like New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles combined.

Part of the definition of success in Russia is establishing a Moscow address - something city authorities still make it difficult for ordinary Russians to do. That doesn't stop ambitious people from all over the country from migrating to its booming capital. "Moscow is like a bewitched place," says Alexander Gorchkov, a St. Petersburg journalist. "It is criticized all over Russia, but once someone gets to Moscow, they never leave."

Small wonder that Muscovites tend to regard people from lesser cities as hopeless hicks. St. Petersburgers, meanwhile, tend to see themselves as cultured Europeans who are ruled, unfortunately, by those brutes in Moscow.

In some circles Putin is regarded as St. Petersburg's revenge on Moscow for the neglect of the Soviet era. In the past two years, he has installed many St. Petersburgers in top Kremlin posts - people such as Herman Gref, his minister of economic development, and Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister.

This perceived hometown bias has become something of a national joke. On May Day, a group of leftist youths from St. Petersburg threatened to march across Moscow on their knees in penance for supplying the Kremlin with so many free-market economists.

Even the journalist Gorchkov, a St. Petersburger himself, says that in hiring hometown boys, Putin has ignored more qualified candidates. "Maybe it is not quite patriotic in terms of St. Petersburg to say so," he adds, "but it is honest."

The Kremlin, under Putin, has launched a campaign to renovate St. Petersburg's landmarks in preparation for the city's 300th anniversary next year. But the government can't afford to do all the needed repairs on its own, and St. Petersburg, unlike Moscow, has few big corporations to help shoulder the burden. The city is frequently flooded, and utility breakdowns often cut off heat and hot water to thousands there each winter.

At this time of year, Russians flock to St. Petersburg to celebrate the White Nights - the long days provided courtesy of its latitude. By June 21, there is only a hint of dusk in the middle of the night. Of course, the city pays in wintertime with short, dark days.

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