Russia: The300th anniversary of St. Petersburg - a ruling class holiday.

St. Petersburg - or Leningrad as it was known during Soviet times - is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but it is having a difficult time now. In 1991 during the "anti-communist" rising the city got back its old name of St. Petersburg and with this name trouble was being prepared for its people. In 1780 the Russian Empress Catharine II and her guest the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II visited the new lands to the North of the Black Sea, annexed by Russia from the Ottoman Empire in 1772. The governor of the new provinces, and also Catherine's favourite, prince Georgi Potemkin did everything to impress his noble guests. The roads which Catharine and Joseph had to travel along were "cleaned up". Everything that could shock or be distasteful to the royal visitors was concealed behind fences or decorations. Only people of a pleasant appearance, handsome men and beautiful women, had a chance to see the travelling sovereigns. This titanic work later was to become the basis for a well-known legend about cardboard villages where real peasants were replaced by actors. Thus the term "Potemkin villages" became synonymous for humbug and window-dressing.

220 years since that glorious journey, the tradition of "Potemkin villages" is still alive and strong in modern day Russia. It has emerged once more in the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg - or Leningrad as it was known during Soviet times - is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but it is having a difficult time now. In 1991 during the "anti-communist" rising the city got back its old name of St. Petersburg and with this name trouble was being prepared for its people.

The new capitalist Russia did not have the money to preserve the city's treasures. The old historical buildings in the city centre are in ruins. Stealing from the city's archives and museums has today assumed an epidemic character. Public transport and the council services are in ruins. The city administration since the beginning of the 1990s has been famous for its corruption scandals. It is worth noting that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was a member of this administration for years and was involved in several corruption scandals.

On May 28, 2003 the city opened up the events to celebrate 300 years since Peter the Great established the new Russian capital. The present Russian authorities are always claiming they don’t have money for the social services, for the workers, for teachers or even for the army, but they always manage to find funds for impressive celebrations and the building of unnecessary monuments.

Yeltsin's time was a period of endless celebrations and festivals - the 750th anniversary of Moscow, 200th of Pushkin's university, and hundreds of other little festivals. Millions of dollars were spent on those shows. Those celebrations were a real reason to celebrate for the businessmen that got new contracts and for the corrupt officials who handed them out. This is the typical behaviour of many rotten regimes facing decline and collapse.

Putin also had sound political reasons for taking part in these celebrations. He invited political leaders from many countries including the USA, the EU countries, India and China. Putin intended to use the celebrations to improve Russia’s image as a world power, that image that was seriously damaged over the past decade or so. The Russian president also planned to use this meeting to have serious negotiations with American president G.W. Bush and for improving relations between the two countries after the war in Iraq, where Russian companies lost their contracts after the American occupation.

Before the 1917 Revolution, the Romanov family in St. Petersburg alone had five big palaces - Petergof, Czarskoe Selo, Gatchina, Pavlovsk and Oranienbaum. These were far more than other European monarchs had. The secret was simple - Russian absolute monarchs could take money from the state without any limitation from parliament or any other representative body. During the soviet era the capitalist west demagogically attacked the luxurious living conditions of the Soviet bureaucracy. But their tune has changed now that today’s "democratic" rulers of the "New Russia" are preparing to live in the same style as the Czar.

Yeltsin was the first. His administration spent about $3 billion on reconstructing the Kremlin apartments for the use of the "First Russian President". For Yeltsin several new residences were built around Russia. Those villas replaced the old Soviet "General Secretary’s" Dachas that were lost during the collapse of Soviet Union. Of course all the construction work was carried out by foreign companies who used materials brought in from outside Russia. All this was done in a country whose economy had collapsed, and was constantly asking for aid from the IMF and World Bank.

Today Putin is building the so-called "presidential residence " of the "new Petersburg", the Constantinovsky palace. It will not only house luxury apartments, but also a big park, and even a dock for the President's personal yacht. Surrounding the palace several high-class houses will be built for foreign visitors.

In general the Russian authorities are planning to spend about $1.2 billion on these celebrations. In theory all this money is supposed to be used solely on the restoration of historical buildings, the city infrastructure and the celebrations themselves. But most infrastructural works have not been finished yet (even though the celebrations have already started) and look as if they won’t be finished before the end of the year. This is typical. In fact, almost ten years have gone by since the work of restoration on just one underground station started! The people, the press and even the authorities themselves openly say that the money for those projects has been stolen.

We see the same picture with the restoration of historical buildings. Many of them are just closed off by protective boarding. The rest of the money is simply spent on camouflaging unpleasant sites. Just as in the 18th century, mountains of rubbish near the airport have been hidden from sight with boards and fencing, but the main roads have been repaired. According to some newspapers they have even activated special ventilators to ward off the smells!

Sometimes the "restoration" takes a very strange form. For example the old Senate building, a famous Peter the Great monument, has been set aside for a French hotel company to transform into a high class hotel, while the Historical Archive and huge herbarium collection located in this building have been thrown out onto the streets! The authorities just ignore the protests of the archive workers and historians. They need modern hotels not "old papers"!

The high-ranking guests and VIPs will expect trips to the city, shows and even nighttime celebrations on the Neva River. In the 18th century the authorities closed public celebrations and public places to people in non-European attire, which meant "access for nobility only". Today the "recommended" policy for people from the city neighbourhoods, is to stay away from the areas where the ministers, businessmen and presidents are celebrating. They should either stay at home or just go out of town. The city centre is in fact being blockaded by the police. All "unwanted" or "suspicious" people are either removed or arrested. The main city airport is to be closed for the celebration days. The train line between Petersburg and Moscow is also to be closed. Nobody must interrupt the ruling class during its celebrations.

The ordinary people are only thinking of how to escape from Petersburg. This show is just trouble for them and a holiday for the elite. For the left and the workers’ organizations the celebrations represent simply more police repression. But sooner or later it all this will change. Trotsky wrote in "Where is the USSR going?" that after the revolution the working class would spend money not on clubs for the bureaucracy, but on the daily needs of the working people. The victorious proletariat will do the same thing again in the future, after the new Russian Revolution, that they did after 1917. The new elite's palaces and villas will again be made into museums for everyone to enjoy.

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