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St. Petersburg’s Beauty Skin-Deep

Fri., July 19, 1996

You could spend the equivalent of the massive U.S. defense budget - or the former Soviet budget for war - and still the money would not be enough to fix this magnificent place. So much has she decayed.

There is not a city in the United States that is as beautiful - or as ugly. It was built by Peter the Great in honor of his patron saint, later politicized as Leningrad and, in the enlightened past half-decade, rechristened as St. Petersburg.

But behind the vivid paint and architecture of its principal buildings lies a city desperately in need of repair.

Its streets and thoroughfares are pocked with holes and ruts that shake the aging, crumbling vehicles that plod over and around them.

Near the city center, the apartment buildings reflect the time-worn facts of life under communism and the economic stringency brought about by the relatively overnight shift to a market economy.

In the waning days of the Soviet Union, the stores were empty and those in lines longed to buy what little was available. Today, the shelves are chocked with goods, but the people are unable to afford most of them.

St. Petersburg is a magnificent facade. The Winter Palace basks grandiose along the banks of the Neva River, the blue-domed mosque and the glistening gold-topped St. Isaac’s Cathedral crown a low-lying aristocratic skyline that can be seen from miles away.

Along the Nevsky Prospekt, thousands parade business-like up and down the broad central boulevard, on the way to somewhere or from somewhere else, past shops that are both alluring and alienating, affordable and untouchable.

This is the facade, what lies behind it is the reality.

Dmitry of St. Petersburg lives much like Luis of Havana, hovel-like in a walk-up apartment that has not seen upgrade since the advent of their socialistic societies.

As I walked the steps to Dmitry’s apartment - there was no elevator - little light crept into the venue although the day outside was bright and sunny. The hallways were as dank and dismal as those I saw on a visit to equally crumbling Cuba.

Inside the apartment, the furnishings were tattered, and possibly remnants of the great wartime siege of 1941-1944. The ceilings were fully 12 feet high but the rooms only about six feet wide. The curtains clashed, one side containing red patterns, the other orange.

Dmitry is a teacher. He has conveniences: a computer, for one; a TV set; a stereo; a telephone. The rest of his existence is shabby, not a sign of his inability but of his country’s desperate condition.

Micha, who does not live with Dmitry but is a friend, is the more talkative as we compare civilizations. Although he says he voted for Boris Yeltsin, I detect a bit of the old socialist in Micha, including a lack of understanding of life outside the old Soviet Union.

Somehow the subject drifts to automobiles and whether Russians have auto insurance. “Sure we do,” Micha barks, “but few buy it.”

“What happens if you have an accident?”

“We settle it between us.”

“What if I don’t want to settle? Do you call a cop?”

“No, the police are ineffective. It is decided by the Mafia.”

“The Mafia? Is the Mafia the law in St. Petersburg?”

“Pretty much.”

“Are these the Sicilian Mafia people?”

“No, there’s no connection. It’s our very own.”

“What if I don’t accept what the Mafia decides?”

“Then they beat you up until you do.”

St. Petersburg, then, is not only physically impaired but administratively impaired as well.

Come to think of it, and lamentably, it’s not much different from some of our own major cities.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Howard Kleinberg Cox News Service

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