Sun Sets on Russia's Cultural Capital; St Petersburg Is a City Steeped in Russian History but like So Much of That Vast Country, It Is Currently Languishing in Despair. Mitchell Landsberg Reports

Article excerpt

The old woman has lived in St Petersburg for nearly a third of its history. Like the city, she has aged hard but gracefully.

She was there for the revolution, when Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and claimed an empire. Today, on the great Palace Square, one of history's most bloodstained stages, teenagers whirl about on in-line skates.

She was there for the siege of the Second World War, when Nazi forces surrounded the city and starved it for 900 days. A million people died, more or less, and she remembers the bodies littering the streets where, today, black Mercedes Benz automobiles c arry thug-like men in suits to chic restaurants.

For roughly 90 years, Valentina Vladimirovna Bobrovskaya has lived in this elegant, tormented city, home of Dostoevsky and Nijinsky, Peter the Great and the young Vladimir Lenin. She cannot imagine a life lived elsewhere.

"I went to Moscow once," she says, a bit gruffly. "Didn't like it much. That was before the war. People were so rude. I didn't like the people, so I didn't like the city."

Her companions - three old ladies, sitting on two facing park benches, taking the sun - nod their agreement. It turns out, though, that she's the only one who's ever been to Moscow.

For a brief moment this summer, St Petersburg was again on center stage. The last czar, Nicholas II, was buried in the city's Peter and Paul Cathedral, and Russians were reminded that this was once the capital of a vast empire, the place from which all o f Russia's great power flowed.

It was a stirring moment. But it also was a reminder of how much this city has slipped into the shadows of post-Soviet life.

One of the first acts of the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution was to return the capital to its ancient center, Moscow, and relegate St Petersburg to the status of Russia's second city - second in size and importance, if not in attitude.

Since then, the divide has only grown, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of a market economy in Russia, it has grown greater still.

Moscow is Russia's one and only boomtown.

St Petersburg still exhibits dreams of grandeur, but they seem far-fetched, at beSt The city administration has envisioned it as the future financial capital of Russia, a bizarre claim considering that the vast majority of the country's wealth is centere d in Moscow. …