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St Petersburg

It is bitter wind that sweeps off the Baltic; icy, raw and unyielding. If you stand on the hill overlooking the Piskarov cemetery the blast makes your eyes water. Around you lie the mass graves of the 670,000 people that did not survive the wartime siege of St Petersburg. There are no identities, just mounds of earth each the size of a tennis court. I counted more than 30 labelled merely “1942”.

The soldiers at the gate eye you casually even though you are the only visitor. Five years ago they would have been solemnly watching over this shrine, now they just yawn as you walk by. Perhaps they have been working until the early hours as security guards in a local restaurant - “its a free market now comrade.” Moonlighting is lucrative, essential in fact. Everybody needs two jobs in this city; one working for their employer, the other for themselves.

Employment under communism was concentrated in the huge military factories that surround the city. Now with the collapse of the Soviet Union many factories are idle and desperately seeking non-military work. The Malachite Engineering Bureau designed Russia’s first Nuclear powered submarine and went on to build many of those whose weapons were aimed at the West. Now it designs “underwater yachts” for the capitalist that has almost everything. The Strela Production Association once produced precision engineering components for Russia’s space program, now it produces garden sprinklers and table top sausage makers. One legacy of this heavy industry is the serious pollution that has contaminated the ground with heavy metals, chemicals and radioactive waste. Even local people avoid drinking from the tap.

St Petersburg is a young city, just 290 years old, and it was designed rather than just allowed to sprawl. The layout and the low roof lines make it one of the most attractive cities in the world despite the aura of decay. The central area within the Fontanka river is populated with buildings from the grand school of architecture, most of them slowly crumbling away.

But people make a city not the buildings and the time to see St Petersburg is in summer when daylight extends for 20 hours, the ‘White Nights’. With its reputation for youth and radicalism the city comes alive with parties. Ticket events need hard currency and contacts but some of the best are free like the kids break dancing to scratch music in front of the Kazan Cathedral. There is urgency in the air “It helps us forget that we are just surviving” said one dancer.

As the free market starts to rule the economy the Russian Mafia have been the most obvious entrepreneurial element to emerge. Most of their activity is purely criminal such as arms smuggling, robbery and drugs but there are good profits to be made in banking, exporting and other ‘business ventures’. Easily spotted around town, their appearance is pure Hollywood ‘B’ movie and their ruthlessness legendary.

When the Mafiosi walk into restaurants the atmosphere tightens perceptibly. Wearing heavy jewellery, padded suits and with bottle blonde molls they take the best tables and leave without paying. At dusk the sub-lieutenants cruise the Nevskiy Prospect in their BMWs. They are looking for girls and they seem to be very successful.

The police have a tough reputation but they are desperately short of equipment. This summer Volvo gave the police a car as thanks for helping them film a TV commercial. At last the police could use something other than a Lada to chase the Mercedes and Audis that the armed robbers use.

Crime has soared, particularly with the influx of money from the west. “Western businessmen, do not feel insecure.” declares a sign on the reception desk of the Astoria “Contact DEFENSE agency for your personal guards. All ex-special forces trained.”

There are other services too. Prostitution has become so depressingly common that it is now quite risky for a Russian woman to wait in a bar or hotel lobby lest they are accosted by ardent punters or, even worse, attacked by rival pimps. Tanya is a prostitute, “I use to be a senior accountant but when my husband left me I needed money to educate my daughter.” She can earn $100 a night in the Western bars which is more than a doctor would make in two months.

With money you can get almost anything here. A stroll around the covered market of Gostiniy Dvor reveals shops crammed with goods, even Bennetton and Littlewoods are here. The prices are outrageous of course but there are plenty of customers. Outside is a old woman, she must be 70 or so, a sign proclaims that she is a veteran of the Great Patriotic War. She is begging. It would be inconceivable for Russia to return to the stagnation of communist rule but its frontier town free market embraces seductive horrors as well as opportunities.

Can Russia hold or is its destiny anarchy? Perhaps the most poignant element of the Piskarov cemetery is the statue that overlooks the mass graves. It is of a beautiful woman, Mother Russia, bending gracefully over to lay a garland of flowers. This is a bleak reminder that Russia has triumphed over hardships never seen in the West, perhaps it can do so again. That is the true appeal of Russia, when you find tenderness it is born out of toughness; when you find consensus it is born out of stubbornness; when you find happiness it is born out of tragedy. I can understand why that Baltic wind smarts the eyes.

First Published in the Ham and High, December 1993

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