From Leningrad To St. Petersburg

When Vladimir Putin last visited the United States, George W. Bush took pride in showing him around his Texas ranch. This time around, it's the Russian leader who's going to be showing off his hometown: St. Petersburg.

And if the American president pays close attention, the city could offer him some valuable insights into the intricacies of Russian politics.

The trip to St. Petersburg is supposed to be more pleasure than business. After visiting Moscow to discuss issues of substance, Bush's weekend visit to the elegant city that residents like to call the Venice of the North will take in mostly cultural stops. There'll also be a meeting with university students--a reprise of the Bush-Putin visit to the Crawford High School near Bush's ranch last November. But what Bush should really look out for is the way in which Putin's rise to the pinnacle of his country's power has transformed St. Petersburg into Russia's unofficial epicenter.

St. Petersburg, of course, is no stranger to power. Founded by Peter the Great 299 years ago, it served as the capital of tsarist Russia for two centuries after that. But the city that was renamed Leningrad slid into both political and aesthetic decline during the Soviet era.

Putin has put an end to that slide. In his two years as Russia's president, he has presided over an extraordinary migration of talent from "Peter," as its citizens lovingly call it, to Moscow, the place where almost all of Russia's modern-day financial and political power is concentrated.

Russians have taken to joking about their own version of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance--Petersburg is also known as Russia's "northern capital"--and telling sarcastic jokes about the invasion of St. Petersburg carpetbaggers. In one, a Muscovite picks up the phone. "Hello, I'm calling from St. Petersburg," says a voice. "Well, hey, you don't have to start right off by scaring me," answers the Muscovite.

But the Petersburg Group, as they're usually known, is no joke. Their presence, and their influence, have assumed astounding dimensions. The list of positions held by Petersburgers--most of whom weren't even working in Moscow two years ago--is telling. There's the minister of defense, the finance minister and the minister of internal affairs. Several of Putin's key advisers in the Kremlin, including Igor Sechin, the man who controls access to the president, are from St. Petersburg. So is the central bank chief; Putin's economic reform strategist; his main economic adviser; the head of the natural-gas monopoly Gazprom; the director of the national power grid; the head of the upper house of parliament and countless members of the domestic security services.

Among them is Dmitry Medvedev. An earnest thirtysomething lawyer, he occupies a vast office in the center of state power, Building 14 of the Kremlin, where he works as Putin's deputy chief of staff. His responsibilities include overseeing the state's 38 percent stake in Gazprom (a company which controls one-quarter of the world's proven reserves of natural gas), as well as Putin's ambitious program of judicial reform. He goes to great lengths to convince you that he's left his Petersburg origins at the door. "I love Moscow very much," he says, discussing at great length how cozy he and his family feel in their adopted hometown. But soon a hint of insurrection begins to seep out around the edges, as he begins to talk about the need to counter Russia's traditional hypercentralization.

He mentions the long-term need to redistribute "various federal functions" to other parts of Russia--perhaps even part of parliament. There's a reason for Medvedev's caution. When another Putin aide broached the idea of relocating the upper house of parliament to St. Petersburg, he was immediately met with a storm of indignation. Decentralization is an idea that may sound ordinary, if not dull, in most countries. In Russia's Moscow-fixated system, it's downright heresy.

But Medvedev also lovingly dwells on another idee fixe of Putin's Northern Alliance: the idea of Petersburg as a source of "intellectual potential." Petersburg is often described as Russia's cultural capital--with some justification. Russia's last two Nobel Prize winners, the poet Joseph Brodsky and the physicist Zhores Alferov, both hailed from the city. Its museums, concert halls and theaters are outstanding--and their managers, unlike the Soviet-style cultural bureaucrats elsewhere in the country, are cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial. Geographically, it's hard to deny Petersburg's proximity to Europe. That's why Peter the Great founded it as his "window" to points west and why its culture has also been unabashedly open to influences from abroad.

Valery Gergiev, the director of the Mariinsky Opera, is as well-known in New York and London as he is in Petersburg. Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the vast Hermitage Museum, one of the world's greatest collections of Western European art, has made a name for himself by using countless international sponsoring agreements to repair leaky roofs and protect his fabulous collection. Andrei Likachev, a leading Petersburg manager who hasn't made the jump to Moscow yet, puts it this way: "These are people from a European city, with a European mindset, with a European horizon."

And yet there many who don't buy this argument. They point out that St. Petersburg is as famous for its contract killings and its mafia gangs as it is for being the home of the Hermitage. Sure, say the skeptics, St. Petersburg under the tsars might have been a cosmopolitan hotbed, but its hermetic isolation from the rest of the world in the Soviet era meant that the city might as well have been on the other side of the moon.

One of my Moscow friends sniffed when I asked her what she thought about Petersburg's intellectual credentials: "All the real dissidents were in Moscow. And the KGB was much worse in Leningrad than here." There's some justification for this, too. One of Putin's key aides in the region today is Viktor Cherkesov, a former dissident hunter in the Leningrad KGB who was notorious for, among other things, staging one of the last political show trials in the 1980s.

Which of these two images of St. Petersburg--the cosmopolitan or the despotic--best explains the agenda of Putin's allies? Actually, both are accurate, and the reasons have a lot to do with the city's Soviet history. Before 1917, Petersburg was the primary source of Imperial Russia's intellectual and political ferment, a city of revolutionary impulses and rebellious thinking. Because of that, Soviet leaders--many of whom knew that history from first-hand experience--always kept the city under close scrutiny.

When a popular Leningrad Communist Party chief, Sergei Kirov, looked like he might become a force in national politics in the 1930s, Stalin had him killed (an event that triggered the first act of the Great Terror). After World War II, when the city emerged from the terrible Nazi siege and famine that wiped out millions of its citizens, the new generation of Leningrad party leaders soon found themselves the victim of yet another bloody purge--the so-called "Leningrad Case."

But perhaps the most resonant example was that of Aleksei Kosygin, the man who organized the "road of life": a transport route over frozen lakes that supplied the besieged Leningraders with their only food during the war. When Nikita Khrushchev decided to move ahead with reform of the Soviet system in the 1950s, it was Kosygin he chose to lead efforts to modernize the economy by moving cautiously away from central planning. In the end, Khrushchev was toppled in a bloodless coup, and Kosygin came to symbolize the failure of one of the Soviet system's most serious, and characteristically futile, attempts to fix itself.

Modern-day Petersburgers remember all of these cases with surprising vividness. And the heavy hand of the KGB persisted in Leningrad right up to the end of the Soviet system. So how does one reconcile that harsh reality with Petersburg's sudden political creativity in the 1990s, when the city first began exporting its renegade free-marketeers to Moscow? The answer, perhaps, is that these two sides of the coin--police state and economic liberalization--are closer than they might seem. One former Petersburg dissident, the journalist Lev Lurie, recalls his own brushes with the Leningrad KGB in the 1970s and '80s. The secret policemen all understood, he explained, that the Soviet Union's economy was a total failure, and some of them spoke frankly of the need to move toward a more market-oriented system--right down to the creation of private restaurants and shops, downright heresy by the standards of the time. But, he added, their attitude was motivated by purely pragmatic considerations. "They had nothing to do with democracy. Democracy didn't interest them at all." What interested them was efficiency, and, perhaps, the opportunity to make some extra money on the side.

At the same time, a young generation of Petersburg intellectuals were quietly exchanging ideas of their own about economic modernization--and sometimes drawing a link to the need for democratic institutions to go along with them. Yet this younger generation, well-schooled in its country's recent history, could always see the lurking example of the failed Soviet attempts at reform. One lesson to be drawn from them, presumably, was that you could only get away with retooling the economy as long as the people doing the reform had tight control of the political system. It was a lesson that could have only been confirmed by the experience of Boris Yeltsin's would-be democratic revolution, when his more ambitious plans, as they saw it, were scuttled or retarded by a chaotic parliament.

Interestingly, one of the most important apostles of Russian-style market reform to emerge from St. Petersburg in the 1990s was Anatoly Chubais, a man whose intense desire to do away with socialism and central planning was matched only by his ruthless and unsentimental mastery of bureaucratic machinery. Many of his "romantic" liberal colleagues--Muscovite and otherwise--have long since fallen by the wayside. Chubais, by contrast, has maintained his position in the commanding heights of the Russian economy as head of the national electricity monopoly. Once considered the great hope of Russia's liberal democrats, Chubais has recently backed many of Putin's less democratic policies, including the continuing war in Chechnya.

In that respect, even though he was already at work in Moscow long before many of Putin's new followers arrived in the capital, Chubais can be seen as a crucial avatar of the new Petersburg Generation, with its fervent belief that Putin's revival of authoritarian habits and mechanisms--"managed democracy," as Putin's aides like to call it--is a prerequisite for cleaning house in the economy. Some Russians try to draw a distinction between Putin's KGB followers from Petersburg and his economic reform team; others, perhaps more accurately, tend to see them as a single group. Yakov Gordin, editor of a leading Petersburg literary magazine, knows many of the new Putin Generation well. "They believe that they can conduct reforms only under conditions of stability. No one's talking about repression. But they definitely believe in tough government--that is a clear idea of this group."

Repression may still come though, as the tough part of Putin's economic reforms gets underway. Recent sharp price rises for utilities in public housing--a crucial part of Putin's drive to reduce Russia's rampant and economically devastating culture of subsidies--inspired 20,000 people to demonstrate against the measure in the southern city of Voronezh. But because Putin has clamped down on the media so effectively, few Russians in the rest of the country noticed. This could well be a sign of things to come, unless the president can come up with vast new sources of capital to replace the Soviet-era infrastructure that is quietly collapsing around the ears of Russia's citizens. Gordin also sees the potential risk: "At what point does that longing for stability begin to gain the upper hand? It's still too early to say." And that may be exactly the question that George Bush might want to contemplate as he tours the streets of St. Petersburg with its most famous present-day son.