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Russians Struggle to Restore St. Petersburg As 'Window on Europe'

Last week Russian President Putin and U.S. President Bush held a three-day summit that has been hailed as another step in building the post-Cold War relationship between Russia and the United States. The two leaders held several in-depth political discussions in Moscow, but it was their informal meetings in St. Petersburg that seemed to deepen the relationship between the two men.

The city was once home to Russia's czars and it is racing to restore its crumbling monuments and infrastructure in preparation for the 300th anniversary of its founding, to be celebrated next year.

It was a city planned down to the most minute detail by an emperor with an obsessive desire to build a capital to rival any in Europe. It rose out of the swampland where the Neva River empties into the Baltic Sea. Its palaces and canals are reminiscent of Amsterdam and Venice.

St. Petersburg was the dream and passionate creation of Czar Peter the Great, the showcase of his empire, his "window on Europe."

It stayed that way for more than 200 years. But then came the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and a short time later St. Petersburg was re-named Leningrad in 1924, in honor of the communist who led the revolution. The former capital became a backwater. It came to world attention again during World War II when it was besieged by Nazi armies. After the war, obscurity again descended over the city, its once grand buildings and ornate palaces were left to crumble.

"It is heartbreaking for me as a St. Petersburg native to see the city falling into ruin," said Nadezhda Staganovich, who works for the city's museum foundation. She said it is time something is done to restore the city that once meant so much to Russians.

"I want it to be clean and beautiful and to have lots of tourists admire the beauty of our cultural capital," she said. "Of course, I want everything to be done beautifully for the 300th anniversary since that is a major date for us. I do not want to be ashamed of our city."

Many here seems to feel this way. The city was re-named St. Petersburg in 1991, shortly after the Soviet collapse, but restoring it is taking much longer.

It is hard to make out most of the city's famous landmarks nowadays, they are likely to be covered by scaffolding with workmen chipping away at old facades and putting on new ones. St. Petersburg is getting a badly needed facelift.

Across from the Winter Palace, the historic residence of Russia's czars, stands yet another construction site. This once housed several ministries of the czars as well of the communist government. Now it is almost in ruins.

"All this was abandoned," said Pyotr Kavlyugin, the man in charge of reconstructing the building. "Nobody lived here. It was sealed. Before the revolution, it was the building of civil ministries, including the apartments of the counselors. After the revolution, a lot of organizations were here. This room was occupied by the sanitation and sewer department."

Walking along the dark hallways, it is difficult to imagine what these rooms might once have looked like. Walls are being stripped of old paint, floor boards are being replaced, electrical wiring is being put in.

At the end of one such hall is a recently restored chapel, named after Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince who defeated the Swedes hundreds of years ago in a battle that took place on the banks of the Neva.

"This is the so-called house chapel named after Alexander Nevsky. "During Soviet times it was dubbed the 'red corner,' where the communists held their meetings," Mr. Kavlyugin said. "....When we entered this place after it was unsealed, it was stuffed with papers and materials to the ceiling. We could not even recognize that it was once a chapel before we took out all the garbage. That was in 2000. We restored it in one year."

Now, the chapel's walls are again covered in marble, and its ceiling dome has been restored to its former glory.

Mr. Kavlyugin says his men often work only from old photographs and sketches to try to restore the rooms to their original state.

Even St. Petersburg's most famous historical monuments have not escaped the ravages of neglect. The Hermitage Museum is made up of five buildings, the largest and oldest of which is the Winter Palace.

Valery Lukin is the chief architect of the Hermitage. He says renovation is a long-term project, but acknowledges that some of the museum's buildings are in very poor condition.

"The Winter Palace just needs more space for new exhibits. Other buildings like the Hermitage Theater need complete reconstruction," he said. "The small Hermitage building is also in desperate need of renovation. It contains the hanging gardens, which we will start renovating this summer. We know what we need to do. The only thing stopping us is (lack of) money."

The Hermitage is one of the world's premier museums with its three million paintings, sculptures, ancient and decorative artifacts. It houses one of the largest and best collections of paintings of old Dutch masters, particularly Rembrandt. Some of its exhibit rooms have been exquisitely restored and maintained, others not. On the upper floors some of the world's great impressionist paintings, including works by Matisse, Monet and Renoir are displayed on dingy, dirty walls that do not do these masterpieces justice.

Renovation has been underway in St. Petersburg for years now. Some of the funding comes from the city's own budget. But the city is also heavily dependent on federal funding to renovate some of its major landmarks. Residents say the fact that President Putin is a St. Petersburg native has certainly helped.

People here are delighted that their historic monuments are being restored, and they would like that done in time for the anniversary celebrations next year. But they also are hoping for the restoration of other things, such as roads, housing, schools and hospitals. They, like the city's grand monuments, have also suffered from years of neglect.