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Bush Receives VIP Tour of St. Petersburg - 2002-05-25


After completing their discussions in Moscow, Russian President Putin and U.S. President Bush travel to St. Petersburg, a city often called Russia's northern capital. The two-day visit includes informal talks between the two leaders as well as some sightseeing for Mr. Bush and his entourage.

St. Petersburg is no stranger to being the center of attention. Founded 299 years ago by Czar Peter the Great, it was once the capital of a vast and expanding Russian empire.

St. Petersburg is also the hometown of Russian President Vladimir Putin and he makes sure all his important visitors see the city. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been here, as has German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Now, it's President Bush who is being given the VIP tour.

The governor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Yakovlev, says he welcomes the visit. "This is important for Russia and America. It's good that the dialogue is taking place, not only in the capitals, but in other cities as well. It's important for both presidents and especially for the people. It's also good for our city, it's extra information about the city and good publicity. We have things to show and be proud of," he says.

During a recent interview in his office, Mr. Yakovlev proudly pointed to photographs of himself with President Putin, as well as one taken of President Bush's father and mother when they resided in the White House.

The two-day visit allows Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush to meet informally, as they did last year when President Putin visited the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The visit also gives Mr. Bush an opportunity to see some well known St. Petersburg sites, including the Peskariovskoye Cemetery, the burial place of close to a half-million victims of the Nazi siege of the city during World War II. There is the famous Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theater, known in Soviet times as the Kirov. And there is the renowned Hermitage Museum, with its three million paintings, sculptures and ancient and other decorative artifacts.

"Welcome to the Hermitage ... our museum is the largest art museum in this country as it consists of five buildings and keeps approximately three million items of different periods and styles," says Daria Kolchugina, a tour guide at the Hermitage museum who often shows important visitors around.

The oldest and largest of the five buildings making up the museum complex is the Winter Palace. It was built in the 1750's as a royal residence. But the Hermitage museum was not founded until 1764, the year Empress Catherine the Great acquired 225 paintings by West European masters and displayed them there. "It is one of our most elegant rooms ... the Pavillion Room ...everything here was made for one purpose only, for solitude, seclusion and relaxation. ...(It was) constructed in the 1760's for the Empress Catherine II.... Here Catherine could entertain her guests ... and could admire her collection," says Ms. Kolchugina.

It's difficult to say what artworks the museum is most famous for. It is certainly known for its exquisite collection of the old Dutch masters, especially Rembrandt. "As for the whole Dutch collection, it consists of 1,400 items, it's the largest in the world, among them 24 works by Rembrandt - one of the largest collections of Rembrandt. ... This canvas is one of the top Rembrandts, the Return of the Prodigal Son."

The museum also boasts two Leonardo da Vincis as well as an enviable collection of Impressionist paintings including works by Matisse, Renoir and Monet.

There are some 400 rooms in the Hermitage museum complex, which attracts around two million visitors a year. During his visit, President Bush is expected to see only a small portion of the museum.

With its museums, theaters and illustrious history, St. Petersburg prides itself as the cultural capital of Russia.

But it's also a noisy, bustling and polluted city that has suffered from years of neglect. Its roads are full of potholes, its once-grand buildings are crumbling. The city, with its population of close to five million, also suffers from a shortage of decent housing. Overall, St. Petersburg is in dire need of repair and restoration. But these problems do not prevent its residents from being fiercely proud of their city and eager to show it off to even the most important visitors.