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Russian Emperor Peter the Great built St. Petersburg three centuries ago, which makes it relatively recent by Russian standards. He imagined a luxurious playground for the ruling elite and a window to Europe.

As NPR's David Greene reports, there are some residents who think Russia's current leaders are using the city for the same purpose.

(Soundbite of fireworks and a music)

DAVID GREENE: Summer in St. Petersburg means incredible white nights. The sun never sets over the canals and cafes, and this cultural capital explodes with life. There's a festival of boats on the river, fireworks, concerts. Who can blame Russian President Dmitri Medvedev for wanting to show off this place?

President DMITRI MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Through translator) It also gives me a lot of pleasure to welcome you here at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum.

GREENE: This summer, he used St. Petersburg as the backdrop to tell fellow leaders that Russia is modernizing.

President MEDVEDEV: (Through translator) ...changing for its own sake, as well as for the sake of the rest of the world. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: This place was just a Swedish backwater until Russia claimed the territory three centuries ago and Peter the Great built a grand Russian capital.

Professor VLADIMIR GELMAN (Dean, Political Science and Sociology, European University): Actually, most European city of Russia.

GREENE: This is Vladimir Gelman. He's dean of political science and sociology at the European University in St. Petersburg. Over lunch, he describes how the Soviet government moved their capital to less glamorous, but more functional Moscow.

This city was renamed Leningrad. Hundreds of thousands here starved to death the German siege in World War II. And over time, the city became dirty and crime-ridden. But through it all, Peter's European architecture remained. And today, two natives, Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, are leading a renaissance.

Prof. GELMAN: I mean, international events, more federal investments...

GREENE: Really, the city's a showcase again, Gelman said. But he added a big caveat: When it comes to politics, he said, neither Putin nor Medvedev want Russia to be any more European.

Prof. GELMAN: Why there is a need? If they would like to redesign the country, yes, you are right. If they would like to make a showcase, one showcase is enough.

GREENE: It sounds almost like St. Petersburg is a little Russian playground. You can come here, you can think that you're enjoying Russia if you're a tourist...

Prof. GELMAN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. To some extent, it's true. And, of course, for tourists who are coming here for, what, three, four, five days, it looks like a European face of Russia. And if they will go just 100 kilometers out of the city, they will see an absolutely different landscape.

GREENE: But many tourists don't go anywhere else, and that may be by design. The Russian government usually requires visitors from the U.S. or Europe to have an official invitation letter and a visa. Not here, though.

Ms. ELENA ETSINA (Curator, Hermitage Museum): This is the biggest sculpture of the collection.

GREENE: In the new St. Petersburg, they allow visitors off cruise ships and ferries to explore - if escorted at all times by an official tour guide.

Ms. ETSINA: And visiting just the points in the program, so they have no free time. They have no - and there's just no choice.

GREENE: Elena Etsina is a curator at one of the hotspots, the Hermitage Museum. She's proud of the art collection, which rivals the Louvre. There are works from all the giants: Picasso, Da Vinci...

Ms. ETSINA: And we have more than 20 paintings of Rembrandt, and "Return of the Prodigal Son," as you know, is considered to be probably the most well-known piece by Rembrandt.

GREENE: But this European-style museum is only a taste of Imperial Russia.

Ms. ETSINA: It's not right to say that I know what Russia is after visiting in St. Petersburg, and especially just the Hermitage Museum, because we have no Russian art here.

GREENE: What does this city mean for the Russians who live here? I met Iroida Titova heading home on a city bus. She's a 66-year-old widow with a haunting past. As a child, she went with her father back and forth from here to Siberia. They were visiting her mother, who was deported by Stalin because of her German descent.

I wondered whether today, all the tourists in this European-feeling city bother her, passing through, without learning much about the darker times.

Ms. IROIDA TITOVA: (Through translator) Yes, one should live in Russia to really understand it. But people can come visit here, see something and leave. Life was hard for me. But what is it for them? Why should they know?

GREENE: And actually, Titova herself was on her way back from the Hermitage. I'm in a lovely mood, she said. I've just seen the Picasso exhibit.

Ms. VIKTORIA GRYGORYEVA (Street Musician): (Singing) Oh...

GREENE: There was also 24-year-old street musician Viktoria Grygoryeva.

Ms. GRYGORYEVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Welcome to our cultural capital, she declared. Please admire it.

Her friend Andrei Galkin, though, said he can get frustrated. The 21-year-old worries that this gorgeous city may help visitors forget uglier sides of Russia: the corruption or the human rights abuses. Whenever Medvedev or Putin come for a big visit, he said, it means one thing: A police crackdown to make sure there's no mischief.

Mr. ANDREI GALKIN: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: They do hide the real life here, he said. They show off what they want to show off.

David Greene, NPR News, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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