LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
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?
DMITRI MEDVEDEV: (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.
MEDVEDEV: (Through translator) ...changing for its own sake, as well as for the sake of the rest of the world. Thank you.
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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.
VLADIMIR GELMAN: Actually, most European city of Russia.
GREENE: 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.
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.
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...
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.
ELENA ETSINA: 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.
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...
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.
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: I wondered whether today, all the tourists in this European-feeling city bother her, passing through, without learning much about the darker times.
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.
VIKTORIA GRYGORYEVA: (Singing) Oh...
GREENE: There was also 24-year-old street musician Viktoria Grygoryeva.
GRYGORYEVA: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: Welcome to our cultural capital, she declared. Please admire it.
WERTHEIMER: 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.
ANDREI GALKIN: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: David Greene, NPR News, St. Petersburg, Russia.
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