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Friday, July 14, 2006

St. Petersburg Exposed

La Russophobe dares to wonder whether Mad Vlad saw this coming when he asked for the G-8 summit -- Potemkin Piter blown to bits by the Guardian:

Russia's second city is the home of president Vladimir Putin and this weekend hosts the eight most powerful leaders on the planet. But away from the boulevards and gilded state palaces lies another face of present-day Russia: poverty, crime and endemic racism. Nick Paton Walsh reports.

The streets have been swept, the double-headed eagles on each state building have been polished, the gangs of riot police are milling around nervously. On Friday the leaders of the G8, the world's most prosperous industrialised democracies, will gather in St Petersburg for a summit that will be the pinnacle of Vladimir Putin's presidency. The city where he was born, grew up and was educated is now the jewel in the crown of a resurgent Russia.

Yet as "Piotr" bristles with confidence, accusations that it is the ultimate Potemkin village fly. Its brief role as the home of the G8 seems artificially imposed on to a city where the sickness and cruelty of Russian society are writ large. Dostoevsky once called this the "most artificial city in the world", and this week the description seems more apt than ever.

To see how thinly the riches of Russia's oil and gas boom are spread, and the abscesses left by the Russian elite's focus on itself, you need only look at the places where Putin, 56, himself grew up. While Russia's newest tsar prefers to focus on the economic prosperity that his six-year administration has ushered in, the places that he calls home speak of a very different Russia: wretched, callous, authoritarian.

Anatoli Rakhlin bounds up the stairwell of number 12 Baskov Pereulok with a vigour that seems little diminished since he taught Putin judo 40 years ago. The closest thing the Kremlin head had to a mentor, the 68-year-old knocks on the door of a flat on the fourth floor. "I'm sure this is it," he says, noting that no one has put up a memorial plaque to say, "Vladimir Vladimirovich grew up here." Rakhlin used to live across the street and minutes earlier had been pointing out where a bomb struck during the second world war, and where a young Putin used to share his sweets with local kids.

The flat's current occupant, a reluctant Nina Matvieva, opens the door to the flat, and Rakhlin points out the room at the end of the corridor where Putin lived with his father and mother - one room in the standard Soviet "kommumalka", a flat shared by a number of families. His father was a war veteran who then worked in a factory, and his mother did a series of odd jobs, working in a bakery and as a janitor. His elder brother had died from diphtheria in the wartime siege of the city.

Today's residents don't face the food shortages and grime of Putin's youth, but know their own poverties. Matvieva's husband is a police captain, but earns no more than £200 a month. Of this, £40 goes on utility bills for the flat, which have risen exponentially because of Putin's drive to introduce market-related pricing to all sectors. Caught up in the comedy of errors that is Russian bureaucracy, the Matvievs are also embroiled in a court case as they don't legally own one of the rooms in the flat, despite living there.

Their only daughter, Zhenia, 12, is learning English, but Nina doubts she will make it to university. "It costs about a thousand dollars [£550] a year," she says, hugging her huge cat. I ask if she has thought about taking up Putin's offer of a £5,000 grant for every second child born - a recent initiative designed to stem a demographic crisis that may see the population fall by 30% by 2050.

"In our country, such ideas are a fiction," she replies, although she herself voted for Putin twice. "Just because the president said it, doesn't mean it'll happen."

"Nothing good's going to happen in this country," she adds, shaking her head when I ask her if Russia is a democracy.

When we emerge from the flat, Rakhlin says: "Today people don't think about freedom of speech, but about how to provide for their family. Freedom of movement around the world is as important," he adds, expressing a common view that Russians feel free as they can now holiday across the globe.

I ask him what he thinks of the governor of St Petersburg, Putin appointee Valentina Matvienko, who has been accused of creating a local fiefdom. He shies away from the question, saying that if you vote for Putin, you have to live with his decisions. "Today, all the serious conversations [still] happen in the kitchen," he says. In the Soviet era, that was the room they didn't bug.

Putin became a judo fanatic under Rakhlin, training in a gym that now lies derelict, yards away from one of the city's most expensive restaurants, Noble's Nest. He also studied hard at School 281, clearing his path to the cream of the Soviet elite, the KGB. Igor Gorokh, 17, is at the same school today and hopes to avoid the brutality of conscription into the army in a year's time through the deferments given to university students. "I hear they make you clean the floor with your toothbrush," he jokes of the institution where bullying often drives young cadets to suicide.

While Putin roamed the streets with his gang, occasionally scrapping with other kids, Igor's comfortable middle-class bubble is punctured today by drugs and alcohol. People he knows take pills, he says, through a floppy blond fringe. "Alcoholism is also a serious problem and doesn't lead to anything good."

But while Putin regularly preaches the virtues of abstaining from drink and drugs, women like Sveta, 30, are cast aside by his government. An HIV-positive mother of two, she tells me in a park on the city's outskirts how she became addicted to heroin 10 years ago and four years later became a prostitute to fund the habit.

"An hour costs £20," she says, "but a quickie in a car about £6." She says she needs between two and six grams of heroin a day, at about £20 a gram. Her husband needs less, but she provides for him too. The only help the state has given her, she says, is sleeping pills for the twins she gave birth to six months ago. They were born addicted but "got over their addiction within a month", she says. It's a long way from her dream of being clean and a hairdresser.

Drunken clients are just one of the threats she and her friends face. One local police major sometimes rounds them up and drives them to the suburbs. "He makes us lick his car clean, or do star-jumps until we faint," she says. "He hates prostitutes and tells us that he will bury us in a hole."

The sorry state of Russia's police epitomises how the Kremlin pursues its own interests, not that of the electorate. Poorly paid and often lazy, they serve and protect the elite alone. Many subsidise their income through corruption, taking bribes from errant motorists or immigrants whose papers "are not in order". It's a way to survive.

Sitting in the shade of a tree are Arkadi and Pavel, two police officers helping to guard a brand new monument around the clock. The authorities "are afraid someone might vandalise it or throw paint at it", says Arkadi, who earns £200 a month. He used to get free rides on public transport and a rent subsidy, but Putin's reforms took that away last year, giving him £30 a month in compensation. Pavel is acutely aware that he has only weeks to go until he has served 20 years and can retire. "I can get a pension and work as a private security guard then," he grins.

The statue they are guarding is precious to Putin, who unveiled it only weeks before. It commemorates the first elected mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak, a man who was Putin's first boss, employing him when Sobchak was rector of the university's law faculty. The only time Putin has been seen crying in public was at Sobchak's funeral six years ago.

Yet for many students, life at the university now does little to honour the memory of Putin's old friend. While Putin studied law in what was then Leningrad State University, Oscar Irambona, 25, studies electrical engineering there today. Oscar is from Burundi and on January 15, his dark skin almost got him killed.

"It used to just be insults," he says, "but this time the skinheads ran after me." Pinned between two white men holding his jacket and shouting, "What are you doing here, nigger?", he managed to escape by wriggling out of his coat. Five of the 2,000 African students studying in St Petersburg have been murdered - shot or stabbed to death - since September last year in a wave of racist violence. Oscar and his friends hurry home at night, stay away from the metro, and run rather than fight when they are attacked.

The police have been accused of indifference towards race crime, though they recently arrested a small group of young men, claiming that they alone were responsible for all the recent attacks in the city. Oscar can only hope this is true. In the meantime, his message to Putin is simple: "Help us. We want to study. That's all."

One thing Putin could do is have a quiet word with Yuri Belayev, 50, the stout head of the ultra-nationalist Freedom party. He describes the falling Russian birth rate and rise in immigration as "genocide against the Russian people", which empowers ethnic Russians "to do what we like under the constitution to protect ourselves".

Sitting calmly on a cafe terrace, he adds that 63% of his countrymen support the slogan "Russia for the Russians". He describes the young men who killed the five Africans and a nine-year-old Tajik girl in 2004 as "youth heroes". African students may only be temporary residents in Russia, he explains, but their murder has a greater "social resonance" than the murder of ethnic-minority immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

"This has long been a war," he says. "The prosecutors told me they would shoot me, but they only control the city during the day. We control the night." A former police officer, he insists that his group does not orchestrate the violence, but only instructs young men "how to behave in different situations". But then he adds: "We started this wave."

Belayev uses two truths to justify this violence. The first is that immigration is rising as the birth rate among ethnic Russians falls. The second is that his party has been denied official registration and is excluded from the political scene. For him, Putin's managed democracy, where even the opposition parties respectfully back the president, means that killing Africans is the only way to have your point of view heard. "What are we left with? Nothing but the Russian people," he says. "And they are left with chains, knives, guns and clubs."

On the other side of town, the tight political and media controls of Putin's Russia have forced Olga Kursonova, 45, into the ranks of the persecuted. Briefly an MP in the 1990s, now a liberal activist planning a series of protests during the G8 summit, she says she has been arrested four times this year.

As the summit nears, she says, she gets anonymous phone calls making ever blunter demands: "Stop planning the meetings, or you will be hit on the head with a bar." She hopes all the same to bring 3,000 people to the streets to protest at the rolling-back of democracy in Russia, a country where the pro-Putin party controls two-thirds of parliament and the Kremlin owns nearly all the news media.

We meet in a park near her house and she becomes edgy when a couple sit down on the bench near us in silence. "Today is in part worse than it was in the 80s," she says. "At least then some independent journalists were printed. But now the authorities have money [and keep them out of print]."

She adds: "Now we are reaching a dead end in this country. There are no opportunities for bright people. Only the grey rise up." That is how she remembers Putin when he began working for mayor Sobchak.

For her, repression fuels rather than stifles dissent. "I did not expect that being arrested would have an effect on me. But I noticed a change in myself: I became radicalised." She says she wants "evolution not revolution" for Russia, but fears the final outcome of the tightening of the noose around dissidents. "At first in the 80s, people were afraid to come on to the streets, but then hundreds of thousands came out. Anyone who thinks they can control a revolution is mistaken".

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