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City news
Russia: St. Petersburg - The Cradle Of The Political Elite
03.14.2007 14:49

st_petersburg By Chloe Arnold

Across the Neva River from the Peter and Paul Fortress and beneath the towering blue and gold minarets of the massive St. Petersburg Mosque, stands a dusty, gray building that is home to the Museum of Russian Political History.

For three centuries, the building has stood on the city's oldest square, beside the house where Peter the Great lived soon after he gave the order to move the Russian capital from Moscow to the north.

In 1917, when the mansion belonged to the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, Vladimir Lenin returned from exile and, in a room at the back of the house, persuaded the Bolshevik government to establish a Soviet regime in Russia.

As the Political History Museum shows, St. Petersburg -- also known in the past as Petrograd and then Leningrad -- has long produced many members of Russia's ruling elites.

Aleksander Smirnov is a historian and a guide at the museum, which is currently showing an exhibition called "300 Years Of St. Petersburg In Russian Politics."

Breaking Up The Moscow Monopoly

"When Vladimir Putin became the president, he gave himself a task," Smirnov said. "He needed to establish a new kind of politics, because for him it was obvious that the regime of the 1990s would lead the country nowhere. But he couldn't rely on the politicians in Moscow, because they were too close to the people we call the 'oligarchs,' those people who got mixed up in corruption. For Putin it was important to bring in a new era of what he saw as the Petersburg phenomenon, the Petersburg mentality, and he could only do this by bringing in new faces. And so he chose his government from people that he knew personally."

Smirnov says it is possible that had Putin come from a different city, the government might now be made up of politicians from a completely different part of Russia.

But, he says, St. Petersburg has always played an important role in the country's ruling elite:

"Our exhibition is evidence of the fact that this is not the only episode when St. Petersburgers have been in power," he says. "Throughout the 20th century, the city on the Neva has attempted to nominate whole teams of St. Petersburgers, or individuals, who try to steer their own political course in Moscow."

Against a background of stirring Soviet music, the exhibition shows the rise to power of men and women from St. Petersburg.

They include Grigory Zinovyev and Sergei Kirov, Bolshevik revolutionaries who, at the height of their careers, wielded enormous power. But later they would fall out of favor with Stalin. Kirov was assassinated in 1934 and Zinovyev was shot under Stalin's orders during the show trials of the 1930s.

More recently, the city has produced Anatoly Chubais, who rose to prominence for his role in privatization and the creation of the Russian tycoons of the 1990s. Also Galina Starovoitova, a member of parliament best known for promoting democratic reform, who was shot in St. Petersburg in 1998.

What Is The Reason?

Yevgeny Artyomov, the director of the museum, says there may be another reason the city has produced so many prominent politicians.

"Since Leningrad is known as the window on Europe, perhaps the fresh winds of democracy blow toward St. Petersburg faster than, say, to those living closer to Asia," he says. "And maybe that's what's needed in our country today, to shift us out of the complex dead-end, if we can call it that, we currently find ourselves in."

Smirnov doesn't entirely agree. He describes some of the traits that distinguish St. Petersburgers from other Russians

"The first is modernization," he says. "The second trait of political leaders from St. Petersburg -- well, I don't agree with those who say that they are democratic. On the contrary, many of them tend to be fond of strong authority, a strong personality who, because of this, takes all the responsibility."

Outside St. Petersburg State University on Vassilievsky Island, where Vladimir Putin studied, students were divided as to why many of the country's elite come from their city.

"That's just the way it's worked out," one man said. "I don't know. They could just as easily be from Moscow. I don't think that means they'll have a particular Petersburg mentality or something like that. It's just a coincidence."

"I think it's a good thing, because people always say why is everyone from Moscow?" a second man argued. "Why is it like that? Putin, in our view, wanted to put a stop to that and bring in people specifically from St. Petersburg, because there aren't any other megapolises in the country. By all accounts, it shouldn't be that everyone comes from the same city. So what Putin's doing, in principle he's right."

Shadow Of The KGB

But for Irina Kondrashova, a lecturer at the St. Petersburg State Polytechnic Institute, the real concern is not that today's leaders come from one city.

"What worries me is that all the political leaders from St. Petersburg come from one organization," she says. "The KGB has nothing to do with a geographic location. It's an organization. And I'd say it would be more useful to discuss that type of person -- the type that belongs to that organization, who was educated in that system and now lives by its rules. It seems to me that in the current situation it's not important where a person comes from, geographically speaking."

Putin reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the KGB and was stationed in Dresden, East Germany, between 1985 and 1990. Sergei Ivanov, until recently the defense minister, was a contemporary.

There is just under a year to go before Russians go to the polls to elect a new president. Putin has not yet named his favored candidate to take over when he steps down, as he has promised to.

But two men are widely rumored to be rivals for the job: Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. Both hold the title of first deputy prime minister, and both come from St Petersburg.

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