IT MAY not be the 'bugger Bognor' of her reign. But the Queen clearly did not realise who she was talking to in St Petersburg. It might not be much fun for a visiting monarch, but for a student, Manchester is close to paradise. For Galina Gusarrova, a 28-year-old research biologist, revealed she had spent a year studying in Manchester.

Three things strike the visitor these days as she walks down the ramp from Piccadilly station into the heart of Manchester. First is the trams gliding through the streets, lending the city an air of sleek, continental sophistication. Second is the way, in a display of civic pride forgotten down south, so many of the old buildings have been spruced up. And third is how many students there are.

Manchester is awash with them, shuffling around with a slope-shouldered gait, clutching HMV bags. It has been reckoned, what with three universities in the city and two in neighbouring Salford, that the conurbation has the largest student population in Britain.

'Last year we were telling everyone we had around 35,000 of them,' said a spokesperson from the City Council. 'This year I've been reading 50,000. So I guess it must be somewhere in between.'

These hordes have combined with many local youths to carve out a new world in the centre of town. The old Victorian warehouses, which once informed the city's wealth, have been converted into bars, cafes, clothes shops; establishments reeking of musical tastes, codes of dress, styles and conformities quite removed from London.

In 1954 A J P Taylor declared that the city of Manchester possessed 'a civilisation created by traders without assistance from monarchs or territorial aristocracy'. It still is a place apart: a civilisation created by the young without assistance from southerners or metropolitan big-wigs.

It began, this new Manchester, in the mid-Eighties, soon after the retirement of local Chief Constable, James Anderton. An unashamed roundhead, Anderton took a puritanical attitude to licensing laws, dancing, gambling, homosexuality, any nocturnal non-conformity. Such behaviour simply wasn't going to happen in his bailiwick. With the arrival of a more liberal police regime, a hedonistic head of steam exploded. By the summer of 1989, youths with wide trousers had taken over and dubbed the place Madchester.

The attendant publicity (Time magazine gave it an international cover story in the midst of the Gulf War) encouraged students by the UCCA form-load: applications to arts courses at Manchester University trebled in three years, with a consequent increase in entry requirements. The new influx was keen to contribute to the legend it had read about.

'Southerners knew they missed out on something by not growing up here. But they realised they could make up for it by coming as students,' says Richard Kurt, who has just completed an MA at Manchester University. The author of United We Stood (a fan's-eye account of the history of the local football club), Kurt exudes a certainty typical of Mancunian youth.

'Bliss it is to be a Manchester United supporter at the moment,' he says, with a nod to Wordsworth. 'To be a Mancunian, too, is very heaven.'

Although the bid to host the Olympics failed in 1993, many of the planned initiatives - the new opera house, pavement cafes, relaxed licensing laws, - have gone ahead anyway. And all those students seeking a good time provide a perfect substitute market. Modernist designer bars relieve them of their grant money before they move on to clubs, such as Sankey's Soap in Ancoats or the Ardri in Hulme; at the half-dozen big pop concert venues there are always performances by local favourites, such as A Positive Life, Autechre or Oasis.

It is a idiosyncratic, mildly hippy, patchuli-scented scene. But this is a commercially astute hippidom. For an underground movement, there is a material edge: newcomers can buy into it via the riot of shops, cafes, clubs; a polyglot of market stalls and galleries called Bohemian Village is soon to open in Oldham Street. And, to fuel all the fun, drugs are no problem. Or they are a problem, depending on your point of view.

'You can trace the lineage back to 1989,' reckons Richard Kurt. 'Youths who enjoyed Madchester are now the entrepreneurs behind the new movement. There is also a big wave of students staying on to do post-graduate work because they couldn't find jobs and didn't want to leave, swelling the numbers.'

Many of these super-qualified former students eventually find themselves at the head of record companies, design consultancies, or small businesses creating a thriving micro-economy.

In this respect it is an economy at odds with the one A J P Taylor chronicled. His view was that in Manchester business was more important than art. The City Gallery had lots of pictures but few great ones: the work of L S Lowry and Harold Riley was more important as a social record than artistic endeavour. Now art - if the term is broad enough to accommodate today's youth culture - is leading Manchester's economic regeneration.

Yet in another way things have not changed one jot since Taylor's observations. The new Mancunian wealth is no more democratically distributed than the old. The equivalent of the slums that served as a social laboratory for Marx and Engels in the 1850s can be found in Moss Side, Hulme and Cheetham Hill where, despite an IRA-style ceasefire between the two main gangs, the currency remains drugs and Uzis. Last February the government of Pakistan sent food aid to an estate in Stockport.

You needn't to go far to encounter this part of town. In the 100 yards between the station and Piccadilly Gardens, half-a-dozen ragged drug addicts patrol day and night, all favouring the same fundraising technique. 'I'm not begging, honest mate, I wouldn't insult yer,' they say, one after the other.

'It's just I lost all my money and I'm 68p short of the bus fare back to Gorton.'

This dispossessed Manchester does not like the students. Those who drift from the benevolent axis around the Wilmslow Road become easily identifiable targets, and find themselves frequently burgled, mugged, beaten up. A party of young Frenchmen were recently hospitalised in Salford by a group of youths. Being foreign at a bus stop in the wrong part of town was their provocative offence. Maybe it was this Manchester the Queen was thinking of in St Petersburg.

Galina Gusarrova presumably did what it is equally easy to do, and avoided the rough parts. Wandering past Manchester's great Victorian monuments, she would have seen much that the Queen has not. She might, for instance, have spotted the over-door inscription in the Free Trade Hall. It is an epigram coined by its founder, Richard Cobden, which sets out the principles that guided Manchester to its great Victorian prosperity. But the motto serves equally to define why modern-day Manchester has become the capital of youth culture, the apex of a good time, the magnet for students everywhere.

'As little intercourse as possible between governments,' it reads. 'As much intercourse as possible between the peoples of the world.'

WHAT THE GUIDEBOOKS SAY: The Rough Guide to St Petersburg describes the city as 'one of the loveliest in Europe'. Western Europe on a Shoestring describes Manchester as 'ugly'.

NOMENCLATURE: For the decade from 1914, St Petersburg, home of the Tsars, was called Petrograd, a 'Russification' of the original, which was felt to be too Germanic. For 67 years until 1991, it was known as Leningrad, in honour of the founder of the Soviet Union. It has now reverted to its Tsarist name.

Manchester is a derivation of the city's Roman name, Mancunium.

COMMERCE: The most profitable business in Russia (indeed in Europe) is the baggage trolley scam at St Petersburg airport. It costs a dollar to rent one to move your belongings 20 yards from the rickety conveyor belt to the taxi queue, whereupon it is recycled to another passenger by one of the spivs who control all commercial activity at the airport. Return on investment: 100 per cent in one minute.

Baggage trolleys at Manchester airport and Piccadilly railway station are free.

FIND YOUR HOSTEL: St Petersburg has a excellent youth hostel, the first to be established in Russia. A fin-de-siecle mansion in St Petersburg (at 3-Sovyetskaya Ulitsa, number 28) has been converted into dormitories sleeping three or four. The nightly rate is pounds 9 including breakfast, and guests are not expected to help with the chores as they are in the West.

Manchester's youth hostel is due to open in spring 1995.

MUSIC: St Petersburg spawned Tchaikovsky. Dedicated followers of the composer pay their respects in the Poets' Cemetery; also found there are Rimsky-Korsakov and Moussorgsky.

Manchester had The Hollies, Freddie and the Dreamers and Morrissey.

Morrissey fans head to a graveyard, too: Southern Cemetery in Didsbury, where the singer was supposed to have saught inspiration. While there, they inscribe their name on the gates.

ART: The Hermitage in St Petersburg is one of the world's greatest museums of art, and its collection of Impressionism is the highlight of its 15,000 paintings. To walk every corridor involves a trek of 13 miles.

Manchester City Art Gallery, a good provincial collection, includes a mock-up of LS Lowry's studio.

FOOTBALL: Zenit Leningrad were originally known as Stalin Leningrad. The name change was insisted upon by the Kremlin after a particularly disastrous sequence of results, for fear that they would reflect badly on the leader.

Manchester has a team called City and another called United.

PUBS: The John Bull on Nevski Prospekt is the closest thing to Manchester's Mark Addy bar, but a more intriguing prospect for the press is the Dom Zhurnallista - the Journalists' House. It boasts drunks in one corner, dancers in another, incompetent band in a third, and cloakroom - complete with glowering attendant - completing the picture. A wad of dollars rather than a press card is the best guarantee of admission.

Manchester has Cheerleaders, a bar where Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona can be seen most Wednesday nights. A wad helps there, too.

SHOPPING: Gostiny Dvor, St Petersburg's old Imperial shopping complex, resembles a branch of Littlewood's these days. That's because it is.

Manchester's Arndale Centre is the ugliest building in Europe.

Simon Calder (Photograph omitted)