Even the bad weather is air-brushed out for St Petersburg's birthday bash

It was meant to be the party of the century, but St Petersburg's 300th anniversary bash is turning into a firestorm of public recrimination and controversy.

When about 50 world leaders, including the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, arrive next week to join the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to celebrate the tricentennial of Russia's graceful "Venice of the North", they will see a city that has apparently risen from the ashes of Soviet decay to look spanking new again.

But critics say what the foreign guests will actually see are only a few carefully selected areas of St Petersburg, which have been hastily repainted and closed-off from the public by thousands of riot police.

"They spent billions of dollars to create a Potemkin Village that will start fading as soon as the party is over," said Maria Sinkova, a television journalist who covers local politics for St Petersburg's Channel 5. "I don't know of a single inhabitant of St Petersburg who is happy about these celebrations."

A recent survey of St Peterburgers conducted by the independent Centre for Public Opinion Studies found that 59 per cent believed the planned 10-day agenda of parades, outdoor shows, special theatre performances and church services slated for next week will be "exclusively for the political elite".

The grim working-class suburbs and squalid villages that line the road from Pulkovo airport to the lavish Tsarist-era Konstantinovsky Palace, where Mr Putin will host his high-ranking guests, have been carefully screened from view by a high wooden fence.

Foreign dignitaries will be whisked to special events along main roads that have been repaved several times over the past two years, while nearby sidestreets are gutted with decades-old potholes.

The beautiful Tsarist mansions and public buildings facing Nevsky Prospekt and other downtown streets look as good as new but, when closely inspected, they sometimes turn out to be tumbledown wrecks with inner courtyards that are strewn with garbage.

Even the weather will be cosmetically altered. The Kremlin disclosed last week that 10 special aircraft will be standing by to seed any potential rainclouds with unidentified chemicals that will force them to disperse.

"Maybe foreigners will be fooled, but the city's residents see these things and it really irritates them," Igor Pavlovsky, political editor of the independent RosBalt news agency, said. "Our authorities have demonstrated that they are not capable of organising something like this."

The 300th anniversary was intended as a chance for St Petersburg to rebound from its Soviet-era oblivion, to show its best face to the world and in the process attract some much-needed foreign investment.

"We hope this celebration will create a good, positive spirit in the city," Yevgeniya Chapligina, press spokesperson for the official 300th preparatory committee, said. "We want the people of St Petersburg to feel proud again. It hurts when we hear all this criticism. Instead of being a joyous occasion, the anniversary is dragged in the mud."

To make matters worse, the Russian parliament's accounting body is looking into the "disappearance" of much of the $1.3bn (about £800m) budgeted by the Kremlin to make the city ready for its grand coming-out party.

At a January meeting, Sergei Stepashin, head of the accounting body, highlighted a few cases of malfeasance, including the disappearance of $30m earmarked for building roads, which he said was "hidden in the bushes".

Auditors are also looking into a payment of $100,000 to a private security company to guard non-existent building sites, the transfer of $40,000 slated for traffic improvements to a mysterious "gardening" fund, and why the city's authorities hired a bankrupt firm to rebuild its flood defences.

Human rights activists are also angry about plans to bar the public from St Petersburg's entire downtown area while foreign guests are celebrating. They complain that a scheduled four-day closure of Pulkovo airport to serve international delegations and severe restrictions on road access to St Petersburg will seriously disrupt the lives of citizens and may be unconstitutional.

"What good is a public celebration that is to the detriment of local residents?" Boris Pustintsev, head of Citizen's Watch, a local human rights watchdog, asked. "Our authorities have invoked the equivalent of a state of emergency, just to make a nice party for visiting foreigners."

Russia's city of "White Nights", founded by Peter the Great in 1703, served as the country's capital for more than 200 years until the Bolsheviks transferred it back to Moscow. With its graceful canals, soaring onion-domed churches, fabulous palaces and one of the world's greatest art museums - the Hermitage - St Petersburg was once regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

The Soviets renamed the city Leningrad and it was largely destroyed during a brutal 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. After the war the Soviets rebuilt the most important landmarks and the city centre, but left many outlying palaces and churches in ruins.

In post-Soviet times, St Petersburg has acquired a reputation as Russia's capital of crime and corruption, an image that experts say may be made worse by this 300th anniversary fiasco.

"Most people have stopped viewing this as anything but a burden," Vassilisa Revtova, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology, said. "The joke is: 'I hope to survive the 300th birthday, and not live to the next one'."

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