Out of Russia: Banking on a grand history

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The Independent Online
ST PETERSBURG - The last time the Tauride Palace saw such quality tailoring was in January 1918. That event lasted a single day: the start - and, as it turned out, finish - of Lenin's only stab at bourgeois democracy, the Constituent Assembly. It ended when a sailor tugged at the sleeve of the speaker and told him get a move on, grunting one of the immortal deadpan lines of Russia's revolution: 'The guards are tired.'

There were even more guards this week when the magnificent yellow palace played host to 4,000 bankers, bureaucrats and hangers-on in town for the annual meeting of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. The choice of venue was that of its purged chief, Jacques Attali, and reflected the grandeur of the bank's mission to rebuild atop the ruins of Eastern Europe.

One of Russia's first forays into a Classical style that would so mesmerise dictators from Catherine II to Stalin, the Tauride - or Tavricheski - was completed in 1789, the same year France started its revolution. It was built for Prince Grigory Potemkin, revered in Russia for annexing the Crimea but better known abroad as craftsman of a great Russian tradition, the Potemkin Village.

Prince Potemkin is still around. He hovers over a venture whose ambitions, whether framed flamboyantly by Mr Attali or more earnestly by Jacques de Larosiere, remain grand almost beyond imagining. Many visitors to St Petersburg this week were shocked at how scruffy the city looked. I have never seen it cleaner. Street sweepers had been up all night.

St Petersburg's main shopping street, Nevsky Prospekt, has become, depending on your point of view, a showcase of the dynamism or irrelevance of reform. The past year has added a second luxury hotel after the Grand Hotel Europe, the finest and most expensive in Russia. There is also a plush new outlet of a furrier who has a wide range of fur-trimmed wedding dresses. A short, black, sable coat costs 24m roubles (about pounds 9,000) , a sheepskin jacket 11m. For the more prudent - though still far from poor - there is another new shop up the road devoted to Barbie, her boyfriend Ken and their wardrobes. Accessories on offer include a pink plastic yacht with pool and sundeck.

None of this is for foreigners. Tourists are staying away. Crime and cost cut their number to 360,000 last year from 1.5 million five years before. The furs, the dolls - and the John Bull Pub, Yves Rocher cosmetics and much more - are for Russians. This should cheer bankers at the Tauride Palace, as should a headline in the Neva News, a local English-language paper, declaring that a majority of Russians do not want to return to socialism.

Less heartening is a photograph in the St Petersburg Press of protesting workers at the Kirov Tractor Factory. One of the city's biggest, the plant has sent employees home without pay. The picture showed a placard with a caricature of a capitalist in a top hat riding piggy-back on a worker holding a hammer.

The theme and execution are identical to those now on display at St Petersburg's revolutionary museum, expanded to include a tribute to Russian business and banking, but still recognising that all was not well before 1917.

Take away the top hats from the stolid pre-revolution figures frozen in confident poses for the camera and now adorning the museum wall. The same men could be seen in the flesh this week strolling around the Tauride Palace.