St Petersburg Days: Curtain stays drawn over the window to the West

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The Independent Online
No matter how friendly and hospitable they are - and, despite their legendary solemnity, they have both qualities in great measure - Russians are experts in the art of making visitors feel ... well, just that, like visitors.

This is often the result of a certain over-formality. But occasionally you feel as if the word "foreigner" has been sprayed across your forehead in flashing, neon letters.

My Volvo car, like that of every foreign resident in Moscow, is a giant mobile passport, designed by bureaucrats to blare the world "alien" to the world beyond. One glance at my licence plates, and a traffic cop knows I am a foreigner (yellow plates, as opposed to the usual white ones), a correspondent (code letter "K") from Britain (number "001").

Occasionally, you meet expert code-breakers. If a Mercedes bearing a "D", "038" and red plates races past, they know at once that they have been humbled by a diplomat from Iceland. If they cut up a Toyota Land Cruiser with an "007" yellow plate and the letter "M", they can expect an eye-balling from an irate French business executive. Even the most explosive road rager would think twice before picking a fight with a car bearing the registration "048" and "CMD". Who wants to cross Libya's "Chef de Mission Diplomatique"?

This sense of estrangement is underpinned by a multitude of details, the legacy of the Soviet Union's obsession with categorising everyone, which ranges from the airline official who baldly refers to you as the inostranetz -"foreigner" - to rules at some stations, which state that foreigners must buy rail tickets at a different booth from everyone else.

Although relaxed by comparison with the Communist era, the Russians are still wary of their old enemies. (So, to be fair, are the British, as every Russian who has been interrogated about an application for a visa will tell you.)

There is one place in Russia where you would not expect to feel that flashing forehead light. Peter the Great founded St Petersburg as his window on Europe, a Western capital which would suffuse a backward and self-involved Russia with a blast of fresh ideas from Paris, Amsterdam and London. Yet, almost 300 years on, as it peers bleakly out into the Baltic, that window is still clouded.

I was there this month. The place looks European enough, at least in the centre. Among the ice-bound canals and breathtaking buildings, there are bars, banks, chic Western boutiques, and several top-class international hotels. And yet, for all its cosmopolitan surface, this is a city which has deep Soviet roots, and where foreigners are still seen as outsiders.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were hopes that St Petersburg would flourish, nurtured by its proximity to the rest of Europe - Helsinki is just across the water - and by its tourism industry, the rewards of the fabulous artistic and architectural legacy from the tsars.

Six years on, it has yet to live up to its billing as the Venice of the North. It retains the flavour of a provincial base which is quietly fuming over the supremacy of Moscow, while its 5 million citizens doggedly wrestle with ingrained Soviet habits.

These include a combination of red tape, crime and suspicion. I had to negotiate with three different receptionists before getting a room key in my city-centre hotel. The problem is deep in the heart of the place. "Don't talk to me about bureaucrats, it's a very sore point," said Kira Kenney, when I dropped into The Idiot, her newly opened basement cafe and bookshop.

Ms Kenney is a Russian artist who, after years of globe- trotting, returned to her home city to start a business. She has had no help from officialdom. Quite the reverse. Before opening, she had to fight off demands for a $20,000 (pounds 11,000) bribe. These days, just to remain open, she has to pay out about $300 a week to keep officials at bay.

At the moment, her city is in a particularly unhappy mood. It has just failed to make the shortlist of five to host the 2004 summer Olympics. Its bid envisaged 20 new hotels, a highway linking the city with Helsinki and Moscow, and a new ring road. It was an ambitious plan that would have pumped billions of dollars into its struggling economy.

Perhaps its chances were marred by memories of the 1994 Goodwill Games, which suffered several over-blown public relations disasters, notably, a swimming event disrupted by a cloudy pool and the failure to make decent ice for the figure skaters.

But it also surely damaged its prospects because no one could be sure if its bureaucrats could mend their ways and finally open up the window looking West - bringing a gust of fresh air which would allow Russians and outsiders to work together in a world uncomplicated by bribes, xenophobia and stupid numberplates.