THE PRINCE of Wales began a ground-breaking visit to Russia yesterday by paying his respects at the white marble tombs of Peter the Great and other pre-20th century tsars in the old imperial capital of St Petersburg. The Prince is the most senior member of the British royal family to come to Russia since before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and his trip paves the way for a full state visit by the Queen later this year.
Although the House of Windsor failed to give asylum to Tsar Nicholas II and his family, British royals were deeply shocked when the Bolsheviks murdered their Russian relatives in 1918 and refused all contact with the Soviet Union. But Russia's reforms have allowed for a gradual rapprochement, beginning with a trip by the Princess Royal to Moscow last year. The visit by the Queen, much sought by President Boris Yeltsin, should finally heal any outstanding bitterness between Britain and Russia.
The remains of the last Romanovs, exhumed from a pit in Yekaterinburg where the murders took place, and identified in Britain, are soon to join those of the earlier tsars whose tombs Prince Charles saw in the St Peter and Paul Fortress overlooking the River Neva. In the evening, he went on to hear Tchaikovsky's opera The Queen of Spades at the Mariinsky Theatre whose company, one of the best in Russia these days, was reported to have delayed a tour of Italy so they could entertain him.
The Prince had earlier arrived by private jet for the first British royal visit to St Petersburg in exactly 100 years. The last was also by a Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. He came for the wedding of his uncle Nicholas, who in 1894 was still a Grand Duke and not yet Tsar.
Although Prince Charles loves history and heritage, those organising his visit have been at pains to emphasise that the focus is on the future and, in particular, on helping to develop Russian business. He is president of an organisation called the Prince of Wales Business Leaders' Forum, which already has staff in St Petersburg.
As well as opening a British consulate in the city, which should facilitate travel to Britain for people living over a wide area of northern Russia, and visiting a branch of Littlewoods, a pioneer among Western firms here, the Prince will also have talks with the liberal mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, who is trying to restore St Petersburg to its old position as a financial centre and Russia's window on the West.
Mr Sobchak, who played host to the heirs of the Romanovs when they came home for a visit recently and who knows how to put on a good show, will no doubt steer Prince Charles well clear of situations where he might see the mafia gangs, who have turned St Petersburg into one of the most crime- ridden cities in the new Russia.
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