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Russia's Treasure-House

Searching for the past on the eve of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, a former foreign correspondent finds the future

Dmitri Travin, 41, writes a business column for a St. Petersburg newspaper and lectures on economics at the EuropeanUniversity, a new graduate-level institution that gets the bulk of its funding from Western foundations. “St. Petersburg had a structural crisis after the Soviet collapse,” Travin says. “In the first half of the ’90s, there was a lot of hidden unemployment. People had jobs, but with no or very little pay.

 

“The economy here,” he goes on, “had already begun to grow in 1996. But the big change came in 1998, when the ruble was devalued by a factor of four. Imported goods became too expensive and disappeared. By that time, a lot of local enterprises were ready to replace foreign suppliers.”

 

Now, says Travin, the beginnings of Western class structure have begun to emerge here. “We have a small group of the very rich and a fairly big middle class, made up of skilled workers, branches of the intelligentsia, small businessmen.” But there is also a large impoverished class composed of the “old poor”—laborers and retirees who have no skills to sell in the new marketplace or who subsist on inadequate pensions—and of the “new poor,” who depend on a fixed state salary—everyone from bus drivers to teachers and researchers. “There are people with doctoral degrees trying to get by on $50 per month,” he says.

 

Like the Hermitage’s Piotrovsky, Travin believes the arts have helped save the city, which, he feels, has the potential to be a world cultural center. “Unfortunately, we do very little to market ourselves,” he says. “Around the world, Russia has the image of an unstable country.”

 

On my last night in St. Petersburg, I heard from an old friend, Valery Plotnikov, a photographer I knew in Moscow in the 1980s. Since then, he has moved back to St. Petersburg, his hometown. He stopped by my hotel, which, in itself, was a departure from our old habits. In the Communist era, we met on street corners, and I would escort him to my quarters under the suspicious gaze of policemen charged with discouraging contacts between Russians and foreigners.

 

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