The long-awaited St. Petersburg 300th anniversary Jubilee celebrations have finally kicked off, and Peter the Great's Window to Europe has decked itself out like there is no tomorrow. Part of this is genuine enthusiasm for the anniversary of the foundation of a great city, part is to impress the visiting foreign guests - including all eight of the heads of the G8 - and part is just the tradition of imperial pomp and circumstance. St. Petersburg's week of festivities will include three days of water and laser shows, cloud-seeding aircraft to ensure that nothing rains on Putin's parade - and a 10 km-long fence masking the poverty of rural Russia from the eyes of visitors as they pass from the airport to the city.
Unfortunately, the event has become a nightmare for many Petersburgers. In their desire to put on a good show for their foreign guests and create the image of a first-class world cultural capital, the authorities have made the lives of many locals hell. They have reportedly been told not to drive automobiles between May 1 and June 1, and it has even been hinted that it might be better for them to just pack up and leave the city for the duration. Leningrad Oblast residents have even had "unsightly" gardens and buildings destroyed because they might mar the view and give the wrong impression. (Local authorities say this has happened by accident, but it seems hard to credit this statement.)
In other words, in order to give a good impression of the city to the visiting elites, the residents of St. Petersburg themselves have gotten the shaft. How this is supposed to cause them to take pride in their native city - which has a lot to be proud of - is anybody's guess. Is the celebration of a city's foundation not supposed to be for its inhabitants themselves, who are after all the ones responsible for its greatness, not for a bunch of foreign hotshots, many of whom probably have no interest in St. Petersburg whatsoever other than as a place to party? At least when the Soviet Union held one of its many pompous state-sponsored demonstrations or celebrations, it was actually for the Soviet people. In the case of the Jubilee, it is as if Russians have become background figures for a pantheon of foreign stars. Yes, the city was founded to turn Russia to the West, and foreigners should be involved, but for Russia to move westward, Russia has to make an appearance somewhere in the equation. This is even tackier than one of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov feel-good cash-wasters - they may be tasteless, but a Luzhkov Moscow celebration is at least for Muscovites. What is happening in St. Petersburg is like a repetition of a Soviet-style event like the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, in which people without registrations were hustled out of the city to make things look nice for the God-like foreign guests.
One of the worst, possibly the worst, aspects of modern Russia is the contempt the elites show for their less-fortunate (and usually more ethical) countrymen. Not only is it deeply offensive, it shows total lack of concern for the country, or, indeed, anything outside of their own narrow circle of interests. It is also reminiscent of Gorbachev and Yeltsin's obsession with looking good in the eyes of the West, as if it were some kind of ultimate CPSU Central Committee they had to bow and scrape before.
President Vladimir Putin is usually seen as a pragmatic leader who puts Russia's interests first and who, unlike his despised predecessor, has some concern for the common man. Whether this is true, or if it is just slick PR, can be argued. It is clear, though, that the goings-on connected with the Jubilee, with the utter disregard for ordinary citizens, put him and the government in a very negative light, to say the least.