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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'City of Pimps and Pickpockets' Fights Back

ST. PETERSBURG -- St. Petersburg, Russia's "window on the west," has been muddied by The Sunday Times of London and its outraged politicians and businessmen are attempting to strike back.

The British newspaper described St. Petersburg in a travel article as a city full of "pimps, prostitutes and pickpockets" where social life is "a horror only marginally preferable to burning for eternity in hell."

In the article, which appeared in the "Style and Travel" section of the newspaper Jan. 16 under the title "A City in Distress," Howard Jacobson wrote: "The last great lesson Russia means to teach the world -- maybe the only lesson it ever had to teach -- is that all change is for the worse."

St. Petersburg business, fearing that tourists and investors may be put off, has responded by trying to entice Jacobson's boss, Andrew Neil, The Sunday Times editor, to take a second look at Russia's second city for himself.

British Airways has offered him a free ticket and the Grand Hotel Europe is willing to provide free accommodation.

There is some question whether that may be effective, however, since the original article makes it clear that Jacobson, in a familiar trait of Fleet Street's irreverent press, himself was on a freebie, as "a guest of Instone Leisure," a travel firm.

Philip Saunders, district manager of the newly opened British Airway's office in St. Petersburg, wrote a letter to Neil after reading the article, offering the free flight.

The letter, which is also signed by the editor of the city's English-language St. Petersburg Press newspaper, among others, said the article presented a "horribly distorted picture of the city" which has been met with "widespread disbelief and anger among the foreign and local community."

Although offering a free room, Jaideep Mazumdar, general manager of the Grand Hotel Europe, acknowledged some of the shortcomings of the city, saying the descriptions were "not totally fabricated. There was definitely an element of truth but we need every bit of support and help from the international community to make this city into a financial center."

In the two-page article Jacobson found nothing to smile about in St. Petersburg which he dubbed "another Venice floating on a bog snatched from Finland."

There was no mention of the art treasures and palaces which would normally find their way onto a travel page.

The Hermitage was only mentioned in connection with girls on horseback "swooping" on tourists to offer rides around the Palace Square. As the tourists posed as wild Cossacks Jacobson's thoughts were of "rape and pillage."

A second article also published in the same issue of the Sunday Times by another journalist offered tips to visitors on a more practical level: how to avoid being robbed, where to change money safely, why drinking the local water should be avoided.

Richard Torrence, an American adviser to Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, called the articles "plain nasty."

British Consul-General Stuart Jack said: "No one is hiding that St. Petersburg does have its problems with street crime and we advise people to take sensible precautions about coming to this city as well as others, but I was shocked at how black a picture was presented."

But there is hope for Russia's Venice on the Neva. The rival newspaper, The Observer, also published a guide to St. Petersburg in its travel section on the same day.

In contrast, the article had nothing but praise: "St. Petersburg has never been easier to visit, nor so readily fascinating." The views are described as "breathtaking" and the conclusion was positive: "There has never been a better time to see history on the move, or a more intriguing place to watch it happen."