Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

We Must Be Some Kind of Capital

What's going on with St. Petersburg's unofficial titles? For years now, the city has been known as Russia's Northern Capital. However, St. Petersburg has had several other names as well, particularly in the post-Soviet era.

Northern Capital as a sobriquet has stuck. Likewise, another favorite that is still used — although mostly in the summer months, when various arts festivals get underway — is Cultural Capital. One thinks of the Hermitage and the Russian Museum, the Mariinsky Theater, the city's 220-plus museums and hundreds of art galleries, our theaters, orchestras and other institutions, some of which are internationally famous. Not to mention the many great poets, composers and artists who lived and worked here over the centuries.

But after the 1997 assassination of Deputy Governor Mikhail Manevich and a series of high-profile assassinations in 1998, the media — repeating a phrase first used by Boris Nemtsov — started calling the city Russia's Criminal Capital.

Today, however, since election season has died down and there is less incentive to bad-mouth our fair city, this title has faded away, although it must be admitted that we have nearly weekly assassinations and no fewer criminal groups are operating here now than three years ago.

In its place has come the title of Diplomatic Capital, particularly following last week's visit of German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der. The new name has again been endorsed by the media and has popped up several times in national television stations and newspapers.

Obviously, this nickname sounds good compared with Criminal Capital, but what about the substance? Few people are saying, for instance, that a collection of palaces and plush residences is not enough to confer any serious status on the city.

And while there has been talk of moving the State Duma to St. Petersburg and of making the city the home of the Russia-Belarus union, it has stopped with just that — talk.

On the other hand, a lot of local people had pretty strong opinions about the most visible aspect of St. Petersburg's latest tryout as Russia's Diplomatic Capital: the traffic. During Schr?der's visit, downtown traffic was completely paralyzed, and it was a good day to wander among the cars collecting entries for a dictionary of rude words.

Nevsky Prospekt was closed for half an hour before President Vladimir Putin's car roared past, creating havoc in a hundred other places. Half an hour to wait for a bunch of black limousines to take less than two minutes to pass by! Imagine this on a regular basis. As one Legislative Assembly deputy said, this is taking the concept of "playing it safe" to extremes.

On the other hand, said another local lawmaker, bad traffic can be an illustrious thing. "This way, we would be included in the ranks of world cities with traffic jams such as Paris and New York," he said to me recently. "This is not bad company." This deputy went on to list other reasons why being the Diplomatic Capital would be good for St. Petersburg: new jobs, more attention, more business.

Northern Capital -— deserved. We're a long way north. Cultural Capital — debatable, but we have a strong case. Criminal Capital — highly debatable, since there are a lot of contenders for that one.

Diplomatic Capital? Dubious at best. The city is unlikely to really get behind the idea until the authorities — including the presidential security service — start thinking not only about Vladimir Putin's safety, but about the rest of us as well.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a reporter with The St. Petersburg Times.