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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush to See Brilliant and Mad St. Pete

APPresident Vladimir Putin striding down a Kremlin hall Wednesday. He will take Bush to St. Petersburg for a two-day visit Saturday.
ST. PETERSBURG -- It is 7:00 p.m. and Valery Gergiyev, mercurial maestro of the Mariinsky Theater, is already due on stage to raise the baton for Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony but has only just finished a grueling rehearsal.

He bursts into his office, still in rehearsal clothes, unshaven, drenched in sweat and smelling like a bear, surrounded by functionaries trying to get his attention. A young press secretary pipes up that he agreed to meet a reporter an hour ago.

"Interview? What interview? On what topic? Who are you? When did you call? What am I supposed to be talking about?"

"Bush..." the reporter says.

"Bush? What Bush? Which Bush? Bush. These are two great men! This is a huge topic! You must be more specific! What do you want to know?"

St. Petersburg, Russia's imperial capital and President Vladimir Putin's hometown, is gearing up to welcome U.S. President George W. Bush with the mix of unmatched artistic brilliance and edge-of-the-abyss disorder that make the city a metaphor for Russia at its finest and most exasperating.

The summit headlines will be written in Moscow, but the meeting's heart will come later, when they travel here Saturday.

Amid streets mapped out 300 years ago by Tsar Peter the Great as his capital for a European empire, Putin will make the case that Russia deserves to be accepted as part of the West.

Petersburg residents say it is a job Putin was born to carry out. Provincial-born Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Communist leaders that preceded them were never at ease here.

"Foreign dignitaries always came to the Hermitage. What is different now is that Putin shows them around himself," said Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of Russia's greatest museum.

Putin will lead Bush through the Hermitage on Saturday as he has done with Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schr?der.

"Putin is the first leader since the tsars who can show off the museum himself. He has known it since his childhood. Just like he is the first leader who speaks foreign languages."

Maestro Rhapsodizes

Like other Petersburgers, maestro Gergiyev is quick to rhapsodize volubly about the city, even as the audience mills about the lobby upstairs waiting for the concert to start.

"Petersburg is the result of the idea Peter the Great had for a modern capital, including a capital of art, including bringing culture, bringing the world to this country," he tells the reporter in animated bass English.

"And then Petersburg gave back to the world. A lot of poets, a lot of painters, a lot of musicians, artists, composers, museums, and then a fantastic amount of architecture was created here, a fantastic amount of big literature was created here."

It has become commonplace to compare Putin to Peter, who dragged his country into modernity by imposing strong centralized government and adopting practices of the West.

But ask a St. Petersburg native why the city is important politically today, and you inevitably get a more philosophical answer.

Its geometrically planned streets and canals, its grand architecture built in straight lines and circles, make it the most deliberately intellectual of cities.

It is haunted by history, sheltering the ghosts of a 900-day Nazi siege during World War II, when hundreds of thousands starved to death in its streets. Bush, said to be reading up on the brooding 19th century novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, will discover that Petersburg has a tendency toward madness.

Many of Russian literature's characters -- and several of its authors -- have been driven insane by St. Petersburg's ferment of ideas, its poisonous climate, its dark, wet winters and the monthlong mass insomnia of summer's White Nights.

"Those who aren't destroyed by it become stronger," said Vladimir Kotelnikov, deputy directory of the House of Pushkin, Russia's top center for literary scholarship. "Call it a vaccine that gives immunity to Russia's innate disorder."

That has helped Putin resist the fate of other high-flying provincials who moved to Moscow and were ground down under the pressures of the capital, Kotelnikov said.

"Whatever you think of Putin, he has not changed. It is interesting, anthropologically. His gestures and mannerisms remain the same. Compare it with Yeltsin (from the Urals city of Yekaterinburg), who seemed to deteriorate before our eyes."

St. Pete vs. Moscow

City authorities are trying to spruce up St. Petersburg ahead of the 300th anniversary next year. There is scaffolding all everywhere.

But to a visitor, the pace of reconstruction never quite seems to keep up with the corrosion brought on by the Baltic Sea air.

St. Petersburg people have little time for brash, commercial Moscow. Moscow, they point out, produces pop stars who wear sequins and dyed fur. Petersburg's night clubs mint gravelly voiced rockers whose songs carry inscrutable political messages.

But Moscow has boomed over the last decade while St. Petersburg, like the rest of Russia, has mostly grown poorer.

While Moscow has begun to outgrow the gangland violence of the early 1990s, St. Petersburg has become Russia's contract-killer capital. The Interior Ministry said Tuesday that it was setting up a special organized crime unit for the city.

Still, St. Petersburg's slower pace of change has brought blessings. One is Gergiyev's Mariinsky, the opera and ballet theater still known in the West by its Soviet-era name, the Kirov, where Bush will see Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet.

Raucous but Charming

St. Petersburg is not yet a Western metropolis. In February, Finnair complained that Mariinsky musicians had been in a drunken fistfight on a flight to New York, and another St. Petersburg orchestra was kicked off a flight to Los Angeles to spend a night sobering up.

But the Bushes should prepare to be thoroughly charmed by the Gergiyev, 49, who ends his interview with an unprompted aria in praise of the U.S. first lady.

"We are quite impressed with Laura Bush because she obviously pays enormous attention to education, to what will happen to young people around the world," he announces. "Less violence and more enlightenment. This is what we all want, and this is what we believe Laura Bush is devoted to."

Seven minutes past seven. Interview over.

At barely 20 past he has changed into a black shirt and pants, and emerges onto the stage to lead a program of two Shostakovich symphonies and an hour of opera.

The orchestra is technically superb and supple, ripping through Shostakovich's gleeful Ninth -- written in the months after victory over the Nazis -- with palpable delight.

Nearly four hours later, a jubilant audience files out into the night. It is still light, but the city is lashed by freezing rain. It's enough to make you crazy.