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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wisecracking Presidents Tour St. Petersburg

APThe presidents and their wives making their way down to a boat Saturday evening for a White Nights cruise on the Neva River.
ST. PETERSBURG -- President Vladimir Putin showed President George W. Bush his hometown over the weekend, taking him to the Hermitage Museum, the Mariinsky Theater and St. Petersburg State University for visits that showcased their personal chemistry.

The highlight of the visit was a forum on Saturday afternoon at Putin's alma mater, St. Petersburg State University, where the presidents spent an hour fielding questions from students in a repeat of a performance they first conducted at a high school in Crawford, Texas, last November.

By that point, the two men were shedding the "president" formality of public summit protocol and calling each other George and Vladimir.

When one student asked the presidents to address a so-called brain drain from Russia, including to the United States, Putin's reply was immediate: "I'll tell you right away," he said. "He'll say it's good. I'll say it's bad."

Said Bush: "I tell Vladimir all the time -- I mean, Mr. President, all the time that Russia's most precious resource is the brain power of this country."

Bush at one point told the students that he was convinced Russia's future was "incredibly bright." "First because of the great imagination and intellect of the Russian people, and secondly, because you've got a leader who understands that freedom is going to lift the future of this country," he said.

Putin joked self-deprecatingly about his own academic record, saying the university had "basically made a gift of my diploma, closing their eyes to all the problems."

Both men joked that the students should aim their hardest questions at the other podium. But both fielded tough questions about trade links, with Putin calling on Bush to help lift Cold War-era high technology export controls.

Putin gave Bush two documents from Russian historical archives covering the years of the American Revolution when, Putin said, Catherine the Great refused England's request to intervene against the rebellious colonies.

Anna Sakharova, an International Relations student, seemed impressed. "They were very, very good. So much better than I expected, both presidents," she said. "It was such a wonderful atmosphere, it was clear that they are friends."

The presidents could have picked no better weekend to display their friendship. Bush's visit coincided with St Petersburg's 299th anniversary celebrations. The streets were shut to traffic and parks were jam-packed for concerts in the bright sunshine.

On Saturday, Putin first took Bush to the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, where more than half a million people who died in St. Petersburg under Nazi siege in World War II are buried in mass graves.

Putin, who is learning English, conversed easily with Bush as they strode solemnly to lay wreaths at the Mother Russia monument.

Next stop was the vast Hermitage museum. Bush had time to see just a fraction of its 3 million works of art but used the opportunity to lavish more praise on his host.

"The hospitality has been magnificent. The time we spent last night with the Putins in their beautiful home [in Moscow] was very relaxing. It was a great chance to see how the Putins live and get a sense of their values," Bush told reporters.

In the evening, the Bushes and the Putins attended a performance of "The Nutcracker" ballet at the Mariinsky Theater, the same theater where the famous ballet was first performed in 1892 in the hometown of its composer, Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

The two presidents sat together in a box once reserved for the tsars at the back of the ornate theater. An animated Putin pointed out sights to first lady Laura Bush, who was seated next to him, while Bush engaged first lady Lyudmila Putin in conversation.

The couples then headed out for an evening boat cruise on the Neva River.

On Sunday, the Bushes attended church services at the Russian Orthodox Kazan Cathedral and saw paintings at the Russian Museum.

The Putins took them on an unscheduled stroll through a leafy glade to the Church on Spilled Blood, a gaudy memorial to the slain Tsar Alexander II. Bush chatted animatedly by the onion-domed building without going in.

Tourists and onlookers cheered as the foursome passed by and Bush flashed them a thumbs-up sign.

Back outside the Russian Museum, Putin bade farewell to Bush with a firm handshake and a broad smile, and kissed Laura Bush on both cheeks. The two first ladies also exchanged kisses.

The Bushes boarded Air Force One at St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport for a flight to Paris, where Bush's agenda for the evening included a meeting and working dinner with newly re-elected French President Jacques Chirac. (Reuters, NYT, AP)