Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Celebrations Are Priceless but How Much on What?

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

If I had to pick one word to describe Russia, I think that word would be "priceless." Now, before anyone accuses me of going off on a patriotic tangent, let me explain what I mean by "priceless" in this instance: Particularly in the case of government-financed projects, it is often virtually impossible in this country to find out exactly what something costs.

My frustration over this comes both from the difficulties it poses for my work as a journalist and from what I feel is a legitimate interest as a Russian taxpayer.

How much, for instance, is being paid for the sod that has been laid around the Hermitage and the Kazan and St. Isaac's cathedrals in recent days?

Watching the birds trying to lift the pieces of sod in search of grass seeds underneath, I found myself wondering how much we were paying to witness their confusion.

Last spring, I recall that the local media were full of cheer and reports about the fact that, to finance preparations for St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, approximately $1 billion was being transferred from the federal budget.

Among the projects that the money was supposed to be spent on was the completion of the eastern part of the city's Ring Road (not yet completed), renovation of the city's flood-protection barrier (it remains in pretty much the same condition) and the repair and reopening of the flooded stretch of metro line between the Ploshchad Muzhestvo and Lesnaya stations (I don't know about the water, but the line is still closed).

What these projects have in common is that if they came to fruition they would mean a genuine improvement in the quality of life of ordinary citizens.

From what I can see, the effect of the $1 billion has been mostly cosmetic, a facelift to make the city look -- in the opinion of many locals -- more attractive to foreign bigwigs coming for the celebrations.

The most serious questions have been raised by a number of Kremlin and justice officials, and these have been about the efficiency -- and even legality -- of the way the money has been spent. The Northwest district prosecutor, for example, said earlier this spring that about $15 million had been misspent.

Given the spending habits of the government here, the amount -- which is only about 1.5 percent of the total sum involved -- doesn't disturb me that much. It's pretty standard around here. What is most annoying is that they won't tell us where and with regard to which projects the violations occurred.

This lack of specifics is the case just about anywhere you look.

I'm happy that St Petersburg's railway stations have all been renovated, and a new one has even been added. The federal Railway Ministry says that the price tag was 7 billion rubles (approximately $230 million).

But it's impossible to find out, for instance, what the work done on the Moskovsky Station cost.

Fine. Maybe I'm trying to be too specific. But what about last week's announcement by Valentina Matviyenko, the presidential representative in the Northwest Federal District, that the Finance Ministry is coughing up the money to ensure good weather in St. Petersburg during the days of the celebration. Here, again, she won't tell us how much taxpayers' money this is going to cost.

The only explanation that seems feasible to me in this case is that, because aircraft from the air force will be used in the project, the secrecy has something to do with state security.

Seeking help, I turned to the Internet, where it took me a few minutes to find out that one hour of flight time for a MiG-29 fighter, for example, costs $5,500. It's still hard to estimate the total cost, since I don't know how much time they'll have to spend in the air.

If it's eight hours a day for -- let's say -- three days, the total cost for the 10 jets Matviyenko said would be involved would be about $1.32 million.

All of these calculations only work if my guesses are right on how much flying time is involved, the information on the number of jets from Matviyenko is accurate and there are no other costs I have neglected to consider. The chances that I've met all of these conditions are virtually nil.

So, as an ordinary taxpayer, I'm right back where I started -- unable to determine how much of our money has been spent. Barring an offer of employment from the federal Audit Chamber (unlikely), I'll probably never know just how much the (promised) good weather will cost.

I'm not saying that there haven't been positive aspects to the preparations for the festivities. Recently, a friend who lives on Antonenko Pereulok, just a few meters away from St. Isaac's Square and the Hotel Astoria (where President George W. Bush will stay for the celebrations), complained about the spending.

"Look out of my window," he said. "The huge pile of garbage in the center of the courtyard has been there for two years and I can't do anything to convince local communal services to take it away."

The next day, he decided to get his piece of the celebration pie and called some friends at NTV, asking them to report on the sorrowful state of courtyards located alongside roads "of federal significance."

Within a day, the garbage was gone, supporting his claim that fear of how the Kremlin might react is the only pressure that works here.

While I'm glad that the garbage is gone, it doesn't help me much.

There's no way I can find out how much it cost.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a Staff Writer for The St. Petersburg Times.