09 March 2009

Just How Cosmopolitan Is St Petersburg?

Cosmopolitan... This adjective has no absolute meaning but reflects subjective criteria, and also the question of degree. St Petersburg has beautiful classic architecture, the highest reputation for culture and art, and a fascinating history. I have been lucky to hear some of the best opera, symphonic, and romance music anywhere.

But I wonder why the airport seems close to deserted compared to domestic ones in the US. Why are there no kiosks on Nevsky selling foreign newspapers? Why do I rarely here tourists speaking anything but Russian?

Russia's reputation for artistic and intellectual achievement is subsiding with the younger generation. Shock and confusion from the end of the USSR is still with us and few lofty aspirations and high hopes remain. Most people endure worsening city problems with less money and small faith in any economic system.

What makes Paris, Rome, or London so cosmopolitan? Besides the beauty and culture that St Petersburg has, I think these cities are more open to new ideas, and have more freedom of expression in the media and on the street. I believe that a worldly city should have high tolerance of ethnic groups within its borders, and democracy from the ground up... effervescent... lively... exuberant!

Airport traffic and tourism are significant indicators. Recent numbers indicate that London's Heathrow had around 10 times as many passengers as its population, while St Petersburg's Pulkovo carried around 1.1 times SPB's population. In 2007, tourism accounted for 1.5% of Russia's GDP (gross domestic product), compared to around 6% for France and +20% for Greece.

Part of variation in tourism GDP can be explained by how attractive each country's climate and scenery is, but a lot relates to attitudes of the government and everyday people. Tourists arriving in St Petersburg are not welcomed with open arms, but more typically with a surly expression. Visitors here learn that the police aren't able to provide the protection they might expect. Darker people from the south... such as Italy, the Caucasus, and Asia... must be wary of skinheads.

Tourists to 'Peter' have to breath the terrible air, be careful what water they drink, and hope for the best if they might need emergency medical care... which usually is slow to respond, mediocre, and can be uncaring.

Russian leadership and politics is top-down, so any improvement has to start with the central government and our city's governor... and filter to the people. But true cosmopolitanism requires that initiative comes from the community. Until the time that we see more conditions conducive to an open and tolerant city, I don't see that St Petersburg can be considered truly cosmopolitan.

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