Nevertheless, St Petersburg is looking great and it must have looked even better to the 45 world leaders speeding at 130km an hour down Nevsky Prospekt in powerful Mercedes’. The Russian government spent €1.2 billion of its merger €58 billion budget on beautifying the home city of President Vladimir Putin for its 300th anniversary.
Even if the overwhelming memory of the summit will be the smell of fresh paint, everything was completed in time, including palatial residences for each of the EU leaders.
However, there was an eerie feeling that a Soviet-style system had collided with Czarist ideas of style and luxury. An army of workmen worked night and day to install marble stairways and gold taps. The streets were tarmacadamed, but just as far as the visiting eye could see, and President Putin baldly told the city’s five million residents that, having had a laser show on Tuesday night, they should leave the city for the weekend.
A massive police force of 20,000 was mobilised into the city for the few days ensuring a sizeable presence at every street corner, but there were lots of stories of this massive show of strength totally unmatched by organisation.
“Nobody knows what anybody is doing. They are all issuing commands, countermanding each other. So nothing moves. It is a fiasco,” screamed more than one diplomat.
There were stories too of how the Mafia have continued to rule during Putin’s reign and reports of countless millions of roubles destined to repair St Petersburg now missing.
However, behind all the stories that fulfil the prejudices and stereotypes is one of monumental change in less than a decade.
Despite Mr Putin telling the citizens to leave the city to the visitors, the streets were full of locals enjoying the traditional parade of marching bands. As the music drifted away the city was taken over by an army of young people window shopping in Mango and Gap, munching McDonalds burgers, drinking coffee in fashionable cafes and heading to one of the dozens of night clubs.
Having rejoined the world, the Russians are making good use of former friends and foes. Germany contributed to replacing the famous Amber Room which the Nazi’s looted, while the French paid for the repair of a building associated with Voltaire.
Aer Rianta’s joint venture company, Lenrianta, contributed to the restoration of the famous ship, the Aurora, which in 1917 gave the revolutionary signal to storm the Winter Palace.