ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—The draft beer taps danced in the bartenders’ hands at Manneken Pis, a Belgian café on the Petrogradskaya Side, one of the oldest and most sophisticated neighborhoods of St. Petersburg. On the eve of the presidential election, Vladimir Putin’s hometown peacefully enjoyed its Saturday night—no matter what the Kremlin decided, life in Piter, as locals call it, was languid and peaceful.
Petersburgers had no doubts that President Putin would get his fourth term, and indeed as Russians voted on Sunday there was no question about that in anyone’s mind. Early returns showed him with more than 70 percent of the vote. But St. Petersburg had one of poorest turnouts in the country. The local intelligentsia here brushed away the thought, confident in their political apathy, feeling irritated even by the word “election,” as by some useless waste of time. Most people The Daily Beast interviewed were either planning to spoil their ballot or not vote at all.
Indeed, this graceful city that knows Putin so well is trying its best to feel detached from Moscow’s hustle, to live in a reality that has little to do with the president these days. A well-known historian, Lev Lurye, described St. Petersburg as “the most European” Russian city: “To have a good time, an average Petersburger prefers to go to Finland, rather than to Moscow. Europe is closer.”
The city’s creative, hipster population met at The Chronicles bar to listen to music, work on laptops, or just have a cheap beer and hang out with friends. One of the bar’s regulars, the journalist Ivan Chesnokov, gained the distinction of being named by Esquire magazine as one of 10 young Russian authors to be followed this year. “I see no reminders of Putin in St. Pete. If there were five good schools opened by him, named after him, I would have noticed,” Chesnokov told The Daily Beast. “I am not interested in covering the Kremlin’s politics. Putin is not my story.”
Putin was born in Soviet Leningrad in 1952. Lurye remembered the years of Putin’s childhood well, as he is two years older than Putin and has analyzed Putin’s life, the evolution from a little teen hooligan to a KGB officer, to the president of Russia. The communal apartment on Baskov Avenue where Putin spent his youth had dim rooms, thin walls, shared toilets for several neighbors, and no telephone. “His mother was a cleaner, his father was growing old, they had Putin late; by middle school, Putin was constantly fighting in dark courtyards and must have been on juvenile police records. The Hermitage [museum] was like a different planet for his gang,” Lurye remembered. Then the teenage Putin came to the KGB and asked for a job.
Lurye told The Daily Beast that during Soviet political repressions, all of Lurye’s friends proudly thought of themselves as of “antisovetchiki,” hating the repressive state machine. “If we had known him and of his plans for his life, we would be disgusted by his idea of joining the KGB, we would say: ‘What an idiot, everybody goes to prison and you go to the KGB.’” Lurye looked at his hands on the table, talking of Leningrad dissidents going to jail. He thought back on the political repression as on a combat zone: “Bombs hit targets... The Russian people never felt any big love for the police, nor for chekists [secret police], or the KGB men.”
As Vladimir Putin begins his fourth term—fifth, if a spell as prime minister is counted—he is enjoying the peak of his popularity, a more than 80 percent of approval rating. In a two-episode documentary about Putin’s life, released a few days before the election, the president described the heroism of his family members and several times mentioned “self-sacrifice” as a unique Russian quality.
The film’s key commentators, Putin’s old friends from the KGB, now occupy the Kremlin’s top positions: Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev; special representative of environmental protection Sergei Ivanov; and Sergei Chemezov, CEO of Rostec. Chemezov was Putin’s neighbor from 1985 to 1990, when both were Soviet intelligence officers in Dresden.
The film described “persecutions” of former Stasi agents in post-Soviet Germany: “They were supporting us,” Putin said in defense of Stasi veterans. Lurye pointed out that the term “us” and “our” was always confusing for those who supported Soviet dissidents and those who worked for the KGB.
“Here is when we see Putin splitting in two, as if he suffers from some sort of schizophrenia,” Lurye points out. “He criticized Brezhnev’s system of management, where he had no chance to move up, if not for 1991 and the fall of the USSR, he would have retired as a colonel to plant cucumbers in his garden.”
In 1990 Putin retired after 15 years of service with the KGB and got a job as an aide for his mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, who at the time was the chairman of Lensoveta, the Leningrad city council. “For a about a year some gray shadow was following Sobchak, carrying files and papers—that was former KGB agent Putin, who claimed he had changed his life to serve democracy,” Boris Vishnevsky, one more Petersburger of Putin’s generation, told The Daily Beast.
“We were about 400 deputies at Lensoveta and only three, including Putin, had a KGB past. Now out of 50 deputies only five or six deputies are true democrats,” said Vishnevsky, who still works at the St. Petersburg City Assembly as an elected deputy of an old democratic party, Yabloko.
Vishnevsky blamed former city mayor Sobchak for St. Petersburg’s lost democracy. “One after another, Mayor Sobchak began to appoint former KGB agents as heads of St. Petersburg district. The KGB slowly creeped back into power.” Vishnevsky said that he had met with Putin many times during the period from 1990 to 1996. “Once he yelled at me and my colleague in the hallway of our office building. Never before and never since I have seen Putin losing his temper so terribly,” Vishnevsky recalled. Putin was demanding that deputies support the Sobchak-driven mayoral election process.
Putin moved up the ladder of power together with his mentor Sobchak. He headed a committee on foreign relations, dealt with foreign investors, with shipments of metal, timber, and oil abroad.
Under Sobchak, St. Petersburg was sinking in a mass of crises as if into a swamp. Those of us who lived there lined up for hours to buy a few eggs or a bottle of milk, and when we finally reached the end of the line, the shop often ran out of the food item we needed. Garbage-strewn roads, no coffee shops, no light in the streets, occasional gunfights, political and criminal assassinations terrified the population.
Organized criminal groups fought wars in the streets of St. Petersburg, contract murders and killings were a part of the daily headlines. Foreign businessmen and investors got robbed, threatened, lost their businesses to organized criminal groups.
In 1997 my good friend, a Swedish businessman, nearly died after somebody put poison in his glass at a nightclub, and the criminals stole all his money.
“Nobody knew, nobody thought about Putin in the 1990s,” said Yevgeny Vyshenkov, editor-in-chief of Fontanka, an independent outlet. He was a police criminal investigator in 1991. And he notes that Putin’s vision of the city was very limited. “His St. Pete was a Soviet sport club, a two-room apartment with a Polish tape recorder—his wife must have played classical music for him.”
But Vyshenkov, today, feels a certain nostalgia for the tough self-reliance of people in St. Petersburg trying to deal with the chaos a quarter century ago. “In my St. Pete, if somebody put a hand below my girlfriend’s waist at a cafe, I had to grab something heavy from the table and smash the harasser’s head, otherwise, I would be considered a loser.”
To stay strong and defend his friends, Vyshenkov still regularly trains as a boxer, and he would like to see the opposition to Putin toughen up as well. “Today’s hipsters seem too lame to have a fistfight to defend a girl. The biggest trouble they’ve seen is a broken iPhone… I personally respect the guys who can come out, join an anti-Putin protest, get hit by a police club, and may be arrested for a few days but not complain about that.”
Future historians and art critics at St. Petersburg State University do not often ask their professors questions about Russia’s future. Stagnation is obvious to young thinkers.
Professor of Russian history Daniil Kotsyubinsky told his students that every time the Russian empire fell apart, the process of empire reconstruction started. And so, too, with the Soviet Union. Kotsyubinsky, the author of the book Petersburg Without Russia, believes that the USSR fell apart because there was a political will in the Kremlin, that perestroika would not have been possible without Mikhail Gorbachev’s decisions.
“I think my students realize that they live in a country with a bad political and business environment, and their main concern is what to do about their careers, so they either plan to emigrate, or fit the existing rules, blend in and become one with the system,” Kotsyubinsky told The Daily Beast.