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Dear David

Russia is hosting the G20 Summit in St Petersburg on 5-6 September. What is it for? What is Russia trying to achieve? Is the G20 anything more than a talking shop with soiled goods? Jeremy Noble in St Petersburg has been keeping his ear to the ground….

Dear David,

My neighbour here in St Petersburg, Galina Nikolayevna, yesterday asked me if they would be closing the road to our apartment building, as they usually do when Mr Putin is hosting an international jamboree.

‘I suppose they’ll close off the whole area, won’t they, right down to Nikolsky Cathedral, and all around Theatre Square? I’ll have to do my shopping days before. And I suppose they’ll put new tarmac on the roads around the theatre, so I’ll have even further to walk. Jeremy, tell me, what’s it for, this summit? What does Russia get out of it? Is it going to do me any good? What’s the point of them painting the front of the building, when they do nothing inside? I went to Zhilkomservis [local council] yesterday to ask them when they would finish installing the new heating pipes they started last year, and they said there was no money. I told them if they could afford to build a new theatre, they could put in my pipes. Did you see that programme on TV the other night, the one where the baby died from an injection? They really made those doctors and nurses squirm. That poor mother; those hospital people were trying to make it seem as if she was to blame; just a cover up. You can’t do that so easily now. I told that snooty secretary I’d make a formal complaint. I’ll tell that Navalny. It’s my money they’re spending. They won’t get away with it. That wiped the smile off her face.’

‘Wow, that sounds remarkably like activism, Galina Nikolayevna.’

‘I know my rights. My grandson knows exactly what to do. What are those twenty people going to be talking about? Not my heating pipes, I bet.’

‘Galina Nikolayevna, I don't know. I’m a writer, not a politician. Anyway, I’m in the same boat remember. I live here as well. I don't see the point in putting in more flowerbeds either.’

‘No, Jeremy, you’re different, you’re a foreigner.’

And that doorstep conversation, David, set me to thinking about what the G20 is for. ‘What is good, and what is bad?’ asked Mayakovsky. Where is Russia today? How has it changed since I arrived in the early days of Perestroika? 

I live right behind the new Mariinsky Theatre, which is right behind the old Mariinsky Theatre, on Theatre Square. I have seen a lot of changes….

I turned up here soon after Cambridge, and lucked out, as they say: I began writing about culture for a new newspaper, St Petersburg Times, which took me to all the major cultural institutions in the city – Hermitage Museum, Russian Museum, Philharmonic, LenFilm; and the Mariinsky Theatre, where I met Valery Gergiev.

In those days, I was an exotic; Russians found it hard to understand why an English gentleman would want to make life so hard for himself living here? ‘Because,’ I would answer, ‘St Petersburg has a long British history.’   I didn’t want to live in any of the usual cities, in which English writers had made their home in exile – Venice, Berlin, Paris, LA, Barcelona….

Back to the Mariinsky. A while ago, when I was crossing over Kryukov Canal, looking at the new theatre going up, I ran into Maestro Gergiev and Alexei Kudrin [former Finance Minister]. We chatted about this and that, and, all the while, I was hoping that Maestro would not ask me what I thought about his new theatre? But he did.

‘It’s big,’ I said. 

Maestro looked at me, and said nothing. We parted. How could I tell him that, for me, the new theatre looks like a shopping centre, no different from the one on nearby Haymarket Square (Raskolnikov’s neighbourhood in Crime in Punishment)?  Mariinsky 2 cost upwards of 700 million dollars, and it is not even an original design; it is a copy of the Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre in Toronto.  Jack Diamond got the commission because he offered Maestro a way out of a black hole. They had cancelled the winning design of Dominique Perrault, and then realised, too late, that they had a limited number of building options. 

For me, the new Mariinsky Theatre is a symbol of failure; a failure of nerve, symptomatic of a general loss of confidence that I see all around me.  It could have been so different. I remember having breakfast with Maestro Gergiev in New York, in the mid 1990s, when the Kirov Ballet was in residence at the Metropolitan Opera (my book about the ballet company was on sale in the Metropolitan shops). Maestro was waxing lyrical about his dream of a new theatre; somewhere he could stage Wagner without having to close down the theatre for three days; and a building ‘so amazing that people will have to go to St Petersburg to see it.’ Well, Maestro, other than the cost, I don’t think that people are going to be so amazed.

How are you going to help improve Alexandra Mikhailovna’s business? Is your talking this coming Thursday and Friday going to make her life any easier?

Yes, the new theatre has improved our area, which was a decidedly rundown, if atmospheric and historic, neighbourhood (Anna Pavlova and Vatslav Nijinsky lived on my street). I am writing this letter sitting outside a restaurant owned by an Italian, with a beautiful view of the baroque Nikolsky bell tower. The cooking is Italian, and the décor very Dolce & Gabbana. Actually, I prefer the food at the much more modest Theatre Café, a few doors down, further along Kryukov Canal. It is not that Alexandra Mikhailovna has absolutely no ideas about modern marketing; she put out one table on the pavement, with two stools from IKEA, because she saw that was what Romeo’s was doing. However, until I sat down, she had had no foreign customers. The Italians who live here (because it's close to the Italian Consulate) and the many tourists, don’t like these old-fashioned places, which look ‘too Russian;’ tourists like to be bussed into kitsch places with matryoshka dolls and balaIaikas – ye olde worlde [fake] Russia…. I advised Alexandra Mikhailovna to put out another table, buy comfortable chairs, use white tablecloths; place fresh flowers in a vase on the tables. I said that I would translate her menu into English. She would do more but they have not been able to raise enough investment capital; that might sound familiar to a British small businessman.

Alexandra Mikhailovna’s husband does the cooking. He cooked for Bill Clinton, so he knows his stuff; and it shows: a first-class Greek salad, fresh bread, borshch, Novgorod pork and bacon baked in homemade short crust pastry, served with buckwheat; a glass of juice and a pot of black tea. All beautifully presented in an elegant way that would put many a British restaurant to shame; and for an unbeatable price of 640 roubles [about 12.41 pounds]; that is half of what it would cost at Romeo’s. The location is excellent - the café is barely fifty metres from Mariinsky 2 - but I doubt if the thousands of theatregoers will give it a look. 

So, I ask you David, and you Vladimir Vladimirovich, and all the other participants at the summit, which is about finance and economics, how are you going to help improve Alexandra Mikhailovna’s business? Is your talking this coming Thursday and Friday going to make her business more profitable? Make her life any easier? What useful advice can she expect? 

What good does it do Alexandra Mikhailovna and her husband to know that Russian tax rates for business are some of the lowest in the world? Alexandra Mikhailovna’s business is registered as a small limited company meaning that she pays only 6% corporation tax; on top of that she has social taxes, which, even when all added up, still come to a much smaller total tax burden than a restaurant would pay in Covent Garden. She is forty-six; I doubt that she will retire to a place in the sun. For all that she has no management experience, and no one to help her join the modern business world, Alexandra Mikhailovna is an entrepreneur; and entrepreneurs are the backbone of an economy. For how much longer can Russia keep going as an oil and gas economy?

At Romeo’s, I am served by Arkady; a nineteen-year-old student at an institute of state management. He speaks nice English, travels – he was in Ibiza in August with his boyfriend; he wants to be a bureaucrat….

I look around me, and I cannot say that there has been regeneration and gentrification here, on a scale seen in Western European cities where a new signature building has gone up or been reborn– Guggenheim in Bilbao; Opera Bastille in Paris; Tate Modern in London. Nor do I see even a general trend towards improving city centre districts so noticeable, say, in London, Berlin or Barcelona; who would ever have thought that Dalston would be fashionable? 

Here, in Theatre District, Romeo’s Italian restaurant is the exception; most of the shops and restaurants on Dekabristov Street or Lermontov Prospect still look very Soviet. I could drive to one of the many hypermarkets, which look much like hypermarkets everywhere. Improvements in the fabric of Russian society, however, are isolated, not viral; and prices and the cost of living keep rising. 

What I see is a three-speed society: flash cars driven by the few, living in newly-built apartment blocks, wearing designer clothes, looking and behaving exactly like rich people everywhere; an ambitious and growing, albeit minority middle class; and the majority, generally Mr Putin’s electorate, doing what so many Russians have been doing for so long – surviving. No different, I hear you say, from Spain, or the UK, or Greece…. No, I agree, except that they have no meaningful safety net; and the lack of investment in infrastructure means that the schools their children attend, and the hospitals they go to when they fall sick, are failing them. That might sound like the UK, with its hospital scandals, and endless shake-ups of the education system. You see how, in many ways David, you share with Vladimir and the rest of the G20 leaders, the same problems?

Why has St Petersburg not seen a general improvement in the built environment; a steady rise in living standards; because of the structural problems facing Russian society?  Which, in this roundabout way, is why the G20 is so important, because there is a connection between this economic summit, my neighbourhood, St Petersburg, Russia in general, and Galina Nikolayevna’s heating pipes.

As always, there is the official agenda, and the unofficial agenda. 

What does Russia want out of the G20 this week? What does everybody attending, want out of this summit? What are they likely to achieve?  

As always, there is the official agenda, and the unofficial agenda. Officially, Russia says that it has three main aims:

Growth through quality jobs and investment;

Growth through trust and transparency;

Growth through effective regulation.

They give more detail about these laudable ambitions; they will focus on:

 1) Framework for strong, sustainable and balanced growth; 

 2) Jobs and employment; 

 3) International financial architecture reform; 

 4) Strengthening financial regulation; 

 5) Energy sustainability; 

 6) Development for all; 

 7) Enhancing multilateral trade; 

 8) Fighting corruption.

Remember, however, that all of the above is a text that has been approved by the G20 as a whole. Reading between the lines, and ignoring the diplomatic flimflam, here is how I understand Russia’s position: 

  • I can admire a man who takes a moral stand, as you did with Syria, but, it seems to me that one cannot sometimes be moral, and sometimes not. 

    Point 3 is about offshore zones; that contentious subject, of course, chimes with your recent efforts, David. For Russia, Cyprus is the big question; why was Cyprus treated so harshly, and castigated for its offshore banking industry, when the UK has any number of offshore zones scattered around the globe? Russia, I think, is going to be pushing for equality and transparency, which means, David, that on this one, Vladimir is on your side.
  • Point 5 will be about fighting a rearguard action against fracking; that is a game changer for everybody, not just the Russians.
  • Point 7 will be about the ongoing, fraught, visa-free travel agreement talks with the EU; this is a subject where the Russians really want to see progress. If you are a regular reader of opendemocracy Russia, as I am sure you are David, you might find this surprising. How many of us think that the ‘General Manager’ wants to re-hang the Iron Curtain, and prevent Russians from leaving the reach of his iron grip? Why would he want to push for visa-free travel, when surely this will mean that Russians will see what democracy means in the West; and then come back and demand the same? Look at the Decembrist revolt of 1825; it had its roots in the ideas implanted in the minds of the men who travelled to Paris and London with Alexander I, after the defeat of Napoleon. Why would the General Manager want to endanger his position? Because it will do no such thing. If foreign travel were going to foment a Russian revolution it would already have happened.  All that will happen is that Russians will shop more…. And UK shops need all the help they can get.

The ‘real’ agenda of the G20 summit in St Petersburg is this: Syria; the Russian anti-gay law; and the Sochi Winter Olympics.

There is nothing to say about Syria that has not already been published elsewhere, except this, David: I guess you’re finding it tough at the top this week? You tried to emulate Palmerston, and instead, became emasculated. That attempt at gunboat diplomacy looks more like toy boats in the bath. Looking at the UK from Russia, the world looks different to this patriotic Englishman. I can admire a man who takes a moral stand, as you did with Syria, but, it seems to me that one cannot sometimes be moral, and sometimes not. All we ever had as a bargaining chip with Russia was our moral authority; and that is gone.  I do not blame you alone; your predecessors were as much to blame. In the rush for profit, we failed to see that giving out passports to corrupt Russian businessmen claiming ‘asylum,’ might play badly in Russia. When we most needed a voice, for Magnitsky, we were struck dumb.

As for the Russian anti-gay law; here, I have to declare a personal interest; my last screenplay, for a short film about a failed love affair, set in St Petersburg, was rejected by a Russian production company because they were concerned that the gay theme would put them at risk of a fine; this is how the anti-gay law works here – self-censorship. 

What can I say? Personally, no, I don’t like the law. What will the Russian President say? That he has the support of the majority of the Russian population. Nevertheless, I think that we are going to see some rowing back on his part; a victory for Western activism?

Press hard, many Russians would say, and you get a worse reaction. To which I would say, that is because they live in ignorance. 

There are two arguments here: for and against the activism against the anti-gay law that has erupted in the West. Not, I think, a reaction that has been solely engineered by the well organised and well financed LGBT lobby. I think that the Archbishop of Canterbury had it right when he said this week that public opinion about gay rights has been changing at lightning speed in the West. Politics has been trying hard to keep up. 

Press hard, many Russians would say, and you get a worse reaction. To which I would say, that is because they live in ignorance. Most of them do not know any gay people; well, probably they do, they just don't know it. ‘Don’t ask, don't tell’ may have recently been repealed in the US military, but not in Russian society, which, as far as gay rights is concerned, is about where Western society was in 1988, the year Mrs Thatcher brought in Section 28. I applaud you for bringing in the legislation for same-sex marriage; I think that it will be remembered as one of your finest achievements. But, it is not so long ago that the UK was locking up homosexuals; Wilde and Turing cast a long shadow. Instead of bullying them, perhaps we should give the Russians time to catch up with changing mores?

You and I both know that, in the harsh world of realpolitik, the Russian anti-gay law is most important in so far as it affects the Sochi Winter Olympics; will the LGBT activists engineer a boycott? Could they make people think that participation in the Games is such a toxic thing to do, that sponsors will start to pull out? That is what I think you will be talking about on Thursday and Friday. 

As you very well know, David, there is a lot riding on this summit; we all have an interest in the success of the G20 – Galina Nikolayevna, Alexandra Mikhailovna and her husband, Arkady, our nation of shopkeepers…. It’s all a bit queer really: nobody wants the G20, but everybody needs it.

Yours ever, 

Jeremy


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