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In spirit of Goodwill, Russia has fresh face


St. Petersburg, Russia As the brash and noisy Goodwill

Games unfold in this proud and hardened center of old Russian grandeur, nobody wants to be caught on the sidelines.

Even the Museum of Printing, in a creaky, old imperial building overlooking the narrow Moyka River, is tying itself into the extravagant Goodwill machinery. An exhibit opens there today of 400 turn-of-the-century postcards depicting wrestlers, rowers, golfers and tennis players.

"Well," Galina Klarovskaya, a researcher at the museum, said yesterday, "this is the biggest excitement we've had in the city since the 250th anniversary celebration back in 1956 -- and anyway that came three years too late."

No such problems this time. By a whisker, St. Petersburg has managed to meet its timetable and get the Goodwill Games under way, although there seemed to be a few moments of anxiety when it appeared possible that spectators at the early events might come away with fresh paint on the seats of their pants.

It didn't happen, and now the old northern metropolis is throwing the country's first organized spectacle since the demise of the Soviet Union.

Everywhere, there are contradictions of style.

At the foot of the Peter and Paul Fortress, a mighty redoubt in czarist days as well as a dark prison of unavailing despair where no sunlight ever penetrated, tall, young men and women in tropical tans go all out to prove themselves in beach volleyball.

Above gloomy black canals where Dostoyevski's tormented characters once lurked, blimps advertising American soft drinks glisten in the brilliant sunshine.

And in a slick and vast opening ceremony, among the thousands spectators are retired veterans who have been given free tickets -- each ticket worth one-third of their $45 monthly income.

That particularly amused a woman who wanted to be identified only as Marina. Her pension was supposed to rise this spring, but it didn't, she said, because the city diverted money to pay for sprucing itself up. Angry as she was, though, she decided to accept the ticket and come on out to the show.

"I wanted to see where my money went," she said.

It's not clear how the city managed to come up with a reported $250 million, but it has been spending freely to refurbish not only sports facilities, but also museums, churches, other buildings and parks as well.

Roofs glimmer, windows gleam, flowers bloom, gutters stay clean.

And there's more -- indeed, there's a not-too-subtle reminder of the old Soviet ways that these games are supposed to help celebrate the passage of.

The ubiquitous street-side kiosks have been swept away by suddenly vigilant tax and health inspectors. (They've reportedly been fobbed off on St. Petersburg's suburbs.)

Other elements deemed undesirable have been cleared from the streets as well -- not only prostitutes and pickpockets, but Azeris and Armenians, too. Also cleared from the streets are guys in purple suits in general and old babushkas selling their homemade preserves and their husbands selling hacksaw blades to raise a little vodka money and, in fact, the vodka itself, now only available at places where you have to sit down to drink it.

Motorists trying to enter St. Petersburg have to have a good reason for doing so, and there are police and soldiers virtually everywhere to keep the peace.

How many?

"Nobody counts them," said Vyacheslav Cherepov, director of organization for the games. "We just take as many as we need, when we need them."

The police are on their best behavior. One group of Americans hailed a taxi, realizing too late that the driver had an open and half-empty bottle of vodka beside him. He barreled through a red light, and instantly the police were pulling him over.

He got out of the taxi and heaped abuse on them, a response that usually elicits a forceful and unpleasant counter-response, often including nightsticks, handcuffs and the local lockup. Seeing that foreigners were involved, though, the officer maintained his discipline and instead wrote out a ticket.

Even the opening extravaganza Saturday evening had a certain Soviet shadow to it. Although the whole thing was in reassuringly forward-looking and thoroughly modern pastels (even the St. Petersburg and Ukraine Acrobatic Rock and Roll Team), there were telltale signs. The bearers of the Goodwill Games flag, for instance, bedecked in pastels as they were, goose-stepped their way across the field.

Who's complaining? Not Natalya Dementyeva, director of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The city sent about $34,000 her way, which went toward paint, mortar and the clearing of a couple of hundred years' worth of silt at the edge of the Neva River -- where now beach volleyball players show their stuff.

"I was skeptical about the whole event," she said yesterday. "I thought we'd have people climbing all over the roofs. But now I can see how well it's turning out. I very much hope the city will get some long-lasting benefit from these games."

She herself has had the pleasure of putting on a sponsored exhibit at the fortress by the artist Alexei Kostroma, who works largely in chicken feathers.

"The idea is that they soften everything," Dementyeva said. Prominent is an immediately recognizable bust from the Soviet past, entitled "The Feathering of Josef Stalin."

City officials are disappointed in the lower-than-expected turnout foreign tourists -- "As a tourist attraction the games are a failure," said Cherepov -- but the locals have displayed considerably more enthusiasm than all their complaining beforehand would have suggested.

A small but wildly enthusiastic crowd cheered lustily as the two-man Russian beach volleyball team squared off against the Americans.

"I'm sure this is the first time we've ever seen beach volleyball here in St. Petersburg," said Yevgeny Kotov, 26, a sailor who was shirtless in the dazzling riverside sunlight.

"We've got good guys," he said, as the Russians kept pace early on, "but of course the American team is experienced and they're pretty sly."

Sly, indeed. The U.S. team went on to win, but Kotov wasn't too disappointed.

"I'm coming back for more," he said enthusiastically. "It's something new. It's sports and entertainment, but both at the same time."

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