Blog: Simon WarburtonMaintaining clearness in St Petersburg

Simon Warburton | 21 May 2014

St Petersburg is very much a working town, despite economic challenges

St Petersburg is very much a working town, despite economic challenges

I'm not sure if I expected icebergs floating down the river in St Petersburg in May, but what I certainly didn't bank on was a 30C wall of heat ahead of this year's International Economic Forum (SPIEF), which I'm attending for the first time this week.

The mercury plummets here to -25C in winter apparently, but even the locals aren't used to it being this boiling as they welcome the 6,500 or so delegates for the high-powered pow-wow.

Russia hasn't exactly got the most glowing press at the moment, but everybody here is extraordinarily friendly, starting with the squadrons of helpers at the airport, who whisked me through arrivals and who all, rather ominously, wished me "good luck" at the end of every sentence.

The organisers like to bill this event as a 'Russian Davos' and the top-level nature of it can be garnered by the helpful advice of where to park your private jet, with the cast list attending reading like a who's who of the world's CEOs.

There's been a fair amount of pressure on those CEOs, particularly from the US and UK it seems, not to attend, but it appears the majority are not caving in and are due to turn up.

Given the fact it's Russia, there are a significant number of oil companies who are due to speak at the myriad, simultaneous conferences being held at the cavernous Lenexpo centre, despite what appears to have been quite some heavy Western political muscle being flexed on certain companies to stay away.

Coming in on the airport motorway by taxi, I was mulling how quiet the roads seemed when virtually out of nowhere, a car shot across our bows causing our driver to violently swerve to the right and only just avoid hitting the side.

It's the closest I've ever come to an RTA: "Idiotski," I said to our driver about the other car's manoeuvre, repeating what I'd heard another previous Russian cabbie shout at an erractic motorist. Even our driver conceded he was a bit shaken up.

They call this time of year 'White Nights' (Beliye Nochi) and at nearly 60 degrees north, the sun doesn't set until almost midnight.

Watching the Russian weather forecast just underlines how vast this country of ten time zones is, from Vladivostok in the East at a lowly 12C to our sweltering St Petersburg, it's an unimaginably colossal landmass.

I'm staying in what the tourist brochure calls the "Admiralty District," or "port area" to anyone else, a fairly run down beat, that reminds me a bit of the docks at St Mary's in my home town of Southampton that are right opposite our football stadium to boot.

The dozens of looming dockside cranes - you can imagine a Bruce Springsteen song - reinforce the fact this is very much a working town despite all the current economic challenges Russia is facing as it continues to plough its own political furrow.

My hotel wisely asks guests not to: "Speaking loudly in your native language" - I'll second that - to the rather more confusing: "Customer is obliged to maintain clearness."

I also asked if the hotel water was OK to drink, a bit nervous I'd cause offence and indeed the receptionist did look aghast: 'No, we have equipment to boil the water,' she said, although as I'd already had some of it, the effects are unclear.

Despite thunderstorms predicted this afternoon, now seems as good a time as any to "maintain clearness" and head to the Lenexpo and get my bearings ahead of the St Petersburg, Leningrad, Petrograd, take your pick of historical names, conference.

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