Blog: Simon WarburtonWhite nights and networking in St Petersburg

Simon Warburton | 22 June 2016

St Petersburg

St Petersburg's Astoria Hotel has been soaked in history during its 100-year existence

So another St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) has flashed by in its usual white blur of back-to-back press conferences and some of the highest level networking I've ever seen.

I left the last event – evaluating how companies can extract more from the value chain and I managed to buttonhole Deputy Industry and Trade Minister, Viktor Evtukhov for a brief chat about how the rise of component production in Russia is a real opportunity for localisation given the weak state of the Rouble.

But not before one of the other speakers had grabbed him first and they had sat down and conversed in high-speed Russian in one of the numerous nooks and crannies dotted all over the vast ExpoForum venue, whose architecture was in stark contrast to its Soviet counterpart of the past few years.

I've no idea what they were saying, but that conspiratorial chatting was breaking out everywhere. It just shows we can have all the high-falutin technology in the world - and everyone seemed surgically attached to their mobiles all week - but sometimes human beings just like to talk face to face.

Equally, I managed to secure a few minutes with Iranian Industry Minister, Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, who specifically mentioned auto in his speech and who outlined his country's own localisation plan for component production.

The guest list is either CEO or Ministerial level, with a sprinkling of Prime Ministers and Presidents to stir the brew; each dignitary appearing to be accompanied by vast entourages smoothing their path and trying to usher their important charges away from squadrons of pesky hacks, only too anxious to stick a notebook, microphone or camera in front of them.

There must have been more than 1,000 journos for SPIEF 16 and I'd say pretty much all of us were corralled into the vast media centre to hear a typically tub-thumping speech from President Vladimir Putin, with his Foreign Secretary, Sergey Lavrov loyally laughing at the boss's gags.

The President made reference to Lavrov's long time at the helm of the Russian Foreign Office, even referencing his former Soviet Union counterpart, Andrei Gromyko's legendary 28 years in the same position; was it a small shot across the bows in case of any leadership bid? Lavrov's a fierce intellect and his ease on the world stage makes him an engaging and highly public figure and it's not impossible to imagine him sitting at the head of The Kremlin Cabinet table.

The ExpoForum is so far away from St Petersburg, the conference organised a fleet of minibuses each morning and evening back to downtown, although there was quite a bunfight to actually get on one.

As I sat in the Russia-Iran press conference - all the politicians fell over themselves to remind everyone of the similarities between the two - cold war and sanctions just for starters - I could hear the unmistakeable rumble of thunder start to build outside.

Afterwards, those fleets of minibuses deposited us at the terminus of the Astoria Hotel in St Pete and as it's such a famous place I went in to have a look.

I watched a bit of the Poland-Germany Euro 2016 football - a sizeable German contingent had gathered – the German manager had even draped a flag under the television - and read some of the hotel literature on the history of the 100+ year-old building.

And it's quite a history etched into the thick walls. Following the 1917 Russian revolution, pitched battles raged in The Astoria, the 'Leader of the Proletariat,' otherwise known as Lenin, made a speech from the third storey balcony, while the infamous Rasputin also paid several visits to the place.

Hitler was so confident of victory after laying siege to St Petersburg in World War Two – he'd reckoned without the indomitable spirit and defiant resilience of its citizens – he'd even had invitations printed for a victory banquet at The Astoria – although no trace now remains of the documents.

The hotel's popularity with overseas visitors also made it a regular haunt of the KGB, whose many spies would be in regular attendance, while everyone from Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, George Bush and of course, Vladimir Putin, assorted rock bands and writers, has passed through its doors.

During the aborted coup d'etat in 1991 looking to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev – the last President of the Soviet Union – pro-democracy demonstrators reputedly gathered in Saint Isaak's square - Isaakievskaya Ploshchad - just opposite the Astoria – an area turned into a giant garden in WW2 to eek out some extra agriculture.

While I was in The Astoria, those rumblings of thunder had now turned into a full scale storm. Even the clouds – the 'White Nights' in St Petersburg mean it's light til midnight at this time of year – had turned the colour of black ink – while torrential rain and huge bolts of lightning lashed around this most famous of St Petersburg haunts.

I decided to outrun the storm and asked for a cab back to my hotel, but after 30min, nothing appeared, The same went for 1h and then 1h30, after which I was wondering how I would get home.

An apologetic concierge came up to me and said as a result of the monsoon still in full swing and President Putin's SPIEF visit, causing the city to go into virtual lock-down, there 'were no more taxis.'

However, she continued brightly, she and her colleagues could drive me back if I could wait until the end of their shift.

And drive me back they did. You can't park in front of the Astoria, there are police everywhere round it, so they were waiting down a dark street. After some hesitation I got in the car - I didn't fancy marching off into the blackness of St Petersburg - and was chauffeured back to my small billet. It was an extremely kind act, they didn't have to do it and I hope it would be replicated back home.

SPIEF 16 took place against its usual backdrop of intrigue, economic grandstanding, claim and counter-claim; par for the course for the giant event, but it has undoubtedly cemented its place in the calendar of Russian national discourse, this year attracting no less than United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker among a host of luminaries.

Yes, you can't escape the politics, but that for a visiting Westerner, is part of its appeal; it's completely different from any other conference I've attended.

Add to that mix, the heady history which seems to ooze out of every stone of this city and it's a formula which I think makes it completely stand out.

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