In the city where the 1917 Russian Revolution was born, the newest landmark is a once-derelict palace transformed into a gleaming showcase for St. Petersburg's most famous living son, President Vladimir Putin.
The baroque Konstantin Palace will be bathed in the international limelight next week when Putin welcomes some 50 heads of state to St. Petersburg's 300th birthday party.
Leaders impressed by Putin's pragmatic, businesslike manner will now see another side -- the Putin who taps into Russia's imperial glory.
The choice of Konstantin Palace for a US$300 million makeover is highly symbolic; it was the brainchild of one of Putin's idols, Peter the Great, the modernizing czar who founded St. Petersburg as Russia's window to the West in May 1703.
Built between 1720 and 1750 on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Finland, the palace has huge crystal chandeliers, painstakingly carved friezes and gilded paintings climbing up the columned walls and across the arched ceilings.
After the revolution, spearheaded by the workers of St. Petersburg, palaces fell into disfavor and in 1924 the city was renamed Leningrad after Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union.
The Konstantin Palace, named after the son of Emperor Paul I, was heavily damaged during World War II, when it was on the front line between advancing German troops and the Soviet defenders of the city making a last stand.
Between 1950 and 1990, the building housed the Leningrad Arctic College. After the communist regime collapsed and Leningrad got back its old name, the palace was taken over by a volunteer group seeking to save the city's architectural monuments.
In November 2001, St. Petersburg cultural leaders initiated a project to renovate the palace for the use of Putin, who likes to bring foreign VIPs to his native city.
The reconstruction proceeded at breakneck speed, according to Russian media: Some 6,000 workers worked round-the-clock shifts to meet the birthday deadline, and in the last frenzied days soldiers were assigned to help with the cleanup.
Gennady Yavnik, a director of the fund-raising committee, said that the funds were raised solely from private sponsors: ``big companies, banks, and private people.''
The national government has poured some 40 billion rubles, (US$1.3 billion) into the city for the birthday preparations in recent years, Valentina Matvienko, Putin's representative, said at a news conference.
The spending has tapped a vein of skepticism in many Russians. Some news reports have called the jubilee a festivity for dignitaries at the expense of common people.
An array of rumors has surfaced, including that the city's homeless would be shipped out to Siberia for the duration of the celebration. At the news conference, Mayor Valdimir Yakovlev and Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky derided the rumors and chastised journalists for publishing them.
Eight guesthouses on the palace grounds have been renovated, and 12 new ones added for the birthday guests. Once the celebrations finish, the complex is to be opened to the public and to international conferences.
The metamorphosis has turned out to be good news for many people in Strelna, the suburb by the palace. Once a backwater, it has been cleaned up and a wide, newly paved road has been built.
Ramshackle roadside villages have been hidden from view by 3m-high fences that stretch along the 30km road to the palace.
``Some of our neighbors say we look like a reservation,'' said Tatyana Zhitkova, whose house is now fenced off, ``though I think it's better to have this unified fence rather than a number of different fences, which make the place look messy. And I'm glad my neighbors were finally forced to take away the piles of litter they had stored for years.''
For some, however, it's a hindrance. People wanting to visit their loved ones' graves in the neighborhood cemetery now must walk a mile to get to the entrance. The only shortcut requires crawling under the fence.