MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, August 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has a well-earned reputation in the international press as an epic villain. Whether he’s meddling in American elections, going after internal critics, or rattling sabers militarily, Putin’s more popular in Russia than you might think.
REICHARD: A trip to St. Petersburg on Navy Day shows how the Russian leader plays on nationalism, patriotism, and pride in the past. WORLD Radio reporter Jill Nelson brings us this report.
AUDIO: [Sound of street crowd and sidewalk music]
JILL NELSON, REPORTER: St. Petersburg is the world’s most northern city with a population over one million. Peter the Great built the fortress on 42 islands at the marshy delta of the Neva River. That means waterways are a big part of the city’s history.
Each year on the last Sunday in July, Russians celebrate Navy Day, and St. Petersburg boasts the biggest naval celebrations in the country. Young and old dress up in traditional blue and white sailor shirts, and vendors sell flags and sweets.
AUDIO: [Sound of driving]
Pasha Stolyarov has lived in this city for more than two decades. But the maze of bridges—342 in all—makes driving a challenge during celebrations like this one. We adjust our route and hunt for parking.
AUDIO: “Is this a parking spot?” “Not very much.”
AUDIO: [Sound of tap dancers at Palace Square]
In front of the magnificent Winter Palace, about a dozen tap dancers perform on a giant stage. Russian tanks are on display throughout the palace square. For more than 150 years, this palace—which is longer than two football fields—was home to Russia’s tsars.
It wasn’t easy protecting their fortress from invaders crossing the Baltic Sea, Pasha explains.
AUDIO: For a long time St. Petersburg was the capital of Russia, and a capital staying on the border of Russia is quite a strange position, but it was so. And they organized a strong base around St. Petersburg to protect the city from—at that time it was Sweden, during Peter the Great times.
AUDIO: [Sound of crowd walking, street music]
From Palace Square, it’s a short walk to the Neva River, where crowds of people are gathering to watch the naval parade. Spectators line the sides of the canals as cruisers, destroyers, and smaller submarines make their way down the river in a line.
AUDIO: [Sound of air show]
Each of Russia’s four naval fleets has a land-based naval air force. All eyes shift from the water to the sky at the sound of the Baltic Fleet’s air force.
People cheer as fighter planes create a streak of blue, red, and white, the colors of the Russian flag.
Russians are proud of St. Petersburg’s naval history. They often mention the World War II siege of Leningrad, the city’s name during Soviet times.
AUDIO: [Sound of prop planes]
The two-and a half year siege by German forces caused the greatest destruction and largest loss of life in any modern city.
Navy soldiers stationed on a nearby island played an important role in ending the siege, Pasha tells me.
AUDIO: During the second World War, Kronstadt, the name of this island, protected St. Petersburg during all the time and was almost ruined with bombings. But this island, people there, this island the soldiers there survived and were able to protect borders of Leningrad and saved I don’t know how a tremendous amount of lives.
AUDIO: [Sound of Putin speaking and national anthem]
Last year Putin began a new Navy Day tradition, a parade showcasing the newest Russian vessels. He announced that the country would add 26 new ships to its fleet this year. Four of them will be equipped with Kalibr missiles.
Polls show that Russians are growing weary of their leader’s costly ventures abroad. But to them, Navy Day isn’t about conquest. It’s simply a time to celebrate veterans, connect with old friends, and remember the city’s unique history.
AUDIO: [Sound of fireworks]
AUDIO: People were just happy to see fireworks, to be on the streets to be among these navy soldiers. Just beautiful and interesting. I did not ever hear from anybody that anybody was telling, ‘Oh look what big guns we have or what huge battleships we do have so we may conquer yah know close countries or Baltic countries or go somewhere further.’ No, no, no. Not at all.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson, reporting from St. Petersburg, Russia.