If Vladimir Putin enjoys a 70 percent job approval rating, as some independent, American-sponsored surveys of Russian public opinion suggest, then his popularity here in his home base is almost off the charts.
This imperial capital is enjoying the benefits of being the home town of Russia's ruler -- the place where savvy entrepreneurs and investors place their bets on the future of this fascinating and paradoxical country.
The streets swarm with traffic. The airport concourse is filled with sharply dressed young men carrying attache cases. And everything implies that the old Soviet-styled Leningrad is enjoying its rebirth under the name it was given by the czars.
Indeed, if you look at the names on the marquees along Nevsky Prospekt, you could believe that the vision of Peter the Great has been realized. His capital is -- at least commercially -- at the center of Europe. All the great names of retailing, from Tiffany to Mercedes-Benz, can be found in the blaze of neon that illuminates the night sky. The streetcars and buses show their age, but the consumer goods in the showrooms they pass are definitely "now."
Throughout Russian history, the wealth and the talent of this vast country have flowed to Moscow and St. Petersburg, as if those two centers of government exerted a magnetic attraction strong enough to reach across the 11 time zones within Russia's borders. Russian literature is filled with stories of young poets and artists hoping, somehow, to reach the exalted atmosphere of one of these cities.
So it is today -- not just for the arts but for commerce and industry and finance. And thanks to Putin's patronage, St. Petersburg is perhaps outdoing even its larger rival to the south.
In all these visible respects, St. Petersburg looks to American eyes like a "normal" prosperous city, one whose counterpart could be found anywhere on the Continent or in North America, South America or Japan.
But appearances are misleading. Just below the surface runs an undercurrent of unease that breaks through the censorship Putin has imposed on the Russian-language media. Last Friday's edition of the St. Petersburg Times, an English-language daily relatively free of government control, reported that by next summer, local tourist authorities will have created a special police task force to assist foreign visitors.
The university students recruited for the force will be trained to provide assistance to victims of crime. The trainees will be given special instructions, authorities said, in order to help foreign tourists "rather than scare them."
And then these paragraphs: "The committee's decision comes as the number of tourists visiting St. Petersburg continues to decline, with up to 19 percent fewer tourists traveling to the city this summer than last year.
"One of the root causes of this decline cited by tourism experts is crime in the city, and the city police's inefficiency in helping foreigners that are victims of crime."
Crime, poverty and violence still stalk Russia. The same front page that reported that formation of the tourist protection force headlined the battle in Nalchik in the Caucasus, where at least 130 people died last week in one of a series of clashes with Islamic militants.
And the World Bank reported that, despite the country's new oil-inflated wealth, one-third of Russians are barely eking out a living, surviving on less than $4.30 a day. They die young -- below age 60 on average -- so population is declining.
Add to this the steady centralization of power under Putin, and the prospects for Russia becoming a "normal" country, with a vibrant middle class and a functioning democracy, appear remote.
The U.S. government seems not to care. Ever since President Bush decided, on his first meeting, that he found something reassuring in Putin's soul, the United States has largely stood mute about Putin's crackdown on the media and any nascent political opposition.
But America has a large commercial presence. Next to one of the imperial monuments here is a giant billboard advertising the American Medical Center. Americans doing business in Russia -- and there are thousands of them -- have to accept the high levels of corruption and kickbacks and bribery that flourish under Putin.
No one knows what will happen when Putin's second (and presumably final) term as president ends in 2008. In St. Petersburg, you get the feeling many are hoping this new ruler will be around a long time, democracy be damned.