Peter's inspiration for the city probably came from Amsterdam. But his ambition quickly grew. It was to be the Paris, the Venice of the North. As usual in Russia, nameless Russians from remote villages were sacrificed to the leader's dreams. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands died. St. Petersburg, the 19th century historian Nikolai Karamzin wrote in words that fit today, "is a city founded on tears and corpses." It was, many felt, a fitting legacy of Russia's greatest reformer, who dragged his empire into the modern age by a mixture of will-power and terror--an all-powerful ruler who toward the end of his reign set aside each Monday for work in the dungeons of his secret police.
Vladimir Putin, a former kgb agent and Russia's President, is a St. Petersburg native. He made his name as one of the energetic reformers who gave the city a rolling start as communism collapsed. But these days that momentum is gone, replaced by the languid inertia of drink, drugs and sex. Putin is desperate to change his country. The kids in these photos are desperate to change their lives. That should be a recipe for hope, but in this lawless, rotting city, it has become a prescription for despair.
--HIGH-RISE HIGH Many of St. Petersburg's skyscraper apartments are havens for young men like Phil and his friend Misha. They can buy cheap, powerful drugs on the ground floor and then visit crash pads upstairs. Phil, the bare-chested boy, is a cultural savant, happily quoting Jim Morrison or disappearing into cafes to read novels
--LOCKED IN Rehabilitation Through Work. That's the name of the Soviet-era detention center where this young boy finds himself. There's little rehabilitation in most Russian prisons however. Staying alive is work enough. Photographer Sarfati was smuggled into the prison to make this image. She was ejected moments after it was taken
--LOOSE TIES "The irony of this photo is that it looks as if it could be a scene from a Russian nightclub," Sarfati says of the image and the platinum-wigged woman watching her lover light a cigarette. They are tenants of a homeless shelter, an ad-hoc family selling newspapers for pennies in order to fight off the chill of hard times. "She still has a lot of class," the photographer says
--IRON FISTS A young Russian boxer catches his breath between rounds of an angry training match. Boxing has a certain cachet in Russia. Though there's no market for professional fighters, the sport has become fashionably hip
--OFFSTAGE Two girls find respite from the heat and noise of a busy nightclub. Many of the clubs are private, open only to the owners and their friends. The exclusivity, rigidly enforced, is one way to increase safety in the city's often dangerous clubs
--CRAMMED This overcrowded apartment makes dressing a multiroom affair. For this young girl the day starts with a shower in a shared bathroom, but she must dress and dry her hair in another room. As many as 20 people share the two-bedroom flat