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There is only one place where modern submarines dock in Venetian canals, the replica of Aya Sofya is home to a naval theater company, and young people date in the ruins of old Scandinavian forts. Few small towns have such a special destiny, but Kronshtadt, situated on barren Kotlin Island, a mere 29 km from St. Petersburg, is one of them.

Like almost everything else in this area, Kronstadt was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. This giant of a man, endowed with superhuman energy, felt his mission was to give Russia access to the oceans. Having conquered the Baltic coast from the Swedes and established his new capital, St. Petersburg, there, Peter immediately realized the city was irritatingly vulnerable, if not worthless: Any seafaring invader could easily devastate it after sneaking up from the Baltic. Kotlin Island provided the necessary solution: Located in the center of the Gulf of Finland, it controlled the waters in question. Since then, Kronstadt has been St. Petersburg’s reliable safeguard. Neither the Swedes in the 18th century, nor Napoleon in 1812, nor the British during the Crimean War of 1853-56, nor the Germans during World War I and II could overpower this imperial outpost. Kronstadt became the major naval base of the empire and kept its unique status until the age of nuclear weapons demanded new blue-water facilities on the Kola Peninsula.

Unlike modern military architecture, which is invariably ugly, 18th-century fortresses possessed considerable beauty. The town of Kronstadt is locked within elegant red-brick walls that alternate with short quays built of shining crimson granite. The island is surrounded by a stylish necklace of smaller forts built right in the water. Each bears a name borrowed from the Romanov dynasty males: Peter, Paul and Constantine. Now most of them have been abandoned and their squat bastions are used exclusively by sea-gulls and fishermen. Occasionally some son of an admiral would throw a wild party there.

The fortress itself is smaller than Kotlin Island. The walls of Kronstadt preside over an unimposing plain, full of marshes and occasional thin groves. Numerous military facilities used to be located here as well, and until 1956 Kronstadt was the only modern town that did not allow its own citizens to go outside the city walls without written permission. Until 1996, even Russians needed special authorization to visit the town.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has dramatically deflated the role of the military. Now Kronstadt is desperate to attract as many foreign guests as possible. It has even been given the status of a special economic zone — though it is doubtful that it will be able to make good use of it. Built to serve the purposes of war, Kronstadt is having hard times in peacetime. Except for some old-fashioned naval facilities and immense charm, it does not have much to offer to the world. It simply does not have modern infrastructure. Retired naval officers sport cowboy hats with ribbons saying “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” — but otherwise life in Kronstadt is still like in the 1970s.

With the population of only 45,000, Kronstadt’s main problem is still unemployment. The navy no longer needs the shipyards. The officers themselves often have to wait several months to get their salaries. This is why there are numerous vegetable gardens outside the city walls and submarine captains plant potatoes there, all the while loathing Russian reform and the International Monetary Fund. The men look pitifully underfed and when they fish in the canals, this is not for leisure.

In the past, sons of naval officers were very likely to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. When one does research at Naval Archives in St. Petersburg, the number of naval mini-dynasties is overwhelming. Now this tradition is gone. Young people flee Kronstadt. A speed boat takes them to St. Petersburg, which hints at thousands of new jobs. Most of them never come back.

In the last years of the Soviet regime, the Kremlin launched a megalomaniacal project to build a dike connecting Kronstadt with the mainland. The main purpose, though, was to protect St. Petersburg from floods. Typically for the Soviet Union, the project ended in disaster. The unfinished dike did not prevent floods, but it quickly and efficiently destroyed the environment. As a result, St. Petersburg, where the restaurants once served water from the Neva River in special carafes, still has an unprotected harbor, but it now has plenty of stale water that from time to time still attempts to invade the city streets. Construction had been stopped, but the people of Kronstadt got a highway to the mainland. So strictly speaking, it is no longer an island.

Perhaps, Kronstadt’s current charm can be explained precisely by its spectacular decay. One could even argue that even in its glory days, it wasn’t an appealing place, with numerous military patrols, KGB plainclothes watchdogs and naval crews marching with the disconcerting clockwork precision. Now Kronstadt is as relaxed as a place can be and its pale skinny sailors are more fit for a romantic page-turner rather than a Cold War thriller.

The city is obsessed with its past. Every tree seems to have been planted by some czar, or at least an admiral. Monuments to naval figures outnumber the garrison. But the famous Naval Cathedral, the replica of Aya Sofya, crucial to Russian naval myth, is still used by a theater company — although the company belongs to the Baltic fleet. It survived WWII because the Germans needed a reference point for artillery fire on a foggy day; will it survive modern neglect?

Luxurious parks retire into desolation. Glamorous canals under shady trees are regularly cleaned by sailors, but duckweed still accumulates in the corners, like cobwebs in the house of a sick person. The flotsam and jetsam that covers the duckweed is disquietingly modern; plastic Pepsi bottles and empty packs of fake Western cigarettes.

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