Published January 13, 2015
President Vladimir Putin (search) proudly showed off his native city, freshly spruced up for its 300th anniversary celebrations, to world leaders at a summit Saturday that was long on pomp and circumstance and short on political issues.
Leaders of more than 40 countries attended festivities that included a tour of the Hermitage Museum (search), a concert featuring Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti (search) and banquets in two historic palaces.
Later Saturday, Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search) opened the recreated Amber Room, a chamber in the Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg whose amber panels were dismantled and carted away by Nazi troops during World War II.
"This masterpiece has become a symbol of the new relations in the united family of our greater Europe," Putin said in a banquet address in a nearby hall. The panels were recrafted with funding from German natural gas company Ruhrgas.
It was a theme Putin emphasized all day. At a summit with 24 European leaders, Putin said Russia deserved a place in "a greater Europe" and pushed for his dream of visa-free travel between Russia and the expanding European Union.
"We understand that such a system won't be established tomorrow," Putin said. "But the citizens of greater Europe should know when, how and at what price freedom of movement, one of the most significant rights of every person, will be achieved."
EU officials say they are sympathetic but are concerned about illegal immigration, drug trafficking and other security threats.
Visa restrictions are a sore point for many Russians, who were all but forbidden from traveling west in the Soviet era and are now eager to be accepted as equals in Europe.
Putin, a St. Petersburg native, held the summit in the newly restored 18th-century Konstantin Palace on the Gulf of Finland.
Before the talks, Putin showed his guests a short film titled "Resurrection of the Masterpiece" about the $300 million restoration at the suburban palace -- perhaps a metaphor for his own efforts to enrich Russia and bring order after decades of decline.
Putin said the palace, which he called "an outstanding work of Russian and European architecture," would also be at Europe's disposal for "useful events for the continent."
The meeting came on the second of three days of summits tied to the 300th anniversary of the imperial capital founded by Czar Peter the Great.
In the evening, Putin's guests joined him on the bank of the Neva for an elaborate water show, featuring fountains and tall-masted sailboats that sped over the water accompanied by the music of Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers.
Opening the show, Putin called St. Petersburg "a symbol of the country's future, a symbol of its definitive renewal."
Afterward, the leaders boarded hydrofoils, which headed out to the Gulf of Finland to take them to Peterhof, another grandiose palace, for dinner. The estate is famous for its many fountains.
President Bush was to join the other guests at Peterhof, and he and Putin are to hold brief talks Sunday.