Prof. Wilfrid Hodges
I visited the Steklov Institute at Fontanka from 2 to 14 January 1996, on behalf of the London Mathematical Society. The main purpose of my visit was to keep up contacts between the LMS and the Euler International Institute. The dates were the only ones free in my calendar; but they were unfortunate because the Institute was out of action at the time, and the Director (Academician Faddeev) was away from St Petersburg almost until the end of my visit. However, I did briefly meet Academician Faddeev, and I had many conversations with Professor Matiyasevich and staff of the Euler Institute.

The main building of the Euler Institute is fantastically beautiful. The original decorations in wood and plaster (from the early 20th century if I remember right) have been painstakingly reconstructed, and the building has an air of skill and elegance. The meeting rooms are well equipped for lectures. There seemed to be a very well-stocked computer room with a good Internet connection, though it was out of action when I visited. The grounds are attractive. January was not the best time to judge this, but I believe that there are plenty of good walks along the banks of the Neva. (Mathematicians do their best work walking and talking.) The stock of books and journals in the library is still small compared, say, with the excellent library at Oberwolfach. But at least the visitors have free access to it. Western visitors are used to libraries where they can browse the shelves; I think this is not the tradition in Russia. The only thing that I missed was a dining room, but there are eating places nearby.

Sadly, St Petersburg gets an extraordinarily unfair press in the West. As just one example, two weeks after I came home, a British national newspaper published a description of St Petersburg by one of its correspondents. He reported that the shops in the Nevskii Prospect are largely empty of goods, there are long queues for bread, the inhabitants are unfriendly and hassle strangers for dollars, and there is constant violence. It so happens I stayed in a student hostel just off the Nevskii Prospect, and I did some shopping there every day. The shops were all full of goods of every kind, Russian and Western. Prices were on average a bit cheaper than in London, though one could find some things much cheaper and some much more expensive. I regularly bought bread - it was good fresh bread too - and never had to join a queue of more than three people. (The Russian habit of paying in one place and then collecting the goods in another is disconcerting for some Westerners, though one meets it also in Italy.) Nobody on any occasion asked me for dollars or any Western currency. Nobody was ever unfriendly to me. On the contrary, one of the marks of the people of St Petersburg is that they like to strike up conversations with strangers on the street. I was constantly asked for matches or the time. One man I remember was anxious to tell me about how one of Peter the Great's ears was higher than the other. (Of course knowing a little Russian does help on the street.) Violence there is, just as there is in my home town of Leytonstone. One has to be sensible where one goes at night, both there and here. I believe it's extremely rare that visitors find themselves involved. The correspondent didn't complain about the public toilets, which are one aspect of life in Russian that dismays many visitors, as the St Petersburg web pages bravely note. But in fact I found nothing to complain of in St Petersburg on this front.

Happily my daily newspaper showed a more friendly picture of St Petersburg just last week: two people playing chess in the open street at minus 20 degrees Celsius. I recognised the chess board; it stands just outside the Ermitazh.

St Petersburg is a good place to do mathematics. I was very pleased to be able to meet Vershik, Matiyasevich and other distinguished St Petersburg mathematicians. With Anatolii Yakovlev I had some fruitful mathematical discussions (and some very entertaining non-mathematical ones). I am grateful for people's friendliness and frankness, and also for the excellent arrangements they made on my behalf for my visit.

Wilfrid Hodges
Queen Mary and Westfield College, London
1 January 1997