The birth of the capital

This weekend, Muscovites celebrate their city's 861st birthday. With over 500 events planned across the city, the celebrations promise to be full of pomp, show and, no doubt, plenty of fun.
If the festivities nowadays focus on enjoyable events, Moscow's City Day has, in the past, been a highly politicized occasion. Talk of a City Day began in 1846, when writer and historian Konstantin Aksakov published an article in Moskovskiye Vedemosti called "700 Years of Moscow."

In the 1840s, Russia's leading intellectual lights were embroiled in a philosophical and historical debate as to the future direction of Russia. The Slavophiles, including Aksakov, argued that Russia should close itself to Western influence and attempt to return to its great Orthodox, Slavic past. The Westernizers, whose ranks included the likes of Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen, argued that Western rational individualism offered the best way for Russia to overcome its backwardness.

The cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow became symbols of the debate: Moscow, the iconic old capital of the Tsar's power; St. Petersburg, Peter the Great's "Window on the West," rationally designed with its European architecture.

"Moscow is a symbol of Russianness, ahead of St. Petersburg," said Richard Pipes, emeritus professor of history at Harvard University in a telephone interview. "It was the home of the grand princes who united Russia. It's hard to think of an equivalent in Europe."

In his article, Aksakov wrote that Peter the Great's "mistake" of moving the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1712 should be corrected. Nicholas I stayed out of the debate but conceded to celebrations.

In January 1847, Moscow staged its first City Day. Moscow Metropolitan Filaret conducted a service in the Kremlin, with a special prayer written in honor of Moscow. The service concluded with the ringing of the bells of Ivan the Great Tower. At night, Moscow was illuminated; the Kremlin, Red Square and other important sites were lit up with torches. There was a ball at the Governor-General's home on Tverskaya, and ordinary Muscovites were invited to walk around their city, with food and small gifts distributed among them.

The next time Moscow celebrated its birthday was 100 years later in 1947. Two years after Russia's victory in World War II, the country was tired and drained of resources, and the people needed a boost of morale.

"Stalin played to Russian nationalism," Pipes said. "If you are ruler of Russia, you have to play up Moscow as a symbol of unity."

Stalin celebrated the event by fixing up the city. Manezh Square was repaired; work began on the Hotel Moskva; and Stalin initiated the building of the Seven Sisters skyscrapers, which dominated the Moscow skyline before the influx of tall office blocks. The statue of Prince Yury Dolgoruky, known as Moscow's founder, was erected across the street from Moscow City Hall in 1954, pointing to where he wanted Moscow established.

Moscow's original birth-date is widely considered to be 1147, as it was in that year that the city made its first appearance in chronicles, when Dolgoruky held a feast there in honor of the prince of Novgorod. In 1156, he is said to have built walls and a moat around the city.

At this time, the lands now known as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were inhabited by the Rus, who lived in loosely connected city principalities, with Kiev as the main center of power.

As the southern areas of the lands of the Rus in particular suffered from numerous Tartar raids in the early and mid-13th century, Moscow's relatively northern geographical position enabled the city to escape much of the destruction and pillage suffered by Kiev and other cities. Indeed, successive Muscovite princes were able to take advantage of Tartar rule, Pipes said. "The Tartars had difficulty collecting taxes. The princes of Moscow gained the right to collect the tribute. They became agents of the Tartars." In this way, the Moscow princes became "the creators of the Russian state."

"This is not something they want to mention, of course," Pipes added.

It was under Ivan III in the 15th century that Moscow expanded its sphere of influence over other principalities and began the creation of a state that would become the Russian Empire.

In 1986, in the final years of that empire's successor, the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, who was then secretary of Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party, decided to institute City Day as an annual celebration. But it was the festivities organized in 1997 by Mayor Yury Luzhkov for Moscow's 850th birthday that really got the festival noticed.

No expense was spared: Luzhkov rode into Moscow in a motorized Grecian wine bowl. Luciano Pavarotti sang on Red Square while French composer Jean Michel Jarre performed a spectacular laser show on Sparrow Hills, and the center of Moscow was filled with 5 million people.

The city was given a facelift. Streetlights were added, roads repainted and houses were decorated. Zurab Tsereteli became a household name, as his monstrous Peter the Great statue was built to tower over the Moscow River. His interpretive attempt at a recreation of the Christ the Savior Cathedral was also unveiled, as people were allowed to wander in the not-yet-completed grounds.

The $60 million party was described by the New York Times as a "post-Communist Mardi Gras," as well as a "platform for Mr. Luzhkov's political ambitions," which were later blunted by the rising star of Vladimir Putin.

Whether or not this year's celebrations become as politicized as they have in the past, it is an interesting quirk of history that the current hostilities between Russia and the West have again led commentators back to the debate that invigorated the first City Day back in 1847: Should Russia be open to a Western path, or a closed, uniquely Russian one?

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