Even though you can make the same distinction between Moscow, Russia’s political stronghold, and Saint-Petersburg, its cultural hub, the debate runs deeper, and gets uglier. That’s because unlike India’s twin capitals, Moscow and Petersburg have both been political capitals, and one always sees the other as a trespassing intruder.
A quick history refresher: in 1703, after capturing this north-western swampland from the Swedes, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great ordered for a spectacular city to be created. He hated traditional Russian ways of life so this city was to be the symbol of Russia’s Europeanisation. Renowned architects from Italy and France poured in to craft magnificence at an unprecedented scale. Saint-Petersburg was named after the Saint who holds the keys to the Gates of Heaven because Tsar Peter envisioned this city to be a passage to eternal bliss. Nine years later in 1712, he moved the capital to Petersburg, stripping Moscow off the honor it had held since 1327.
With the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin immediately moved the capital from Petersburg’s Baltic sea-front to the landlocked cushions of Moscow. His reason was simple – the First World War was going on and a frontline capital was nothing short of strategic suicide. This move shifted the reins of power back to Moscow.
“So what if Moscow is the capital? Those who run it are from Petersburg and that’s what matters,” a friend boasted. He was referring to the fact that so far two-thirds of Russia’s presidents – Putin and Medvedev vs. Yeltsin – belonged to Petersburg. (To play along, assume 3 to be a statistically significant number!)
After living in both cities, I found this argument to be lopsided. Petersburg is infinitely more beautiful. Its palaces and cathedrals, adorned by gold, sculptures and stone-heads, are as unique as their architects’ signatures. Moscow’s structures look like they were mass produced in a communist factory. Moscow’s most imposing buildings - the Stalinist monoliths (“Seven Sisters”) - resemble each other so much that sometimes even the locals can’t tell which one is which. Granted Moscow has the unrivaled Red Square but Petersburg’s variety can keep you entertained for weeks. With Moscow, you can be done in three days and still have time to revisit your favourite spots. Therefore, I had resigned myself to believing that no contest existed. Until one day…
It isn’t unusual for foreigners in Russia to get sucked into this debate. My American friend, Andrew, and I found ourselves in precisely such a situation. Although we have no allegiance to either city, we patriotically defended Petersburg as if we had been born and brought up there. Our opponent was an Azeri-born Russian-American citizen who grew up in Moscow. One by one, we punched each other with every argument we had ever heard in favour of our side. Suddenly, Rufat banged his fist on the table. “Moscow wasn’t built on a swamp. This is a real city with real foundations!”
In that moment, I had an epiphany. It hit me that Petersburg is the only Russian city of its age and stature to not have a kremlin – the hallmark of an authentic Russian establishment. The traditional onion-domed cathedrals that let you know you’re in Russia are a much rarer sight in Petersburg. The very features that make Petersburg unique also leave it a pariah – a philistine, even – on the Russian landscape. But Rufat’s point ran deeper than the realm of architectural designs. It ran all the way down to the water in the soil that supports life in the city above it. You can freely drink the tap-water in Moscow but in Petersburg, the swampy bacteria will send you straight to the hospital and might even kill you. Mineral water bottles and springtime flu epidemics are a fact of life in what you can call “a carelessly picked spot to build a city.”
Of course, I still say Petersburg is Russia’s most beautiful city, but that day I developed instant affection for Moscow too. It’s because I realized that Moscow grew to life like a civilization does whereas Petersburg was summoned at the whim of a Tsar.
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