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From Beijing to St Petersburg by Train
MOSCOW is all things to all people. For Westerners, the city may look European, but its unruly spirit seems closer to Central Asia. To Muscovites, however, Moscow is both a "Mother City" and a "big village", a tumultuous community which possesses an underlying collective instinct that shows itself in times of trouble. Home of one in fifteen Russians, it is huge, surreal and apocalyptic. Its beauty and ugliness are inseparable, its sentimentality the obverse of a brutality rooted in centuries of despotism, while private and cultural life in the city are as passionate as business and politics are cynical.
Moscow has been imbued with a sense of its own destiny since the fourteenth century, when the principality of Muscovy took the lead in the struggle against the Mongol-Tatars who had reduced the Kievan state to ruins. Under Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible the "Gatherers of the Russian Lands" its realm came to encompass everything from the White Sea to the Caspian, while after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Moscow assumed Byzantium's suzerainty over the Orthodox world. Despite the changes wrought by Peter the Great not least the transfer of the capital to St Petersburg Moscow kept its mystique and bided its time until the Bolsheviks made it the fountainhead of a new creed.
Since the fall of Communism, Muscovites have given themselves over largely to the "Wild Capitalism" that intoxicates the city, as Mayor Luzhkov puts into effect major building programmes which are changing the face of the city more radically than at any time since the Stalin era. The construction boom seemed to reach its height with the celebrations of the city's 850th anniversary in 1997, but intensive building activity continues throughout the centre.
ST PETERSBURG, Petrograd, Leningrad and now again, St Petersburg the city's succession of names mirrors Russia's turbulent history. Founded in 1703 as a "window on the West" by Peter the Great, St Petersburg was for two centuries the capital of the tsarist empire, synonymous with excess and magnificence. During World War I the city renounced its German-sounding name and became Petrograd, and as such was the cradle of the revolutions that overthrew tsarism and brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917. As Leningrad it epitomized the Soviet Union's heroic sacrifices in the war, withstanding nine hundred days of Nazi siege. Finally, in 1991 the year that Communism and the USSR collapsed the change of name, back to St Petersburg, proved deeply symbolic of the country's democratic mood.
St Petersburg's sense of its own identity owes much to its origins and to the interweaving of myth and reality throughout its history. Created by the will of an autocrat, the imperial capital embodied both Peter the Great's rejection of Old Russia represented by "Asiatic" Moscow, the former capital and of his embrace of Europe. The city's architecture, administration and social life were all copied or imported.
Today, St Petersburg is beautiful yet drab, progressive yet stagnant, sophisticated and cerebral, industrial and maritime. Beggars and nouveaux riches rub shoulders on Nevskiy prospekt, yet after the enormous changes of recent years a sense of stability and relative wellbeing has at last arrived, reaching even beyond the historic centre to the sprawling outer ring of high-rise blocks.
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