Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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May 11, 2003
A Russian Tale of Two Cities

The problem of mutual relations between Moscow and St. Petersburg began with the founding of St. Petersburg. From the time that Moscow became the center of the Great Moscow principality and the capital of a united Russian government in the middle of the 15th century, no one encroached on her capital functions. However, at this time Peter I had yet to emerge in Russian history with his hostile feelings toward Moscow...

Peter I laid the foundation of the SS Peter & Paul Fortress on the delta of the Neva River in St. Petersburg on May 27, 1703, and already by 1712 St. Petersburg became the official capital of the Russian Empire. And even back then, in the 18th century, people began to talk about St. Petersburg as the genuine 'European city' in Russia because of the fact that during its construction the talents and experience of Western planning and construction were widely used. The creations of architects Domenico Trezzini, Francesco Rastrelli and Giacomo Quarenghi, who came to Russia from Western Europe, helped determine the historical appearance of the city.

However, the fate of the new Russian capital differed from Europe in that none of the great European cities was built so quickly. Celebrated European capitals grew more gradually, which was the norm at that time, while St. Petersburg appeared strictly by plan during a single generation.

Indeed, it was precisely in the 18th century, during the reigns of Elizabeth and Catherine II that St. Petersburg surpassed Moscow in its capital splendor. According to historian T. Burmistrov, 'St. Petersburg was the first true city in Russia. Moscow seemed like a large village in comparison, but a lovely, comfortable and hospitable one compared to cold, foggy and unfriendly St. Petersburg.'

Moscow became the preserve of pre-Peter I epoch values of a serene Russian life, which wasn't introduced to the progress and cultural changes of the rapidly developing new capital. The proverb 'Moscow wasn't built in a hurry' reproached St. Petersburg and spoke about the fact that Russian cities developed along a more natural path.

The differences between the images of Moscow and St. Petersburg began to seriously interest the Russian artistic elite. Russian poet Alexander Pushkin touched on this theme in Travels from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Russian author Alexander Hertzen also dealt with this question in Moscow and St. Petersburg.' Russian satirist Nikolai Gogol wrote in St. Petersburg Notes of 1836 that 'Moscow is still a Russian beard, while St. Petersburg is already a neat German.'

Slavophiles and Westernizers used Moscow and St. Petersburg as their ideological outposts. Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky was one of the first to consider the problem of the importance of understanding the existence of the two Russian cities: 'St. Petersburg and Moscow are two capitals or, better said, two parts which can with time merge themselves into one magnificent and harmonious whole.'

St. Petersburg surpassed Moscow in terms of population in the first half of the 19th century. Moscow had approximately 175 thousand residents at the end of the 18th century and St. Petersburg approximately 90 thousand. However, by 1862 more than 500 thousand people lived in St. Petersburg and only about 378 thousand lived in Moscow. At the beginning of the 20th century, St. Petersburg's population surpassed one million and the city became the largest industrial, banking and trading center in Russia and one of the largest in the world. In 1913, there were 1012 large and medium-sized industrial companies with 234 thousand workers in St. Petersburg.

However, St. Petersburg's hegemony came to an abrupt end in 1918 when the Bolsheviks, fearing the close proximity of borders with unfriendly bourgeois governments, moved the Russian capital back to Moscow. The popular saying that revolution destroys its heroes is also true when considering St. Petersburg. The cradle of three revolutions, St. Petersburg-Petrograd itself sunk into a quiet cradle of Russian provincial life. From 1918 through 1927, the city was the principal town in the province, then in 1927-31 it became the administrative center of the Leningrad Region. Beginning in 1931, Leningrad held the resonant but practically useless status of city of republican subordination.

After it regained its status as capital, Moscow began to rapidly develop its industry and construction. Automobile, radio engineering and construction sectors were created. Although the city lost many of its ancient architectural memorials, it acquired a number of wide avenues, modern administrative buildings and durable apartment buildings.

During this time, one of the chief enemies of the Bolsheviks in creating their obedient Soviet person turned out to be the free-thinking intelligentsia, which had always been concentrated in St. Petersburg. The relentless extermination of this intelligentsia by the Bolsheviks caused the city on the Neva to lose its leading position in almost all spheres of Russian life.

Everyone knows about Stalin's hostility toward Leningrad and Leningraders, which turned into a relentless sequence of terrible repression. The formation in those years of the relationship of the Soviet bureaucracy elite to Leningrad led to the birth of many stereotypes and complexes which continue with today's Muscovites and Petersburgers.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow retained its capital role and became the recognized leader of Russian economic reform. Huge shifts occurred in Moscow economics: the share of industrial production steadily decreased while, at the same time, the volume of services of banks, exchange and trading companies and small businesses increased. At the present time approximately 1000 commercial banks operate in Moscow, which amounts to about 40% of all commercial banks in Russia. More than half of all companies in Russia, with foreign capital investment, operate in Moscow.

Thanks to the unprecedented concentration of administrative, political and financial resources largely from Soviet times, Moscow has been transformed into a modern, dynamic and developing European city. St. Petersburg, on the other hand, has been left alone with its dying architecture and heavy industry legacy, which it does not have the strength to maintain on its poultry city budget. In reality, the two cities have once again changed places. St. Petersburg, which was the conductor of brave progressive ideas in the 18th-20th centuries relinquished that role to Moscow , its arch-rival, at the turn of the new century.

However, recently the situation has once again begun to change. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a native of St. Petersburg, has raised the prestige of his native city by regularly holding different high-level meetings in St. Petersburg. The number of international social and cultural forums in the Northern capital has also increased, and the real estate market is growing rapidly. Thanks to the special attention and resources of federal power in the run up to the city's 300th anniversary, the city has begun to look significantly better.

However, several townspeople say that Moscow's attention seems rather humiliating. They say the capital has condescended to such an extent in order to dress up its younger brother for his birthday. However, others see this as a ripening perspective of economic cooperation between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

International experience suggests that the largest cities in one country do not always compete. In the US Washington is the government capital, while New York is the financial center. In Israel it is said that 'Jerusalem prays, Haifa works and Tel-Aviv rests.' In the United Arab Emirates Abu Dhabi is the government capital, but Dubai is the country's main showcase.

St. Petersburg has huge potential in the areas of culture, technology, manufacturing and tourism and it will hardly choose just one sphere to compete in. Its pride as the old capital will not allow it. Indeed, St. Petersburg could once again become an equal cultural and economic partner of Moscow, which would only contribute to the normal development of all of Russia.

Philip Mostotsky, St. Petersburg Translated by Richard Sleder

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