Alice Howells on the Russian soul and its capital cities

“Russia, as befits its divided soul, had two capital cities.” Sidney Monas’ contentious statement, from a commentary on Moscow and Saint Petersburg as cultural symbols, begins the debate surrounding the two cities. Does Russia have a divided soul? If so, where does this divide lie, and do Moscow and Saint Petersburg truly represent bisected halves of the Russian soul?

A multifaceted, intricate relationship has developed between Moscow and Petersburg since the foundation of Saint Peter’s city in 1703. This relationship gave rise to very different perceptions of what constitutes “Russianness”. Particularly among the wealthy, educated intelligentsia of the day, the two cities came to represent polarized aspects of Russian life. The tensions created by the differences between Western Europeanism and Eastern Slavophilism have been well documented through literature, film; indeed through the lives of Russians themselves.

Russian novelist Gogol depicts two entirely differing cities. The first, Moscow, is a bastion of traditional “Russianness”. Gogol writes that in Moscow “if he’s going to have a good time, he’ll go all the way until he drops…”, whereas in Saint Petersburg “he looks at everything calculatingly.” The second Russian capital is painted as being a far more stilted, unnatural city.


This idea of contrasting cities became a recurring theme within Russian Literature and more general writings on Russia. Saint Petersburg is frequently depicted as inorganic; a somewhat forced city, which is in many ways the antithesis of Moscow. Whereas Moscow naturally became the hub of life in Russia over a period of many decades, Saint Petersburg was Peter the Great’s man-made, artificial creation, intended to create a new beginning for Russia. Hoping to thrust Russia outwards into the European and World stage, Peter’s first move was transferring the capital out of Moscow in 1703, to an entirely new location. Aleksander Herzen, founding father of Russian Socialism and writer, wrote that “…there was only one salvation for Russia – to cease being Russia.” Peter the Great certainly realised this, and was determined to act upon the belief, choosing to create a city as far removed from Moscow as was possible. He built his new city not in a landlocked area (as was the case with Moscow), but on the swamps near the Neva river, at the head of the Gulf of Finland. The new city would have access to the sea, allowing Peter to create a strong naval presence, and theoretically enhancing Russia’s position as an increasingly global power.

Physically, the two cities were and still are diametrically opposed. Whereas the peculiar, colourful wooden domes of Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral were and remain instantly recognisable as Muscovite architecture, St Petersburg was inspired by and built in the popular European style of the day. Curiously, despite ostensibly wanting to send a strong, progressive image of Russia to the rest of the world, Peter chose to employ foreign architects to design his city. The Winter Palace, for example, which became the main residence of the Tsars, was designed by Baroque style architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Such contradiction can however also be seen in the case of Moscow’s Kremlin, which was also worked upon by Italian architects during the reign of Ivan the Great. Gogol further dissects the physical differences of the two cities, claiming “Moscow is feminine”, whilst “Petersburg is male.”


This refers not only to the architecture of the two cities (the swelling curves and beauty of Moscow’s St Basil’s cathedral can surely only be seen as feminine, whilst the rigid precision of Saint Petersburg gives a clear suggestion of masculinity), but also to their demographics. Sidney Monas explains that in the 19th century, in Moscow the male-female ratio stood at approximately 2:1, whilst in Saint Petersburg the figure became as high as 3:1. Furthermore, as Saint Petersburg developed, Moscow saw a huge migration of its educated professionals to the new city, but so did many other European cities. Gogol comments: “Petersburg is something like a European-American colony: it has little national roots and also much foreign mixing.”

Saint Petersburg was famously imagined by Peter the Great as a “window to the West”, and when wandering through the wide, boulevard-style streets or along the walkways of the city’s canals, it is most notably Paris that springs to mind. Saint Petersburg’s main street, Nevksy Prospekt, echoes the fantastic yet gaudy elegance of the Champs-Elysées. Yet darker sides to both cities also lurk beneath their opulent exteriors, the modern façade masking a Medieval history not fully left behind. Historians have suggested that some 100,000 serfs, forced into building Saint Petersburg in the 18th century, are buried beneath the city’s streets. Likewise, lurking just beneath central Paris was the overcrowded Cimitière des Saints-Innocents, a cemetery in us from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. The cemetery was cleared in 1786 when the number of bodies became untenable, yet even then the remains it contained were relocated to the Catacombes under the Place Denfert-Rochereau. Mass graves hardly fit into the idealised, romanticised images of Paris so frequently seen in popular culture today, nor does a city built on the decaying corpses of serfs align with Peter’s visions for a new, progressive Russia.

The Moscow-Petersburg cultural dynamic is a complex, multifarious entity which defies simple explanation and definition. The relationship between these two mighty cities has produced literature, film and art in abundance, and affected the way millions of people have lived their lives. Russia’s capital cities are also fascinating when compared with other European capitals, and the relationship between Paris and Saint Petersburg is particularly fascinating. The only certainty among the debate is that these relationship have never been simple; Peter the Great’s construction of a new city triggered lasting and far-ranging tensions in Russian society and beyond.

Alice Howells is an MA student in French Studies at the University of Sheffield.

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