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Russia — A Tale of Two Capitals

What would it mean for Russia if the capital was moved to St. Petersburg?

November 14, 2001

What would it mean for Russia if the capital was moved to St. Petersburg?

Founded in 1703 in the westernmost corner of Russia’s territory, St. Petersburg was laid out according to the urban planning ideals of Western European enlightenment.

Built mainly by imported Italian and German architects, it was called Russia’s “window to the West.”

Through that window, plenty of insidious European ideas made their way into previously isolated Russia. Along with enlightenment, those ideas included Marxism — which earned its first Russian converts in the city’s industrial workers.

Russian nationalists, meanwhile, criticized St. Petersburg as an alien, non-Russian presence in the body of Mother Russia. Therefore, while St. Petersburg served as the imperial capital from 1703 to 1918, Moscow retained its status as the cradle of the Russian czars.

Tellingly, Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace starts out by drawing a powerful contrast between cold, insincere St. Petersburg — where the intrigue-obsessed nobility speaks French among themselves — and the kind, gentle Moscow.

St. Petersburg was a sleepy place, to be sure, but at least it was a potent symbol of Russia’s essence, its statehood — and its Orthodox religion. Moscow was primarily famous for its churches’ golden domes, of which it allegedly had 1,600.

St. Petersburg is where most of the key events of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution took place.

And in 1918, as a matter of prudence and precaution, Lenin made the decision to move the seat of his government to Moscow.

In 1870, the Paris Commune had been crushed with the help of German troops — and Lenin expected a similar intervention by Western powers to put down the Red rebellion in Russia.

Still, moving the capital away from St. Petersburg — and relatively deep into Russia — was only intended as a temporary measure.

After all, workers in Western Europe and North America were supposed to rise up at any moment and establish a single proletarian state to govern the entire world.

But things didn’t work out quite that way. In retrospect, moving the capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow proved to be the first step toward establishing the Iron Curtain — and nurturing an environment of isolation and hostility toward the outside world.

The economic, political and cultural decline of St. Petersburg turned into a symbol for Russia to focus inward once more.

On the other end, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has flourished. No wonder. By some estimates, more than 80% of Russia’s financial resources are concentrated within the city, which is home to only about 7% of the country’s population.

In less than a decade, Moscow has been transformed, it has acquired all the vestiges and hallmarks of a modern metropolis, complete with fancy boutiques, international restaurants — and the requisite traffic jams.

Today, Moscow has more in common with New York, London and Tokyo than with any other Russian city. Ironically, it is St. Petersburg which has become a symbol of the dreary downsides of post-communist Russia.

It is poor and shabby, like most other Russian cities — and lacks Moscow’s vitality and drive. Its formerly broad imperial avenues are full of potholes and empty of traffic. Just like the rest of Russia, it has shed some of its Soviet heritage — but is unsure where to go next.

There is persistent speculation in Russia that President Vladimir Putin is planning to restore St. Petersburg’s status as Russia’s capital.

As the first St. Petersburg native to lead Russia since the Romanovs, he has been keen to remodel his native city. A palace in the city is eventually going to be renovated, to serve as a new presidential residence.

In a symbolic sense, St. Petersburg suits the nation’s political aspirations better than Moscow. It would also send a strong message — not only to Russians, but to the rest of the world — that the country has at last broken with its Communist past.

It would also underscore Mr. Putin’s pro-Western — as well as pro-European — foreign policy initiatives. These include his support of the United States in its war on terrorism — and his support of France and Germany against the Iraq war.

Furthermore, Mr. Putin has cozied up to NATO. Yet, whatever he ultimately decides, one strongly hopes that Russia continues to shed its isolationist past — and takes its rightful place among Europe’s great powers.