Moscow and St. Petersburg
Artwork by Julia Nozdracheva
St. Petersburg is well worth a visit at any time of the year. Especially in the summer when you can ‘гулять’ (walk) all night long, as although the sun sets, the night never really begins. Take a weekend off, and enjoy this superb city which is so different from Moscow. When you go there, it may be useful to know that there is real competition between St. Petersburg and Moscow, just as there is between Edinburgh and Glasgow, or Washington and New York, to name but a few examples
Officially the capital of Russia is Moscow. However St. Petersburg is often called the Northern Capital. This isn’t by chance. These two cities came to prominence at separate times, and they have been competing with each other for 300 years, beginning in 1703, when Emperor Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg on the banks of the river Neva.
The reason for the confrontation lies in the fact that St. Petersburg was originally built to be exactly what is: the opposite of Moscow. Moscow is the embodiment of the Russian city; St. Petersburg of the European city. This is evident in architecture, fashion and even language. In the 18th century, French was more popular than Russian in the upper classes in St. Petersburg, and the city became a ‘window to Europe’, just as Peter the Great planned.
Moscow’s history stretches back a lot longer than St. Petersburg’s, all the way back to 1147. Moscow grew organically and sporadically; it was built on the confluence of important trading routes. The original settlement was a small village. To this day, citizens of St. Petersburg still tease Moscow citizens, calling Moscow a ‘big village’, which in many respects it is.
St. Petersburg was a capital from birth, something that Muscovites resent; they suddenly became provincials when Peter the Great moved the capital there in 1712. However St. Petersburg managed to prove its superiority in some things. The newest trends in fashion, architecture, drawing, music and literature appeared in the northern capital first, and only reached Moscow some time later. Even when the capital was moved back from Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was known then, to Moscow after the Bolsheviks came to power, in 1918, the city was still considered the cultural capital of Russia. Many Muscovites will debate this. Take rock music. In the 1980s St. Petersburg spawned many leading rock groups. Aquarium, Kino were from St. Petersburg, whereas Mashina Vremeni and Zvuki Mu were from Moscow. Whether Moscow or St. Petersburg music was better or worse, was a heated topic for most young people.
Moscow is faster, more hectic and business-like. In the 18- 19th centuries, however, St. Petersburg was also very bustling as a capital city should be. Much dancing and many sumptuous dinner parties took place. The city was full of merchants, the streets of the city were full of shops, cabs and people. Today St. Petersburg lives calmly and measuredly. In Moscow, for example, people run down the elevator; in Petersburg people ride on it. Muscovites seem brusque and impolite to citizens of St. Petersburg. If you ask somebody the way in St. Petersburg, locals may not only give you directions, they may take you for a mini-excursion around the city. People in Moscow aren’t often able to do that, many are often visitors like you.
In Petersburg one doesn’t need to hurry. The city is much smaller than Moscow. There a person wants to walk, not run, although Muscovites don’t walk, they take cabs or the Metro during the long winter. Muscovites accuse St. Petersburg of being depressing, because the pace of life is too slow. This is partly because of the climate. St. Petersburg lies much further north and the city is very wet and windy. Muscovites often catch cold after visiting St. Petersburg. The sun rarely warms the citizens of Petersburg, because of high humidity.
Moscow is sunnier, and that’s why it seems smarter, than Petersburg. But there is an eclecticism that is peculiar to Moscow. An antique building and a glass skyscraper can be neighbours in Moscow, but not in St. Petersburg. That’s why citizens of St. Petersburg say that the Muscovites don’t have a sense of style, whilst Muscovites accuse St. Petersburg as being boring.
St. Petersburg was built according to a well thought-out plan. City regulations even today forbid he erection of buildings over 4 - 5 stories in the city centre. New buildings have to work, architecturally, with old buildings.
On a linguistic level, people speak differently. For example, white loaves of bread in St. Petersburg are called ‘bulka’, and the Muscovites: ‘belyi khleb’ (white bread). A pavement is called by the former ‘porebrik’, the latter ‘bordyur’. The list of differences continues: in St. Petersburg the entrance in a block of flats is a ‘paradnaya’, in Moscow a ‘pod’ezd’; a doughnut is a ‘pyshka’ in St. Petersburg and a ‘ponshik’ in Moscow. If you visit other Russian cities you will notice that people there use Moscow language and perceive words used in St. Petersburg as being out-of-date.
The reason why St. Petersburg language is so exotic can be traced in the way it was formed. Some of the population of Petersburg was originally formed by new arrivals, Germans and Dutchmen. It was difficult for them to study Russian, because local people spoke a lot of different Russian dialects. For newcomers it was extremely important to speak Russian as quickly as possible so as progress up the institutionalised career structures. So these foreigners turned to any kinds of documents in Russian that represented the most universal source of Russian language. They were documents full of formal phrases.
Nowadays there is an opinion that the difference between Moscow and St. Petersburg has become a myth or a legend, as new high-speed trains services draw the cities closer and closer together. But there are major differences in the people themselves. Moscow is a very cosmopolitan city today. Who is a Muscovite? Nobody really knows. The majority of St. Petersburg citizens are drawn from Russian stock, but from northern Russian stock, and consequently they look and behave more like people from Finland or Scandinavia. St. Petersburg i.s nearer to Western Europe in more senses than one.