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Moscow versus St Petersburg

Mara Vorhees Lonely Planet Author

It's a rivalry that's more than three centuries old. Ever since Peter the Great founded St Petersburg in the swamps of northern Russia in 1703 - and shortly thereafter moved the capital from mighty Moscow - the two storied cities have divided the loyalties of residents and visitors alike. Not to mention football fans: the rivalry between Spartak Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg is among the fiercest in Russian sports.

History and politics, art and architecture, size and geography all distinguish the two capitals, giving them distinct urban personalities. Moscow is big, brash and powerful; St Petersburg is relatively small but refined. Dating to medieval Rus, Moscow is the quintessentially Russian city, its history reflected in the onion domes of its architecture. St Petersburg is resplendent with baroque and neoclassical buildings, many designed by Italian architects. Geographically, Moscow is ensconced in the interior, a strategic location during medieval times, while St Petersburg perches on the edge of Europe, constructed to be Russia's 'Window on the West'.

Seats of power

As capital cities, both Moscow and St Petersburg are home to (past and present) political sites: the Kremlin and the Winter Palace.

During medieval Muscovy, the Kremlin was a fortress of sturdy brick walls and tall defensive towers. Within this grim sanctuary, the tsar lived and held court, along with the main accessories of political power: a military regiment and solemn churches. The Winter Palace was built in early modern times, an extravagant display of wealth and power. It was built to impress aristocratic Europe, and it succeeded. The palace's sparkling exterior, with 2000 windows, shone out to the world, while its sumptuous interior, with more than 1000 rooms, enabled the tsars to act as consummate hosts.

The Kremlin is once again the seat of power in Russia, while the Winter Palace is now a showcase for art and culture. The manifestations of political power are very visible around the Kremlin. The police presence is strong, directing cars and pedestrians in an orderly fashion. Long black cars whiz in and out of the iron gates. In Alexander Garden, serious young men in uniform guard the eternal flame, which marks the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is an atmosphere of officialdom, as the administration deftly wields its power from within the fortress walls, just like the tsars of old.

Nowadays, the Kremlin and the Winter Palace are the top tourist attractions in either city, but their exhibits are incomparable. Within the Kremlin's red-brick walls, the Armoury showcases a treasure trove of medieval weapons and fur-trimmed crowns; the gigantic Tsar Cannon symbolises Russia's military strength; and her oldest and most sacred churches exude their spiritual power. Meanwhile, the Winter Palace houses the State Hermitage Museum, one of the world's greatest collections of European art, on display in a royally opulent setting.

What's in a roof?

Both Moscow and St Petersburg are rich in art and architecture, but their contrasting styles evoke very different atmospheres. This is best experienced by gazing up at the two iconic buildings at the centre of each city - St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and the Admiralty in St Petersburg.

What's in a roof? In this case, everything. The centrepiece of Red Square, St Basil's is the premier example of Russo-Byzantine architecture, defined by the multicoloured, multidomed roof. St Basil's was built in the 16th century to celebrate Russia's victory over its eastern foe, the Kazan Khanate, and symbolised the consolidation of the Russian nation.

The Admiralty was built 300 years later at the convergence of St Petersburg's three major roads. Crowned with a gleaming gold spire and a sailing ship weathervane, the building embraces the European-inspired Empire style. The roof hosts classically sculptured figures of Greek heroes and Roman gods. As the headquarters of the new Russian Navy, the Admiralty symbolised Russia's westward-looking ambitions.

Today, this architecture is also emblematic of attitude. Muscovites still consider that they live at the epicentre of Russia (and therefore the universe). Petersburg residents still fancy that their city is part of Europe, and that they are a bit more sophisticated than their easterly compatriots.

Size matters

At last count, more than 11 million people call Moscow home, while the population of St Petersburg hovers just under five million. The smaller size means that St Petersburg is more user-friendly, easier to navigate and easier to understand. Case in point: the St Petersburg metro system has 64 stations on five active lines, compared to the Moscow metro's 182 stations on 12 lines.

It's not only the population that's big in Moscow: the capital claims the tallest skyscraper (in Russia and in Europe). It is the 'Moscow Tower' of the double-pronged City of Capitals building - part of the flashy new International Business Center that is sprouting up along the Moscow River. The 302m (990ft) tower is a shiny structure of glass and steel, housing an entertainment complex, offices and luxury apartments.

By contrast, the tallest building in St Petersburg is the bell tower of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which is a mere 123m (403ft). The baroque beauty contains an elaborate iconostasis, as well as the tombs of Peter the Great and other Russian tsars, and is the city's oldest building.

It's a poignant contrast. Super-high skyscrapers shine like beacons to Moscow's wheelers, dealers and fortune-seekers, beckoning them to the country's business and financial centre, while a gilded belfry towers over St Petersburg, ensuring the integrity of the city's historic heart. The two contrasting tall towers give a pretty good indication of the cities' priorities: Moscow values wealth, while St Petersburg stresses aesthetics.

Moscow's economic opportunities draw emigrants and expats from all over the world. As such, the contemporary capital boasts a huge diversity of culture and cosmopolitanism. It hosts significant populations of Caucasian, Turkic and Central Asian peoples (as evidenced by the proliferation of restaurants serving these exotic cuisines). By contrast, St Petersburg is more homogenous. (You can find decent Georgian food there, but there is no comparison with the quality and quantity available in Moscow.)

The Moscow-Petersburg rivalry is likely to persist as long as these great cities exist. While the occasional convert is possible, most will remain loyal to their first true love - whether it's the medieval magic and modern cosmopolitanism of Moscow, or the high culture and historic charm of St Petersburg. In truth, both cities have their attraction, so shall we call it a draw?

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