Moscow vs. Saint Petersburg. Which city is superior has been a subject of debate for Russians and foreigners alike pretty much since the latter was built on the marshlands of the Gulf of Finland in the early 1700s and subsequently inaugurated as the capital of the Russian Empire, borrowing that title from Moscow for some 200 years.
As a born and raised Muscovite my loyalties have always lain with Russia’s current capital city. Yet I am not entirely biased: my father is from Saint Petersburg (Leningrad, to be historically accurate – that was the name in use from 1924 to 1991), and as a child and a tween I have visited this northern grad many times. Although my memories of the place are limited primarily to family dinners, my grandma’s apartment on the Fifth Soviet Street and our Botanical Gardens walks, a summer day trip to the Peterhoff Palace and that one time my cousin took me to the Hermitage modern art wing when I was about 10 years old, those memories are all fond ones.
Saint Petersburg – fondly known as Piter throughout Russia – also happens to be the hometown of President Vladimir Putin. So, even though Moscow has [rightly] reclaimed its capital city status almost a century ago, in recent years Russia’s Northern Capital has benefited from major governmental and financial patronage, especially in the run-up to the celebration of the city’s third centennial in 2003.
All of this is to say that, whatever pro-Moscow biases I might have held, I was going into Saint Petersburg Expecting More ™. And here is my objective review of the city – and how it compared to Moscow in ways good and bad.
Piter is undeniably gorgeous. Prettier than Moscow, on the whole. Don’t get me wrong – I love Moscow’s old center, pastel townhouses of the city’s once robust merchant class, its wide boulevards and late medieval churches. Yet as the Soviet government moved Russia’s – now USSR’s – seat of power back to Moscow, much of the city was altered to accommodate the needs of the new order. And while for the most part heavy-set, art-deco-influenced Stalinist architecture managed to play harmoniously with Old Moscow’s more delicate 19th-century sensibilities, what came after – administrative buildings of the late Soviet era that were nothing more than utilitarian blocks of concrete, and the uber-modern New-Russian business complexes of steel and glass – have carved irreparable scars on Moscow’s face.
By contrast, central Saint Petersburg is all 18th century palaces and 19th century townhouses. Literally every building is either an architectural marvel, a historical landmark, or just beautifully decorated. One does not need to explore multiple neighborhoods to find pastel rainbows or whimsical moldings – every street in Piter’s historic center has something like that on the offer. So much so, that even in a cab on my way to the train station to go back to Moscow, I was tempted several times to ask the driver to pull over so that I can jump out and take a photo of yet another church or townhouse that I missed on my extensive walk-about.
All that Piter pretty is most unfortunately tarnished by epic levels of dust and grime. The beautiful sorbet pallet of townhouse facades nearly bleeds together because of the unappetizing gray sheen. Coupled with Saint Petersburg’s notoriously overcast winter weather, the city awakened in me a compulsion to grab a sponge and hose it all down. I was perplexed by this. Moscow is inarguably more polluted, owing to being more than twice as populous and infinitely more congested in terms of traffic. And yet, cleaner.
This goes beyond maintenance of the building exteriors. Time and time again I was saddened to find the iced-over canals and embankment landings strewn with garbage, especially empty bottles that city services haven’t bothered to pick up for days, if not weeks. Most Russian cities are notorious for the piles of trash and little ‘gifts’ from doggies that pile up in the snow over the course of a winter, yet the lawn of my neighborhood Strastnoy Boulevard was pristine literally the next day after most of the snow melted away in the unseasonably warm February weather. Furthermore, I was absolutely shocked to see that entire sidewalks in the city center were unpaved, un-graveled, and in effect left as dirt paths, which turn into mud paths with just a little precipitation, forcing people to walk on the lawns. I encountered probably the most uncomfortable example of this when I went to visit Kunstkamera, one of Saint Petersburg best-known attractions, the one with pickled infants. The entrance was on a side street but the exit left to a wet, muddy backyard with piles of construction materials all around it and a barely discernible path (see photo below). This would be downright unthinkable in central Moscow, and I cannot explain the disparity between the state of affairs in the two cities.
So yes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, tri-centennial celebrations behind it, Saint Petersburg was left to fend for itself. In fact, there was a general sense of abandonment about the place. Many mansions and even palaces that were not taken up as museums or universities stood empty, their windows all but boarded up. We’re talking prime real estate that in Moscow would have been long gobbled up for office space. Save for Nevsky Prospect, the streets were quiet. The restaurants had plenty of available tables even at peak dinner time. No lines anywhere, really. And even at Letniy Sad (Summer Garden), a small, centrally located park immortalized in Alexander Pushkin’s epic poem Eugene Onegin, there wasn’t a person in sight when I walked through it on a rather mild Saturday afternoon. I kept thinking back to my trip to the Kuskovo Estate on the outskirts of Moscow in the worst possible weather earlier this year, and still there was a ton of people around. This begs the question: in a city of nearly 5 million people…where were all the people?
But the people that I did find? Super nice. Pitertsy have a reputation for being more courteous, considerate and personable than their obnoxious, direct and all-about-their-own-business Moscow cousins. (An aside: once, in Moscow, I was actually asked if I were from Piter after patiently giving detailed directions to a passerby on Strastnoy. Must have been the American in me.) The restaurant wait staff in particular is so accommodating, I could swear they have all been trained in America. Take this example: when a pub I wanted to go to was all booked up because of the massive convention nearby (thus excepting itself from the ‘half-empty restaurants’ rule), the hostess suggested available establishments nearby and gave directions (detailed ones, of course). When, late at night, my friend and I wanted to have a light dinner and decided to split an order of shashlik, I asked our waitress for a second plate. Instead she split up the dish herself, and brought each half properly plated. I hyperventilated.
Even the drivers are nice. In their own way. Because they are crazy M-F drivers. They may be obnoxious in Moscow, but they are downright speed demons in Piter. Maybe it’s because they are more used to open roads: one cabby kept apologizing for getting us stuck in traffic as we were moving at a brisk 25 km/h in rush hour. By contrast, in Moscow traffic is when you can turn off the engine, take a short nap, wake up and see that nobody around you has moved an inch.
On the whole? Moscow is definitely the place for me. But it’s nice to have this gem of a city where you can see gorgeous art, walk around surrounded by beautiful architecture, and catch up on the peace and quiet while enjoying all the modern urban conveniences just four hours away.