Letters From Abroad

A Tale of Two Cities

The two most famous and recognizable cities in Russia are also its two largest: Moscow and St. Petersburg. I am currently studying in Moscow, but this weekend I visited St. Petersburg with other Dickinson students. While these cities are both located in Russia, their looks, their history and their significance radically differ.

I may have a biased opinion towards St. Petersburg because it was the first city I saw in Russia when I spent a summer in high school living in Gatchina, a suburb of St. Petersburg. The history of St. Petersburg is not as ancient as many would think. The city was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, who wanted a strategic port city and a new capital. The city started out as a military outpost until several prominent European architects were hired to design the city. It remained the capital until Peter the Great’s death and the capital was moved back to Moscow. This was until Peter the Great’s niece, Empress Anna, moved the capital back to St. Petersburg, where it remained the capital of the Russian Empire until the communist revolution of 1917. What separates St. Petersburg from most cities in Russia is just how European it feels. Peter the Great, and later Catherine the Great, were hugely influential on making it feel like you are walking through any western European city. It can easily be described as “a colder Venice,” with its many canals and bridges and beautiful Italian-designed churches.

While in St. Petersburg, we were never short on activities. Though the city is not as old as many other cities in Russia, it is packed with many museums (like the world-famous art museum, The Hermitage), theaters, churches and parks. Our tour guide, a St. Petersburg native, pointed out that St. Petersburg is the most tourist-oriented city in Russia, even if it is not the most important anymore. Moscow may have twice as many people and most of the important business and politics, but it does not come anywhere close to the picturesque scenes in St. Petersburg (many areas of Moscow are nothing more than listless, drab and grey apartment complexes that go on for miles and miles). Many of us on this trip agreed that if given the opportunity to choose between studying in Moscow or St. Petersburg, we would choose St. Petersburg because the city has a lot more character and is considerably more aesthetically pleasing. The city does have its downsides though. Because it is located so far north, the seasonal distortion of days is much more extreme than in Moscow. In the summer, the sun stays out for most of the day and night (known as the “White Nights”), while the winter can be brutal with only a few hours of sunlight per day. The city’s metro is nowhere as efficient as Moscow’s metro system (which is hard to beat) and the canals are nice but can make the town stink.

St. Petersburg remains a symbol of Russia’s often confusing relationship with the West. While the city is no longer the capital of country, many Russians still consider it the intellectual and artistic capital of Russia and just as relevant as it was before (not to mention it did produce the current president, Vladimir Putin). For any Americans looking for a city to visit for a short time in Russia (or a long time for that matter), St. Petersburg should top your list.