Russia, Winston Churchill famously quipped, “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That conundrum is perfectly epitomized in the country’s two largest metropolises, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
A fierce rivalry emerged the moment that Peter the Great designated his new city as capital in 1712 (the title was returned to Moscow after the 1917 Revolution). Yet the two sisters share a heritage of opulence, oppression, struggle, and fortitude that forever bond them in the Russian (and world) psyche. Our Resplendent Russia journey delves deep into the dichotomy of these two grand dames while exploring them in the most decadent style.
Moscow, The First Throne
There is an old Russian saying: “Moscow is the heart, and Saint Petersburg is the head.” Indeed, the country’s largest city — set along the banks of the Moskva River in central European Russia — has been its main political, economic, educational, and religious center since the 14th century. When Napoleon entered the city in 1812, the understaffed Russian army retreated without a fight — then burnt it to the ground in bold defiance.
After losing its capital status to St. Petersburg, Moscow took on a more traditional, provincial role although, once regaining its reign, quickly established itself as the nucleus of Bolshevik utilitarianism. Since the Soviet days, the city has undergone a cultural renaissance, attracting a new generation of artists and intelligentsia.
You’ll get the best visual perspective atop Sparrow Hills, on the right bank of the river; the views are particular stunning at dawn. For insight into Russian realpolitik, head to the central Red Square, site of Lenin’s Mausoleum and the fortressed Kremlin grounds (which house the famed Armoury Museum, the dazzling Diamond Fund, and the Assumption Cathedral, where all the Russian czars were crowned). It is also the location of the oft-photographed, onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral.
St. Petersburg, Window on the West
It seemingly rises from the Baltic Sea, a testament to Peter the Great’s vision for a new Russian empire. Emulating the grandest Western cities, St. Petersburg was designed to face toward Europe — and away from Russia’s past.
Founded in 1703, St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd during World War I, then Leningrad after the leader’s death in 1924) lost its capital ranking when the czarist autocracy fell. The city’s worst ordeal, however, came during WWII when it withstood a 900-day siege by the Nazis. A major governmental investment at the turn of the 21st century restored the “Venice of the North” to its former splendor.
Considered the city’s birthplace, Peter and Paul Fortress contains a number of important structures including its foreboding prison and gilt-spired cathedral, burial site of the Russian emperors. St. Isaac's Cathedral, the world’s third-largest domed church, can hold up to 14,000 standing worshippers. The splendid Winter Palace, the monarchs’ former residence, is now the
centerpiece of the massive Hermitage complex that houses the czars’ private art collection. For a look inside the Imperial lifestyle, the elegant Peterhof — dubbed the “Russian Versailles” — is famed for its gorgeous gardens and elaborate fountains; while Pushkin or Catherine Palace, built for Peter’s second wife, overwhelms with its mirrored Great Hall and restored Amber Room.