Cultural rivalry...Moscow vs St Petersburg

| April 24, 2019

People frequently ask whether St Petersburg or Moscow is the more interesting city to visit. This is a very difficult question to answer because to get a reasonably comprehensive impression of Russian history and art, you really have to visit both. But even ‘both’ is unsatisfactory because there is so much more to Russia than these two cities, and to explore the Russian provinces is a fascinating and eye-opening experience too.

Nevertheless, most of us focus on St Petersburg and Moscow, usually in that order. And there is indeed a certain logic to this, for, besides the fact that they are more richly endowed with cultural sites and artefacts than any other city in Russia, they also take special pride in competing with each other, as if it is a two-horse race. By vying with each other for superiority, they became joined at the hip and drove up each other’s cultural richness.   

St Petersburg is often the point of entry for western visitors to Russia. It was originally founded by Peter the Great in the 18th century as a ‘window to the west’, granting Russia access to the European ‘theatre of politics and culture’ for the first time. But it also acts as a ‘window to the east’ – for westerners – and not only because of its convenient location on the Baltic Sea. One of the reasons we’re drawn to the city is to see its extraordinarily rich collections of art. Needless to say, the Hermitage is usually the first port of call, on account of its unparalleled collections of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin and others. While it is entirely natural that we should want to see these masterpieces, it is often overlooked that one of the reasons that Catherine the Great originally accumulated them (towards the end of the 18th century) was precisely to impress western visitors. She rightly surmised that to gain the respect of western rulers she would need to be seen to be operating on the same level of cultural patronage. She needed to act fast and, as a result, bought six substantial European art collections – including much of the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, which many people in Britain had hoped would become the basis of a British national collection.

Winter Palace Hermitage St Petersburg Russia

The Hermitage, St Petersburg

These collections still work wonders, but it’s a shame to go all the way to St Petersburg only to focus on western European art (extraordinary collections of paintings by the Impressionists, Post- Impressionists, Picasso and Matisse were added to the Hermitage at the beginning of the 20th century), for the city is also one of the greatest repositories of Russian art, the like of which can be seen nowhere else (...with one exception). So, when I am asked which is the most important museum to see in St Petersburg, I have to answer ‘The State Russian Museum’ – a vast neo-classical palace crammed with Russian masterpieces, from the earliest icons and products of folk culture to the most contemporary installations. It really is a remarkable treasure house.

State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia

Artwork in the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

The State Russian Museum was conceived at the end of the 19th century as an expression of the growing sense of national identity. Another good example is the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, an uncompromisingly Neo-Russian style structure, built to commemorate the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881. Interrupting the homogeneity of St Petersburg’s classical surroundings in the most exuberant – dare I say, barbarous – way, it’s inspiration was St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. It is a most extraordinary building – like the only person at a formal party to turn up in fancy dress.

The most extreme act of nostalgic nationalism came in 1918, when the status of ‘capital’ was returned from ‘westernised’ St Petersburg (then called Petrograd) which had been the capital of Russia since 1712, to Moscow – which is the other place, of course, where Russian art can be seen in abundance. Interestingly, Moscow, a medieval town first mentioned by chroniclers in 1147, is not only a repository of ancient Russian Orthodox churches – from the Kremlin cathedrals to Novodevichy convent – but also a major showcase for modern Soviet town planning and architecture.

The medieval heritage is richly represented by superb collections of icons at the Tretyakov Gallery and the Andrei Rublev Museum at the Andronikov monastery. And the Soviet architecture is evident in idealistic ‘Constructivist’ buildings of the 1920s (from communal houses to trenchantly utilitarian bus stops and garages) and vast Stalinist apartment blocks of the 1930s. The political implications of some of these buildings sometimes get in the way of our appreciating them, but they are extraordinary and fascinating monuments and, in some cases, quite beautiful. The Melnikov House in the centre of Moscow is unique, even by European standards, and as a private house built in 1927-9 (by Konstantin Melnikov), it is truly exceptional by Russian ones. In fact, there are several ‘house museums’ in the city. At one end of the scale is the Ryabushinsky House, a sinuous art nouveau extravaganza built in 1900-3 and inhabited by writer Maxim Gorky in the 1930s; at the other end, is the austere apartment of Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997), one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists. They all provide glimpses into the Russian mind.

House of architect Melnikov, Arbat street, Moscow, Russia

House of architect Melnikov, Arbat street, Moscow

The city is full of surprises. The one thing it cannot offer is the lavish 18th and 19thcentury palaces found in St Petersburg. So, while the two cities are extraordinarily different, they are also thoroughly complementary. To visit either is a treat. To visit both, a revelation.


Andrew Spira graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art before working at the Temple Gallery, London, and as a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum. He was a programme director at Christie’s Education for 14 years and is an expert lecturer on Cox & Kings’ 6-day St Petersburg: Pictures & Palaces tour.


Recommended C&K tours

St Petersburg: Pictures & Palaces 6 Days & 5 Nights.  Part of our Arts & Culture collection, this expert-led tour explores St Petersburg’s sumptuous palaces, impressive cathedrals and world-class museums.

Classic Russia 8 Days & 7 Nights. Staying in historical 5-star hotels in Moscow and St Petersburg, discover the very best of Russia’s rich cultural and historical heritage.

To find out more, or for details of short break packages to Moscow and St Petersburg, speak to one of our Europe travel specialists or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.

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