Which Way is St Peterburg?
No matter what they say, it isn’t Moscow
St. Petersburg Times, November 6, 1998
Will Liberal St. Petersburg Go With Russia’s Flow?
By Brian Whitmore
St. Petersburg, everyone will tell you,is different.
It is more cosmopolitan than Russia’s sleepy provinces, yet more sedate than
the Babylonian free-for-all of Moscow. Culturally, it is the preeminent breeding
ground for free-thinking artists and writers; politically, it is Russia’s
most democratic and Western-looking city. And with Europe an adjacent neighbor,
the city boasts a promising geographic distinction as well. There is no objective
reason why St. Petersburg should not be a boom town.
For three centuries, this city has eagerly absorbed the latest Western cultural
and political trends and tried to push them on to an often reluctant country
– Russia’s on-again, off-again courtship this decade with democratic governance
and market economics being but the latest manifestation of this old historical
pattern. Whether democracy, communism or empery, St. Petersburg has always
been Russia’s stalking horse for new ideologies.
Eighty-one years ago this week, this city led Russia down the road to communism,
a revolution that eventually swallowed everything St. Petersburg stood for
– including its name. Seventy years later, the city found itself the vanguard
of a new revolution, with the free market and democracy as its rallying cry.
In the wake of the August devaluation, these values are now dangerously close
to being rejected by Russia. They are, however, still embraced by much of
St. Petersburg – and it is that crucial distinction that sets this city apart.
As Russia again contemplates a new ideology, the question remains: Will St.
Petersburg lead, or be led?
“I see one way out,” said renowned poet and city native Viktor Krivulin.
“With Moscow weakened as a result of the crisis, St. Petersburg can regain
Or lose it altogether. Years of antagonism with Moscow has left St. Petersburg
in the uneasy position of being defiant but vulnerable. Over the next few
years, the city could easily become even more marginalized, a distant second
city living in the shadow of the capital. It may once again prove the motivating
force behind Russia’s next ideological makeover. Or – as some would have
it – it may simply go its own way, insulating itself from the turbulence
of Russia and carving out an existence better suited to its distinctly genteel
and urbane character.
“The city needs to become more autonomous from Moscow and to become an example
of democracy and liberal economics for Russia,” said Yury Vdovin, co-chairman
of the St. Petersburg-based Citizens’ Watch human rights organization.
“The so-called provincialization of St. Petersburg doesn’t bother me. I want
St. Petersburg to distinguish itself from Moscow and if you call that
provincialization then that’s fine. When you go to the Baltic states they
aren’t as bright and loud as Moscow but the quality of life is better there.
This is what we should be aiming for.”
A Tale of Two Capitals
abstract debate over St. Petersburg’s destiny actually reflects much deeper
historic, cultural and political sentiments about Russia and its place in
the world. Early in the 20th century, the great Russian philosopher Nikolai
Berdyayev, in his book “The Russian Idea,” wrote, “Russia is the Christian
East which was for two centuries subject to the most powerful influences
of the West.”
This tension in Russia, wrote Berdyayev, was best represented in the rivalry
between the two cities that have acted as the country’s capital: Eastern-
leaning Moscow and Western-facing St. Petersburg. This battle for Russia’s
soul has been ongoing since Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg in 1703.
“The emergence of Moscow and then that of St. Petersburg are decisive events
in modern Russian history, and the profound if subtle rivalry between the
two cities is one of the recurring themes of its modern development,” historian
James Billington writes in his book “The Icon and the Axe.”
The rise of St. Petersburg as Russia’s capital in the 18th century represented
as much a “turn to the West,” as a direct challenge to the conservative and
orthodox Muscovite ideology that had dominated Russia from the 15th to the
18th century. In this sense, St. Petersburg took up the mantle of an earlier
Western-looking city, Novgorod, a prosperous trading center and a member
of the Hanseatic League until it was sacked by Ivan III in 1470 during Moscow’s
drive to dominance.
Before Peter the Great, Russia was dominated by a Muscovite culture that
was traditional, xenophobic and explicitly anti-Western. But the founding
of St. Petersburg would change this, and divide Russia – perhaps forever.
Over time, the two capitals came to represent conflicting tendencies. Moscow
epitomized monolithic orthodoxy, respect for tradition and a rejection of
Western rationality and secularism. St. Petersburg stood for cosmopolitanism,
modernization and reform.
Peter’s goal was less to liberalize Russia than to modernize it by breaking
the grip of the traditionalist Muscovite ideology, creating, in Billington’s
words, “a secular nationalism,” that would be the basis of a new European-
style Russian state. By bringing in foreign advisers, curtailing the power
of the Orthodox Church and creating a merit-based system of civil service,
Peter earned the wrath of traditionalists.
And like all revolutions from above, Peter’s yielded unintended consequences.
His quest for a new secular nationalism led to the emergence of a critical
class of intellectuals. In the 19th century, St. Petersburg, by then a great
European capital, was teeming with intellectuals of all ideological stripes.
Assimilating every Western ideology, the intelligentsia became increasingly
critical of the monarchy.
Then came the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which, bred of a small clique of
St. Petersburg intellectuals infatuated with then-fashionable Marxism, eventually
turned on the city and all it stood for. After two centuries of taking a
back seat to St. Petersburg, Moscow, again the capital, would at last have
its revenge on the cosmopolitan Westernized pretender. And under Stalin,
who derisively referred to the metropolis now called Leningrad as “a provincial
city in the northwest corner of the country,” the often brutal downgrading
of the city begun in the 1920s continued in earnest. The prominent Bolshevik
leaders associated with the city – Leon Trotsky, Georgy Zinoviev and Sergei
Kirov – were forced into exile, executed or assassinated by Stalin.
“Stalin and those around him understood that he was nobody in this city,”
Rybakov said. “He therefore needed to eliminate his competitors.”
Following World War II, in which the city withstood blockade and unimaginable
famine, Stalin opened up the infamous “Leningrad Case,” again purging the
city of its entire leadership. The message was clear: The Soviet Union’s
second city would remain so. There could only be one capital.
Revolution From Below
Attempts by the Communists to “provincialize” Soviet Leningrad, however,
were far from successful. Much to the chagrin of conservative local party
leadership, by the 1960s the city boasted one of the most vibrant underground
cultures in the Soviet Union.
While old St. Petersburg produced writers of the quality of Alexander Pushkin,
Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Leningrad counterculture gave the
world one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky,
and the city’s underground literary scene flourished with writers such as
Yevgeny Rein, Dmitry Bobyshev and Anatoly Naiman.
Leningrad was also home in the 1970s and ’80s to the most vibrant music scene
in the country. Groups like Akvarium and Kino, which now occupy the pantheon
of Russian rock, started their careers literally underground, performing
in city basements. The now legendary “Saigon Cafe,” which stood on the corner
of the Nevsky and Vladimirsky prospects, was home to the city’s cultural
opposition and bohemian community throughout the Soviet period.
In the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of glasnost and perestroika made
openness the official party line, Leningraders took the change to heart –
with results that caused the Communist Party to seethe in consternation.
The first major political act by Leningrad citizens – and a sign of things
to come – was a doomed effort to save the historic Angleterre Hotel, slated
for destruction by local Communists. The Angleterre, located on St. Isaac’s
Square, held a special significance for the city intelligentsia, not only
as an architectural monument, but as the place where poet Sergei Yesenin
committed suicide in 1925.
On March 16, 1987, when plans to tear down the building became public, something
happened that for the Soviet Union was extraordinary – a demonstration not
sanctioned by the authorities. Several groups of young protesters, led by
the Council for the Preservation of Culture and the group Spaseniye, or
“Salvation” – set up pickets and successfully postponed the demolition for
two full days. The students also sent letters to the Ministry of Culture
in Moscow and collected signatures on the street.
Nevertheless, the building was ultimately destroyed on March 18 and the leader
of Spaseniye, Alexei Kovalyev – now a Legislative Assembly deputy – was arrested.
There were no tanks for people to stand on and no CNN cameras to broadcast
the event to the world, but the small-scale demonstration to save the Angleterre
set the stage for a new political environment on the horizon – and established
the city as a stronghold for the fledgling perestroika-era democratic movement.
And soon bigger demonstrations would follow, in Moscow and nationwide, this
time with CNN and the entire world watching.
By August 1991, when the coup’s tanks didn’t even dare enter the St. Petersburg
city center – halted at the outskirts by members of the democratic movement,
accompanied by a police escort – it appeared that the city had again captured
It was then that Leningrad established itself, to many, as the glasnost-era
breeding ground for Russia’s pro-democracy movement. It was here where reformers
swept the legislature in the country’s first free local elections in 1990,
and a year later won the mayor’s office, bringing a law professor named Anatoly
Sobchak to power on the same day as voting to restore the historic name of
And it was here, during perestroika, where a then-unknown economist named
Anatoly Chubais first cut his teeth in government, making St. Petersburg
a model for economic reform that he then took with him to Moscow.
Indeed, it was the market economists and Chubais protÚgÚs –
popularly known as “the St. Petersburg group” – who dominated Russia’s economic
policymaking from 1991 until August of this year. The end of Russia’s romance
with the market has been in large part associated with this distinguished
group of thinkers’ fall from grace.
After August 1991 – with Chubais in Moscow and democrats in the legislature
and mayor’s office – it appeared that everything was possible.
But over time, each of the dreams of St. Petersburg perestroika were exposed
as a mirage. Chubais’s liberal policies for the city were drowned in increasing
national cynicism towards economic reforms, fueled by widespread allegation
Moreover, Sobchak – rather than turning to St. Petersburg’s new generation
of democrats who put him in power – staffed the mayor’s office with old Soviet-
era nomenclature. Arguing that “professionals” were needed in his administration,
Sobchak effectively left a notorious Soviet bureaucracy in place while
squandering a golden opportunity to create a democratic model for all of
Russia, relying instead on the old guard to concentrate power in his own
And Boris Yeltsin, who while campaigning for president told Russia’s regions
to “take all the autonomy you can swallow,” quickly moved to reign in Russia’s
restive provinces once in power – meaning any attempt to create a separate
St. Petersburg model for development would meet with stiff resistance in
Yeltsin’s Kremlin quickly turned into a Byzantine battleground for the capital’s
quickly growing financial and bureaucratic clans. As these financial
conglomerates grew in strength, Russian oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky,
Vladimir Potanin and Vladimir Gusinsky used St. Petersburg and other regions
as places to fight their proxy battles.
By the 1996 gubernatorial elections, Vladimir Yakovlev – widely seen as the
candidate representing Moscow capital – closely defeated Sobchak, whose
administration had become mired in corruption allegations. Since then, Yakovlev
has balanced the budget and initiated a campaign of urban renewal, but has
been no more friendly to democratic reform than his predecessor, hotly opposing
a progressive City Charter and clamping down on relations with the press.
Meanwhile, under both Sobchak and Yakovlev, plans to make St. Petersburg
a tourism and financial center have floundered, and the city has found itself
in a funk. Investment and tourists never came in the numbers expected. The
democratic experiment is seen as messy, corrupt and ineffectual. And the
city’s cultural sphere has been unable to balance creativity and commercialism
in adapting to the free market.
“All the hope we had in the early years of reform has unfortunately turned
out to have been a fantasy,” said Yuly Rybakov, a Soviet-era dissident artist
who now represents the city in the State Duma. “Every day St. Petersburg
is losing control over its political destiny. It is becoming provincialized.”
Just seven years ago, after the failed coup of 1991, Rybakov was among the
jubilant democrats sealing shut the doors of Communist bureaucrats in Smolny
– once the base of operations for Lenin and the Bolsheviks – and taking down
the Soviet flag to hoist the Russian tri-color in its place.
“I did this with my own hands, and now I can’t help but wonder why we bothered,”
Rybakov and others say that, under Yakovlev, St. Petersburg has become little
more than a colony of Moscow, doing the bidding of the capital’s powerful
financial clans. “St. Petersburg has become a playground for Moscow-based
financial and industrial groups,” said Krivulin. “It’s now like a seaside
suburb of Moscow.”
Perhaps most painful, St. Petersburg’s fabled artists and writers – traditionally
the city’s greatest strength – has been slow to respond to new market realities.
“Culturally, St. Petersburg today is probably in the worst shape in
its history. The city has great intellectual and artistic resources that
are simply not being used,” said Krivulin. “We have not found our place in
the market economy or even understood how to exploit the ideology of the
What Is To Be Done?
If Russia ultimately rejects democracy and the market, how will St. Petersburg
The answer may lie in an observation by St. Petersburg native Joseph Brodsky,
who noted an ultra-democratic, almost anarchic tendency in his hometown –
a trait that will survive any ideological attempt to squash it. “The
city’s very blend of architectural grandeur with a web-like bureaucratic
tradition mocked the idea of power,” wrote Brodsky in his 1979 essay “A Guide
to a Renamed City.” “The truth about palaces, especially about winter ones,
is that not all of their rooms are occupied.”
Others agree with Brodsky’s assessment.
“If the country goes the way of an authoritarian regime, I hope and believe
that St. Petersburg would find the strength to resist and distance the city
from this influence,” said Vdovin of Citizens’ Watch. “I have traveled
throughout Russia and the one way that St. Petersburg is different from the
rest of the country is that its residents are more democratically and liberally
oriented,” Vdovin added. “They respect pluralism and are oriented on the
ideas and values of the West.”
He and others see the crisis as potentially weakening not only Moscow’s
oligarchic clans, but also the capital’s vice-grip on St. Petersburg – and
thus see today’s situation as a unique opportunity. Krivulin agreed,
saying that Yakovlev’s attempts to make St. Petersburg into a “little Moscow”
are a mistake. Instead, he said that St. Petersburg should use the opportunity
presented by Russia’s economic woes to take control of its own destiny, create
a viable investment climate and develop the city’s enormous economic and
cultural potential – a sentiment shared by a small but growing autonomy movement
in the city.
“Autonomy means taking responsibility on ourselves. As things are now, we
can blame all our problems on Moscow, if we had more control over our future
and we fail we have nobody to blame but ourselves.” said Daniil Kotsyubinsky,
a political columnist for the newspaper Peterburgsky Chas Pik and a member
of the For an Autonomous St. Petersburg movement.
“St. Petersburg needs to overcome its weakness and finally take its place
as a European city,” Kotsyubinsky said. “And this can only be achieved by
gaining greater autonomy from Moscow. The crisis can serve to make this idea
more popular.” For Krivulin, St. Petersburg’s political, economic and
cultural renaissance are all parts of the same whole.
“We will never be able to compete with Moscow in a commercial sense but this
isn’t such a bad thing because Moscow’s commercial culture is just a bad
imitation of American culture. St. Petersburg culture has always been
experimental and we can find the correct point between high culture and
commercialism,” said Krivulin.
“Everybody talks about the Russian idea, well we need to define and market
the St. Petersburg idea. This is a city of myths and legends that are simply
golden that we need to exploit.”
Federal lawmaker and dissident artist Rybakov agreed, saying: “There will
be no resurrection of the old St. Petersburg because you can never restore
what was. On the other hand, I am certain that a new St. Petersburg high
culture will emerge. This is simply a matter of time.”