PETER THE GREAT’S CITY by RJ Furth
Rivalries between cities have probably existed as long as there have been cities. Was Athens or Sparta greater? London or Paris? Sydney or Melbourne? Chicago or New York? The same is true of Moscow and St. Petersburg. There are blogs dedicated to the debate, discussing cleanliness and nightlife and transportation, to name a few hot topics. After visiting both cities I found the rivalry to be alive. Muscovites sneer at their younger upstart (founded by Peter the Great in 1703), believing it to be a superficial creation that caters to tourists. They say that St. Petersburg lacks the history, that the Bolshoi Theatre is superior to St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky, that their metro is more beautiful. Residents of St. Petersburg play the same game, criticizing Moscow’s dirtiness (both cities are amazingly clean and mostly free of graffiti) and nasty traffic and stodgy Soviet architecture. I will refrain from taking sides, having enjoyed my time in both. (Plus, our friends live in Moscow.) What I will say is that, as a tourist, St. Petersburg was easier to navigate.
Peter the Great was an enlightened tsar who wished to build a new, modern, European city. He traveled incognito throughout Europe in order to study its great cities and returned with some of the top architects. Peter picked the site and oversaw the construction, which was mostly done by serfs. (Serfs were the bottom rung of the feudal system, slaves to land owners who weren’t liberated until 1861.) Tens of thousands of these peasants died during the construction of the city. The result was the creation of a beautiful city with wide streets and sidewalks, fantastic palaces and a uniform architecture that is impressive. Many of those palaces are now museums that host the world-class Hermitage (rival to the Louvre with everything from ancient Greek and Roman pieces to Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Impressionist masterpieces), the fine State Russian Museum (Russian art, of course) and the Faberge collection (Faberge eggs and other craft from the Faberge workshop). The art and architecture are fabulous, though that’s not what makes St. Petersburg far easier for tourists. St. Petersburg’s planned streets are easy to navigate and, more importantly, English is widely used.
It may seem chauvinistic to consider English as an essential ingredient for determining the attractiveness of a tourist destination. That fact is that more tourist speak English in most places I’ve visited, regardless of their country of origin or native language. Both Moscow and St. Petersburg were packed with Chinese and Korean (North and South, I believe) tourists who spoke no English, but most other tourists spoke English. Sandy and I were at the Gogol restaurant (classic Russian food) one night and the diners at other three tables in our room spoke Spanish, Italian and English. All three spoke to the waiter in English. Touts always approached tourists with appeals in English. Bilingual signs in museums, restaurants, and metro stations, and street signs were always Russian and English. Unlike Moscow, most waiters and museum staff spoke some English. Using the metro was abreeze.
St. Petersburg is a bit colder and damper than Moscow because it’s on the Baltic Sea, which means when Moscow is 20 below zero, St. Petersburg is maybe 24 below zero. Both have great restaurants, first rate ballet and opera, more museums than you can visit in one week, terrific night life (not that Sandy and I stayed up to experience it) and lovely parks. St. Petersburg’s main attractions are within walking distance in the historical center while some of Moscow’s are a bit more spread out. (Stalin’s Seven Sister’s buildings.) Somebody told me that St. Petersburg has ten times more tourists than Moscow, which is believable. Getting a Russian visa is not an easy task, yet visitors who arrive by cruise ships (and there are apparently a lot) can spend 72 hours in St. Petersburg without a visa. It’s a short drive from St. Petersburg moderately sized airport to the historic center. Sandy and I enjoyed our time in both cities. St. Petersburg just happens to be easier for tourists.